The Saturday morning Masses are celebrated ad orientem starting in Lent 2023.

Centered on the Lord, a direction for prayer

“Lord make us turn to you, let us see your face, and we shall be saved,” we sing from Psalm 80 at Sunday Mass a couple of times a year from the responsorial psalm.  Since the early Church, Christians have faced East during the celebration of the Eucharist.1  Saints and teachers throughout our Catholic tradition have attested to spirituality of having priest and people face the altar of the Lord together at prayer.  Because of the way the Church has understood the fittingness of praying to the East, this is one of the most ancient and consistent practices in the life of the Church.  Often called ad orientem, this became the practice when churches could not be built with altars and apses facing actual East.  In these situations, the practice developed of praying toward what came to be called liturgical East.  To pray facing East means that the priest and people would face the same direction, toward a crucifix, altar or both—toward the Lord—even if not facing East on the compass.  This posture of prayer has value in focusing on the transcendent and vertical dimensions of worship as head and members of the Church are turned to the Lord together, the God to whom the prayers are addressed and the sacrifice is offered.  It is not a matter of turning away from the people, but a posture of the priest being with the people, among them and leading them, facing Christ and waiting for his return.

For as deeply embedded in the Christian tradition as this directional prayer has been, we see little of it today.  The period following the Second Vatican Council brought a rapid and widespread change in the position of the priest and the direction he faces, even though the Council itself did not mandate such a change.  It has become popular in recent Church history for the priest and the people to face one another throughout the Mass, including when the priest stands behind the altar at the Eucharistic prayer.  This way of celebrating Mass is knows as versus populum (towards the people).  There is indeed much value to celebrating the Eucharistic prayer versus populum, as it emphasizes the aspect of the Eucharist that is a sacred banquet and a communal celebration.

These two postures of ad orientem and versus populum do not need to be all or nothing experiences at the Eucharist.  They underscore different aspects of the Eucharist at different times, similar to the way the liturgical seasons emphasize different aspects of the Christian mystery at different times.  In order to offer a some exposure to the experience of ad orientem prayer, I plan to start offering 8:30 am Mass on Saturday mornings starting on February 25th, the first Saturday of Lent, with the priest and the assembly facing the altar together during the Eucharistic prayer.  This will not change the way we celebrate Mass on Sundays or during the week, just on Saturday morning.

Mass celebrated ad orientem is not turning around simply to go back, as if everything before the Second Vatican Council were superior to everything that has come after.  I am grateful that we are able to proclaim and hear the readings and prayers of the Mass in our own English language.  The posture of ad orientem does not involve the Latin language, but is a distinct and separate liturgical custom.  Antiquity is not reason enough to make such a change, nor is modernity reason enough not to try such a change.  Mass celebrated ad orientem is not a clinging to antiquity or a shunning of modernity.  It is an embrace of a posture and incarnational spirituality that has been a catalyst for a prayerful encounter with the Lord Jesus in a number of different cultures, traditions, and times.  Ad orientem worship is a very powerful reminder of what we are about at Mass: meeting Christ Who comes to meet us.

Pope Benedict XVI, when he was serving as a Cardinal with St. John Paul II reflected often on the posture of ad orientem.  He wrote that it “is, first and foremost, a simple expression of looking to Christ as the meeting place between God and man. It expresses the basic Christological form of our prayer. […] Praying toward the east means going to meet the coming Christ. The liturgy, turned toward the East, effects entry, so to speak, into the procession of history toward the future, the New Heaven and the New Earth, which we encounter in Christ.”2

Some of you may be familiar with this, and perhaps have even been at Masses celebrated this way. The common way of describing such Masses is usually to say, by way of objection, that “the priest has his back to the people.” Now, while this is technically true, it largely misses the main point, which is one much grander and more beautiful: ad orientem worship shows, even in its literal orientation, that the priest and the people are united together as one in worshipping God, even physically with their bodies, “in a common act of trinitarian worship…. Where priest and people together face the same way, what we have is a cosmic orientation and also an interpretation of the Eucharist in terms of resurrection and trinitarian theology. Hence it is also an interpretation in terms of Parousia [end of the world], a theology of hope, in which every Mass is an approach to the return of Christ.”3  Celebrating Mass ad orientem, then, is meant to remind us of all these important factors of our faith, and, ultimately, that the Mass is not first and foremost about us, but rather about God and His glory.

Practically, this will mainly change the experience of the Eucharistic prayer.  The introductory rites, liturgy of the Word will be the same as before.  During the Eucharistic prayer, the priest will turn to address the assembly at the offertory, Our Father, and sign of Peace.  Its my hope that our exposure to this form of prayer will benefit our own spiritual lives of turning to the Lord with hearts and minds caught up into that gaze of hope upon that promise that “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”4

Fr. Luke Meyer
February 11, 20235

[1] Didascalia Apostolorum, 230 AD

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 69-70

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, p. 140

[4] Canticle of Zechariah from Morning Prayer, Luke 1:68-79

[5] I want to acknowledge using many ideas from the pastoral letter “People Look East” by Fr. Luke Marquard, Pastor of Good Shepherd in Golden Valley, MN (2020) and the pastoral letter “Turning Toward God” by Most Rev. James Wall, Bishop of Gallup (2019).