Skip to content

More US bishops require permission for priests to celebrate 'ad orientem'

Bishops in the United States continue to issue new restrictions on the celebration of the ordinary form of the Mass ad orientem alongside implementation of Pope Francis’ restrictions on the extraordinary form of the liturgy.

Dominican Rite High Mass. Credit: Lawrence OP via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The policies, now in place in dioceses across the country, require priests to seek permission to offer Mass facing East, even while many liturgical scholars regard the practice as a legitimate option in canon law and liturgical texts.

The legality of these new restrictions is unclear and, as yet, untested, while bishops in different places have offered different rationales for their policies.


Bishop Edward Rice of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Missouri, issued Aug. 7 a text on the diocesan implementation of the pope’s own legislation Traditionis custodes, regulating the celebration of Mass according to the extraordinary form.

“So what does Traditionis custodes ask of the bishop?” Rice wrote in the letter, which was termed on the diocesan website a motu proprio.

“Referring to Bishops as ‘Guardians of tradition,’ we are called ‘to facilitate the ecclesial communion of those Catholics who feel attached to some earlier liturgical forms and not to others.’”

Noting that Pope Francis defines the ordinary form of the Mass to be the “unique expression of the ‘lex orandi’ of the Roman Rite,” Rice wrote that it is his responsibility to ensure that “groups who attend Mass according to the Missal prior to the reform of 1970 do not deny the validity and legitimacy of the liturgical reform dictated by Vatican II.”

The bishop’s text went on to explain that, after he wrote to the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the diocese has been granted by the Vatican a two-year period to identify a suitable venue for the celebration of the prior form of the liturgy, and that he had determined that it will be held stably in a student center in Springfield, in line with the norms of Traditionis custodes.

Departing from the provisions of Traditionis, however, Rice ended his text by saying, “I request at this time that all priests celebrate Mass facing the people.”

“As of the writing of this column, I have had no priest request permission to celebrate Holy Mass in any other way. And with the documents cited in this column, I have tried to highlight my rightful authority in making this request.”

Rice’s request, apparently referring to the celebration of the ordinary form of the Mass versus populum, raises a number of canonical issues.

The legal status of the bishop’s request is not clear.

Rice’s letter does seem to suggest, however, that he intends that priests of the diocese obtain his permission before celebrating Mass according to the ordinary form while facing ad orientem

Similar policies have been issued by other American diocesan bishops in recent weeks, months, and years, though their legal authority is unclear.

Those policies have also raised a number of questions about the scope and intent of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, as well the limits of bishops’ authority to regulate otherwise approved forms of the liturgy.

Leave a comment

While Bishop Rice’s request references “documents” cited by him in his text, the primary document cited is Traditionis custodes, which does not regulate the celebration of the ordinary form of the Mass or grant bishops new powers to do so.

Rice also cites Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II constitution on the liturgy, which the bishop quotes as saying “no other, even if he be a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.” 

While that constitution does not mention the orientation of the celebrant during Mass, a 1964 Vatican instruction on implementing Sacrosanctum concilium did say directly that celebrating Mass versus populum was permitted, but did not mandate the practice.

After publication of that instruction, the practice took off very quickly and 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 — so much so that it soon became the normal way in which Mass is offered in the Latin Church, without ever being prescribed as such.

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.”

Some liturgists, however, challenge the official translation of the GIRM and 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 his text, Bishop Rice quoted from Christus Dominus, on the pastoral office of bishops, saying, “Bishops enjoy the fullness of the sacrament of orders, and both priests and deacons are dependent upon them in the exercise of their authority.” 

But that document, too, did not touch on the ability of priests to celebrate the ordinary form of the Mass either versus populum or ad orientem, both of which are recognized in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal as legitimate options.

Standing guidance from the Dicastery for Divine Worship has previously advised U.S. bishops that “As both positions [ad orientem and versus populum] enjoy the favor of the law, legislation may not be invoked to say that one position or the other accords more closely with the mind of the Church.” 

In 2000, the then-Congregation for Divine Worship clarified that a diocesan bishop “is unable to exclude or mandate the use of a legitimate option,” but is only “competent to provide further guidance to priests in their choice of the various options of the Roman Rite.”

This guidance from the Vatican notwithstanding, Rice is one of several bishops to have ordered his priests to seek permission to exercise what Rome has otherwise stated to be a legitimate liturgical choice. 

Several of those bishops, most notably Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, have highlighted a lack of catechesis and formation preceding a decision by local priests to begin celebrating Mass ad orientem which, some bishops have said, creates confusion and disharmony in parishes. 

In a letter to priests of the diocese, dated Aug. 21, Bishop Zubik noted that the celebration of the liturgy had been the “most frequent” topic raised during the diocesan synodal sessions, held as part of the global synod on synodality.

“This is right and just,” Zubik wrote, “the Eucharistic sacrifice and celebration is the source and summit of all Christian life; it makes perfect sense that it would be the highlight of the Church’s synodal conversations.”

While describing the celebration of Mass ad orientem as “deeply rooted in the Church’s liturgy” and “the ancient practice of the Church,” Zubik also stated that the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council “called for a reconsideration of the priest and the altar during Mass.”

“With the reform of the liturgy, the norm for the celebration of the Holy Mass throughout the world became versus populum, that is, with the priest facing toward the assembled People of God,” the bishop said.

Noting widespread liturgical abuses from priests “left and right of center” in the implementation of the liturgical reforms in the decades following Vatican II, Zubik told his priests that “true liturgical renewal, reform, and development is found in humble obedience to the liturgical law” and cited the “preference” of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal for the priest to face the people.

While recognizing “committed members of the Faithful” in the Pittsburgh diocese who find “great spiritual benefit” in the celebration of Mass ad orientem, Zibuk wrote that he found it necessary to issue regulations on ad orientem usage. 

The new Pittsburgh policy, effective September 1, requires all priests who wish to celebrate Mass facing East to seek permission from the regional vicar, who will consult with the bishop before granting permission, and all such celebrations are to become a stable but minority part of the weekly parish ministry and preceded by a period of catechesis and formation for the community.

In his letter, Bishop Zubik told priests he wanted to be “perfectly clear” that “this policy is not meant to be seen as a forbiddance of celebrating Mass ad orientem.” 

“Rather, I’m trying to say ‘Yes, you can do this, here’s how,’” the bishop wrote.

Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati announced a similar policy last year. 

In a Dec. 21 decree, Schnurr required that in any church or parish “where pastoral practice indicates that the priest celebrant adopt an ad orientem posture on occasion,” there must be at least one celebration of the Mass versus populum on every Sunday and holy days of obligation, and every “family” cluster of parishes must offer a versus populum Mass on every day that Mass is otherwise publicly celebrated.

Cincinnati priests and archdiocesan officials told The Pillar that the policy had been issued in response to complaints from a small number of parishes where priests had made ad orientem celebration the norm without sufficient consultation or catechesis among the parish community.

Unlike the Pittsburgh policy, Schnurr did not require his priests to seek prior permission to celebrate Mass ad orientem, though the Archdioceses of Chicago and Seattle, and the Dioceses of Boise and Venice have all previously brought in more restrictive permission-based policies.

Subscribe now

Editors’ note: This report was updated after publication to clarify that the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau referred to Rice’s letter as a motu proprio, and that while the text announced policies, it was not the mechanism by which they were formally enacted.

Comments 49