(From the archives, but still highly relevant. Editor)
On the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, my ten-year-old daughter went to church with me. The priest at the church regularly celebrates Mass ad orientem, whether he is offering the Novus Ordo Mass in Latin or English. Afterwards, I asked my daughter what she thought of the Mass. Her short but certain answer was “beautiful.”
In Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, writes about the ad orientem Mass this way: “Praying towards the East is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again. Here both the fidelity to the gift already bestowed and the dynamism of going forward are given equal expression.” Facing “to the east” or to the liturgical east is what it means to be ad orientem. So all of us, priests and congregation alike, turn towards the Risen Christ represented by the rising sun.
There’s a sense of awe and attention at a Mass ad orientum that can’t be duplicated at Mass celebrated versus populum where the priest faces the people. When the priest faces the tabernacle (which should be front and centre in all churches) and the crucifix (which should be hanging above the tabernacle), just by his physical orientation he leads us to Jesus. We aren’t sitting back and watching him; we are following him to the altar where the Eucharistic sacrifice takes place. There’s a sense of profound mystery surrounding his actions and by the direction he faces, we acknowledge that the Mass is about Jesus—His body, blood, soul, and divinity—and not about the community gathered together to break the “communion bread,” to quote a regrettable line from a current church hymn.
All these many years after Vatican II, issues regarding the Liturgy remain divisive. With the implementation of Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum, it seems that divisions have become deeper.
The issue isn’t so much about the Extraordinary Form Mass versus the Novus Ordo Mass; the issue is about reverence and approaching Holy Mass with an attitude that befits the solemness of being present at the Eucharistic sacrifice.The priest, when turned around, automatically commands the proper demeanour whether the Mass is in Latin, English, or another language.
Cardinal Ratzinger continues: “A common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue, but of common worship, of setting off towards the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement forward expressed in a common direction for prayer.”
The reasons for ad orientem Mass are all very sound and it’s hard to understand why many clergy and lay people still show so much resistance to it. Perhaps we need to look at the issue in a more simple light. If a ten-year-old girl can see the beauty of celebrating Mass in this more traditional orientation, then maybe that’s all the reason we need.