The Diocese of Pittsburgh is set to implement a new policy that will require priests to seek the bishop’s permission if they wish to celebrate the ordinary form of the Mass ad orientem.
The policy, discussed during a Thursday meeting between Pittsburgh’s Bishop David Zubik and the diocesan presbyteral council, is expected to be implemented in the coming weeks. It will make Pittsburgh the latest U.S. diocese to regulate the ad orientem celebration of the Mass.
The celebration of the Mass ad orientem is not regulated by Traditionis custodes, a 2021 policy promulgated by Pope Francis to govern a different liturgical reality, the Extraordinary Form of the Mass — sometimes called the “Traditional Latin Mass.”
But several U.S. dioceses have implemented norms on ad orientem liturgies in the years since Traditionis custodes was published, prompting pushback from Catholics who argue that the ad orientem posture is a meaningful part of the Church’s liturgical heritage.
Still, while the regulation of the ad orientem posture has often been framed as part of an ideological “liturgy war” in the Church, some pastoral leaders say that approach obscures elements of a nuanced conversation.
Some bishops have argued against the ad orientem liturgy for theological reasons, or suggested that regulating it is in continuity with the pope's liturgical changes.
But others - even some who are supportive of the practice - have argued that while the ad orientem posture has a place in the Church, implementing the practice badly can cause confusion and disruption in local parishes.
'The Pillar' covers news you won't read anywhere else. We do it intelligently and reliably, because our subscribers know good journalism is worth paying for. So subscribe today – or upgrade your subscription!
In Pittsburgh, Bishop Zubik is set to implement an ad orientem policy while interest in the practice is growing in his diocese, largely in response to concerns about the implementation of the ad orientem posture in some parishes.
A draft letter on the subject obtained by The Pillar - which was circulated among Pittsburgh priests - announces a policy that sets the versus populum liturgical posture as the norm for public celebration of Masses, while allowing priests to seek permission for the ad orientem posture in parishes and other public contexts.
“Over the past several years there has been a movement within the priesthood, as well as in some members of the Christian Faithful at large, to see the more ancient practice of worshiping ad orientem restored more widely,” Zubik noted in the draft text.
“I have no doubt that the intentions underlying this movement are good,” Zubik wrote, “however, we need to be vigilant in guarding against the mistakes made in the past when implementing liturgical developments.”
In the draft letter, Zubik argued that a shift in some parishes to ad orientem has resulted in “confusion and consternation,” especially when “imposed by the priest with little or no preparation or catechesis.”
“While this movement is genuinely motivated by deeply rooted love for the tradition of the Church and her liturgy, we must be wary of repeating the mistakes of the past. As priests, we must guard against the constant temptation to impose our own personal preferences upon the liturgy,” the bishop wrote.
Priests of the Pittsburgh diocese have told The Pillar they expect Zubik will grant permission readily for the ad orientem celebration of the Mass — if priests have given their parishes adaquete preparation and explanation for the change.
Sources familiar with the meeting Thursday told The Pillar that Zubik has stressed to his priests that he is not hostile to celebrating Mass ad orientem, and that he appreciate that priests offering Mass ad orientem have the good intention of reverently celebrating the liturgy.
“The bishop really was very fraternal about it,” one meeting attendee said. “He was clear that this wasn’t about bad people doing something bad, but the need to do things in the best way.”
“He said his office is getting a lot of calls by some people confused or unsettled by [priests] saying Mass ad orientem, and all he wants to see is the kind of catechesis that makes sure everyone is on board and everyone has the option of versus populum in their parish,” a source said.
“He was clear this ‘permission’ policy isn’t a way to say ‘no’ to everyone, but to get everyone on the same page.”
The policy is expected to require priests to request permission for the ad orientem posture through regional vicars in the diocese, who will discuss the matter with Zubik and chancery officials before permission can be granted.
Requests to celebrate Mass ad orientem “should include a period of instruction, formation, and catechesis of the faithful so that they will genuinely be able understand the Church’s tradition and theology underlying the orientation of the priest during Mass,” according to Zubik’s letter.
Requests should also ensure that “the Christian Faithful are to always have the option of attending Mass celebrated versus populum,” which should always make up the majority of parish liturgies, the draft letter explained.
Zubik’s move will follow a similar policy announced in December by Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati.
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 for many of the same reasons cited by Zubik in his letter.
Schnurr’s policy, Cincinnati sources told The Pillar, came 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 — according to the people who complained, at least.
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 already brought in more restrictive permission-based policies in line with Zubik’s.
Those policies have raised a number of questions about the scope and intent of the reforms of Vatican Council II, as well the limits of bishops’ authority to regulate otherwise approved forms of the liturgy.
The ad orientem liturgical posture is the practice by which a priest offers the Mass facing eastward, or symbolically eastward, by facing toward the altar, with the people behind him facing the same way, rather than standing across the altar from the people, and facing them directly.
The custom has ancient historical roots, and for most of Christian history was the normative position in which the prayers of the Mass were offered, in most churches in most parts of the world.
But several decades before the Second Vatican Council, some liturgical theologians had begun to call for Mass to be celebrated versus populum - toward the people - in the belief that that might foster more active and engaged lay participation in the Mass. The issue became the subject of debate among theologians and historians.
Vatican II itself didn’t explicitly mention the debate about liturgical postures. But a 1964 Vatican instruction on liturgy did say directly that celebrating Mass versus populum was permitted. The practice took off very quickly in many parts of the world, so that for several decades, ad orientem worship was almost entirely unseen in most parts of the Church — until the 1990s, when some theologians and priests began to suggest its more regular use.
Since then, some bishops have accepted or even encouraged the celebration of Mass ad orientem among their priests, supported by the former Vatican liturgy official Cardinal Robert Sarah, who was replaced by Cardinal Arthur Roche in 2021.
But opponents of the practice have argued that ad orientem worship runs contrary to the liturgical unity called for by Pope Francis, most recently in Traditiones custodes, and is suggestive of a “clericalist” approach to the liturgy.
Even in dioceses where the ad orientem posture has widespread support, observers have generally noted that introducing the praxis requires preparation and catechesis — that many Catholics are unfamiliar with the notion of ad orientem worship, are not familiar with the theological reasons for which it might be preferred, and that some perceive the stereotype that the priest “has his back” to the congregation.
Zubik has cited those concerns in discussions about the ad orientem posture in Pittsburgh.
The extent to which celebration ad orientem is intended to be a normal option available for priests in Mass remains hotly disputed among liturgists, with some noting that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does not rule out the practice, and seems even to presume ad orietem celebration as a liturgical default.
In 2000, the Vatican’s liturgical department clarified that no universal norm prohibits ad orientem celebration, noting 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 for Divine Worship wrote at the time.
The Vatican department also 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 this has led many supporters of ad orientem liturgical practice to question the validity of the policies brought in by dioceses like Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Seattle, the 2000 letter from the Vatican’s divine worship department was not an definitive interpretation of canon law, and the department’s opinion could have changed in the interim to reflect a change in papal expectations.
To date, no diocesan policies have been canonically appealed to Rome, so it remains unclear if the Vatican’s thinking on the subject has changed.