For most Catholics, the direction that the priest faces during most of the prayers in the Extraordinary Form is not one they are used to. In the “Ad Orientem” posture, the priest faces the same direction as the people, leading them in prayer together.
Literally, Ad Orientem means Facing the East and most churches tend to be built such that the priest is facing East when saying mass. Facing the East is to face the direction of the rising sun. In English, this is additionally meaningful because it also sounds like it is facing together “the Risen Son”. In my church, the direction of the sanctuary is toward the West, so most importantly, the single orientation of priest and people is what makes Ad Orientem theologically significant.
This first distinctive characteristic of the Extraordinary Forms is not distinctive at all to the Extraordinary Form. Contrary to popular belief, the Second Vatican Council never prescribed doing away with this singular direction of worship. In fact, the Roman Missal is written assuming the priest does not face the people during the prayers. Facing the people, “Versus Populo” has become an option that turned into a norm following the early 20th century “Liturgical movement” which experimented with changing this direction. Great liturgists including Romano Guardini had been involved in this movement but nowadays we’ve seen the end result at the worst case where the idea of sacrificial worship during mass has been lost and in its place, the priest appears more like a ceremonial presider supervising a community gathering.
At my parish we attempted to revive the use of Ad Orientem in the Ordinary Form and instantly experienced a magnification of the greatness and centrality of God’s presence in the Eucharist. It didn’t even occur to us that the priest’s back was turned to the people. Instead, the priest was on the front line leading us together in common worship to our Lord and our God.
Many pastors are trying to figure out how to re-introduce the use of Ad Orientem in their own parish communities. The Holy Father himself has suggested by way of example at large masses a gradual re-orientation by setting up the altar with candles and a crucifix in between the celebrant and the people in order to re-emphasize the verticality of worship. In doing so he de-emphasizes mass as a conversation between a priest and his people and calls attention to the sacrifice of the priest upwards toward God, present at the center of the altar. At other rites and prayer services, such as at adoration and benediction priests commonly face the Blessed Sacrament together with the people. We should offer encouragement and support to any interested pastors who are considering taking advantage of the catechetical opportunity that the Ad Orientem position gives to rediscovery Christ’s true presence at mass.
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