Mass Facing the Tabernacle – By What Authority?

Okay, Father, your arguments are very clever, but the Church has changed. Vatican II mandated that Mass be celebrated facing the people; that is the way it is now. No one is celebrating towards the tabernacle any more; who are you, just one priest, to say that we should go back to the way things were before?

Well, first of all, Vatican II never mandated that Mass be celebrated facing the people. Indeed, to my knowledge it was never officially mandated. It was permitted and done. That is all.

The Vatican II document on the reform of the liturgy (called “Sacrosanctum Concilum”) says not a word about the position of the priest at the altar. One could well assume that nothing was meant to change in that regard.

The “General Instruction on the Roman Missal” (GIRM) which was published together with the new Roman Missal is a bit complex; in part it can be read as presuming the continuation of the previous tradition (facing the tabernacle or cross) and in part explicitly allows for Mass facing the people. It does not, however, mandate Mass facing the people.

Nor is the idea of returning to Mass “ad orientem” (in practice towards Cross or tabernacle) my idea. Eminent liturgical scholars have criticized the practice of Mass facing the people.

Pope Benedict XVI clearly thought turning the altars around was a mistake, but he also did not think that the mistake should be rectified unilaterally by command from on high.

In his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy” he wrote: “The Eucharist that Christians celebrate really cannot adequately be described by the term ‘meal’. True, the Lord established the new reality of worship within the framework of a Jewish (Passover) meal, but it was precisely the new reality, not the meal as such, that he commanded us to repeat. Very soon the new reality was separated from its ancient context and found its proper and suitable form already predetermined by the fact that the Eucharist refers back to the Cross and thus to the transformation of Temple sacrifice into worship of God that is at harmony with the logos.” (pg. 78)

And in response to the idea that the priest celebrating facing the wall, or with his back to the people, he pointed out that “it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession towards the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off towards the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us.” (pg. 80)

Priest and people facing the same direction speaks of a community on a pilgrimage together, going the same direction. Priest facing the people forms a closed circle that does not go anywhere.

Pope Benedict did not think it would help to mandate turning the altars back around, but he did propose setting the crucifix in the center of the altar, as the common focus for both priest and people. As Pope he was accustomed to celebrate facing the people, but with 6 large candle stands and a large crucifix in front of him on the altar. It blocked his view of the people and the people’s view of him. From the perspective of the congregation it made it look like the altar was turned around backwards, which indeed it was.

Also, the current prefect for the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Robert Sarah, very strongly favors Mass ‘ad orientem’.

As for actually celebrating “ad orientem” Bishop Slattery, Bishop Emeritus of Tulsa, Oklahoma, began celebrating Mass ‘ad orientem’ in his cathedral church as far back as 2009. The practice has indeed been growing around the United States. There are many priests who celebrate Mass ‘ad orientem’ and there are more who would do it if they could.

In Portland, at Holy Rosary, run by the Dominicans, they began setting up that altar after the example of Pope Benedict, with large candle stands and altar cross between the priest and the people, but they have now turned the altar around and celebrate purely ‘ad orientem’.

Recently some members of our parish returned from a retreat in the Portland Archdiocese in which the priest celebrated the Mass ‘ad orientem’.

Even in the Diocese of Baker, I am not the only priest who has celebrated Mass ‘ad orientem’.

One could say, indeed, that with priest and people facing the same way, going out to meet the Lord, Mass ‘ad orientem’ is not just the traditional way of celebrating Mass, it is the truly progressive and forward looking way to celebrate Mass.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.