Backs to the wall: Can bishops ban 'ad orientem'?
A Pillar Explainer
U.S. dioceses in recent weeks have seen new liturgical policies introduced in response to Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditiones custodes.
But while the pope’s new laws pertain to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, some dioceses have also announced new policies pertaining to the Ordinary Form, and especially to the ad orientem liturgical posture.
The Diocese of Venice, Florida, announced Tuesday that priests are required to obtain permission from the diocesan bishop or vicar general before offering Mass in the ad orientem posture. Late last month, the Archdiocese of Chicago also announced that priests could not offer Mass in the ad orientem posture without permission.
Other bishops have done the same in recent years — Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle announced a prohibition on the ad orientem posture in 2020, as did the bishop of Boise, Idaho.
While these policies will have passed many Catholics unaware, priests and laity interested in liturgical praxis have taken notice — and debate over the subject has arisen in seminaries, sacristies, and on social media.
So to help you know which way is east, The Pillar answers a few questions.
Ok, so what is this ‘ad orientem’ thing?
Since the early days of the Church, Christians have had the custom of facing the east during liturgical prayer — because of Christian anticipation that the Lord will return from the east, and, some scholars say, because it was often Jewish custom to pray facing eastward, in anticipation of a coming Messiah.
While liturgical practices in the early Church varied considerably, it is clear that lay Christians and priests customarily faced eastward during the Eucharistic liturgy of the early Church. There were times when, because of the layout of a church, its apse might be thought of as a kind of symbolic east, even if it was actually facing another direction, and even times when an entire congregation might face away from the priest and altar, with the priest behind them offering Mass, in order that all were facing eastward.
As the rubrics of the Mass in the Latin Catholic Church developed, it became common that priest and people together faced the church’s altar and tabernacle during the prayers of the Mass, looking eastward, or symbolically eastward, with the priest in front of the congregation.
Obviously, there were exceptions, but this posture — the ad orientem posture — became the normative position in which the prayers of the Mass were offered, in most churches in most parts of the world.
And then Vatican II changed that?
No. Or, well, yes. Or, no. It depends on what exactly you mean.
The Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, does not say a single word about liturgical postures. So in a technical, legal, formal sense, no — Vatican II did not change that.
In a historical sense, though, you could say otherwise. After all, Mass celebrated versus populum — with the priest facing the people — was not especially common before Vatican II. And just a few years after the council’s conclusion, the versus populum posture was the ordinary way in which Mass was offered in most parts of the world. So in a chronological sense, Vatican II does mark an essential turning point on the question.
But the change didn’t happen overnight.
In fact, several decades before the Second Vatican Council, some liturgical theologians had begun to call for Mass to be celebrated versus populum, in the belief that that might foster more active and engaged lay participation in the Mass.
There was concern — usually regarded as legitimate concern — in the years leading up to Vatican II that because of liturgical abuses or laxity, coupled with poor catechesis, many lay people who attended Mass were relatively disengaged from the sacrifice offered at the altar.
Some theologians believed that if the priest faced the people, it might foster more prayerful engagement. Theologians and historians debated the extent of historical precedent for the practice, and whether the rubrics in force before the council allowed for its use.
In a 1959 article, two years before the Second Vatican Council began, a canon law professor at Catholic University of America wrote that the Holy See was already encouraging a “revival” of the versus populum posture — though his evidence has been criticized as flimsy.
Despite the groundwork ahead of Vatican II, Sacrosanctum concilum didn’t mention the debate about liturgical postures.
But a 1964 Vatican instruction on implementing Sacrosanctum concilium did say directly that celebrating Mass versus populum was permitted.
After publication of that document, the practice took off very quickly — in local workshops and guidelines for implementing the council, it was often presented as an essential part of enacting the ethos, or “spirit” of the Council in the liturgy.
Ad orientem didn’t completely go away, but it was almost entirely unseen for several decades, until the 1990s, when some theologians and priests began to suggest its more regular use.
Eventually, some bishops came to support that position, and, in some dioceses, bishops in recent years have begun regularly using the ad orientem posture. One even wrote a pastoral letter about it.
The practice has since enjoyed a mostly quiet revival within the Ordinary Form of the Mass, with periodic support from Vatican officials, including Cardinal Robert Sarah, former prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments.
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Does the Church say that ‘versus populum’ is preferable to ‘ad orientem’?
The “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” guides the celebration of the Mass in the Latin Catholic Church.
The official translation of that text, in a discussion of the placement of the altar within a church, says in #299 that “the altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.”
In light of that provision, Bishop Arthur Seratelli, who was then-chairman of the U.S. bishops’ conference liturgy committee, wrote in 2016 to U.S. bishops that while the General Instruction of the Roman Missal “does show a preference for the celebrant’s facing the people ‘whenever possible’ in the placement and orientation of the altar,” the Church “does not prohibit the celebration of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form ad orientem.”
But some liturgists dispute the notion that the GIRM actually does show a preference for the versus populum position.
Challenging the official translation and its interpretation, some liturgists and classicists have argued that the Latin text is better translated to read: “Wherever possible, the altar should be built separated from the wall, leaving enough space for the priest to walk around it and making it possible to celebrate facing the people.”
That translation would, they argue, better align with the Vatican’s 1964 instruction, which permitted the versus populum posture but did not prioritize it over the ad orientem posture.
In fact, many liturgists argue that the instructions contained within the Missal — namely instructions for priests to face the people at certain points — presume that the priest is ordinarily using the ad orientem posture when offering the Mass.
The Church’s magisterium has not responded directly to those challenges — The official translation has not been changed, nor has Bishop Seratelli’s assertion been amended by the USCCB.
In September 2000, however, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments did clarify that GIRM #299 does not “constitute a norm” which prohibits the ad orientem posture.
While the congregation said that offering Mass versus populum “is legitimate and often advisable,” it confirmed that the ad orientem posture is not prohibited to priests. The Vatican added that “it appears that the ancient tradition, though not without exception, was that the celebrant and the praying community were turned versus [i.e ad] orientem, the direction from which the light which is Christ comes.”
So can a bishop prohibit the ‘ad orientem’ posture?
Well, that depends on whom you ask. And when.
In his 2016 letter, Bishop Seratelli wrote that a priest’s decision about whether to use the ad orientem posture “should always be made with the supervision and guidance of the local bishop.”
It is not clear precisely what Seratelli’s phrase was intended to convey — whether the bishop was asserting that a priest needs the permission of his bishop to use the ad orientem posture, or only that he should seek guidance and oversight from his bishop.
But in April 2000, when a U.S. bishop did restrict some use of the ad orientem posture in his diocese, the Congregation for Divine Worship reportedly clarified by letter that Mass could be celebrated in either the versus populum or ad orientem position, stating that “both positions are in accord with liturgical law; both are to be considered correct.”
“As both positions enjoy the favor of the law, the legislation may not be invoked to say that one position or the other accords more closely with the mind of the Church,” the congregation added.
Getting down to brass tacks, the congregation clarified that a diocesan bishop “is unable to exclude or mandate the use of a legitimate option,” but is “competent to provide further guidance to priests in their choice of the various options of the Roman Rite.”
While that letter has often been used in support of the argument that priests have the right to choose a liturgical posture, it was not a definitive interpretation of canon law, and could, in theory, be changed according to the intentions of the Congregation for Divine Worship or Pope Francis.
The only way to know for certain whether the Vatican would allow a bishop to prohibit the ad orientem posture is for the liturgy congregation to hear an appeal from a priest who believes his bishop’s policies are unjust. And, as the issue heats up in dioceses across the U.S., such an appeal seems an eventuality — which could soon bring clarity to the state of play for priests wishing to look, and pray, ad orientem — to the east.