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Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, O.P.'s picture

Companions on the Journey: Ad Orientem

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A recurring theme in the documents and discourse pertaining to the New Evangelization is the call to “encounter Christ.” The Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization states: “The Christian faith is a true encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ” (18). As Catholic Christians this encounter and relationship of faith occurs not only on a personal level in private prayer and study, but, most importantly, it requires a community that worships together: “the best place to transmit the faith is a community nourished and transformed by the liturgical life and prayer” (97). This liturgical theme is also echoed in the USCCB’s Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization, which states, “The active participation and practice of the liturgy…provide[s] a powerful witness to the faith” (Part IV). The community of the faithful gathering together as one, combats the idea of the individualist that lies at the heart of secularism: “To respond to religious needs, persons revert to individualistic forms of spirituality or forms of neo-paganism to the point of forcibly spreading a general climate of relativism.” (Instrumentum Laboris, 53). It is as a community, a whole, as a single worshiping body of the faithful that Christians encounter Christ and are nourished so as to share their faith with one another. As Pope Benedict writes, “The more lively the Eucharistic faith of the People of God, the deeper is its sharing in ecclesial life in steadfast commitment to the mission entrusted by Christ to his disciples” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 6).

There is, however, an issue that has been addressed by Pope Benedict XVI and numerous theologians and liturgists regarding how people encounter Christ during the liturgy. A common idea circulating after the Second Vatican Council was that, by having the priest turn and face the people, a more communal, less clerical liturgy would take shape. But if we take a closer look at this idea, we find that, typically, when large bodies of people face a single person, looking over a raised surface, it implies a power differential: a teacher over a desk; a politician over a podium; a judge over the bar. These individuals have power and authority over the mass of people they face. They control the order of events, they give instruction, and all eyes are to follow them while they perform their duties. What matters in a classroom, a political speech, or a trial, is the opinion, movement, speech, and personality of the teacher, politician, or judge.

A similar power differential may be seen in a mass with a priest looking over the altar at the people. Although the intention may be to be inclusive, there may exist a subconscious awareness of a stark distinction between “priest” and “people” in this form of mass. What, then, are some of the potential dangers that this differential poses? There is the danger of the priest and his personality becoming the focus of the Mass. This danger may even pose consequences for the peoples’ ability to encounter Christ, and, therefore, to be sent out as disciples to share their faith with the world. During the Mass, Christ is really and truly present in the community, the Scriptures, the Sacrament, and the priest who acts in His place. When we come together at Mass, we should come ready and open to experience and encounter Christ. Pope Benedict writes in The Spirit of the Liturgy, about the unintended consequences of the priest facing the people: “What happened was that an unprecedented clericalization came on the scene. Now the priest… becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing” (Part 2, Chapter 3). There becomes the danger that we encounter the personality of the cleric, to the detriment of our encounter with Christ. As a result, the Pope thinks, “The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out to what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself.” This is significant since, in our incarnational tradition of worship, the outward bodily form of people in prayer ought to be a visible manifestation of their inward spirit. If the community forms an enclosed circle facing the cleric, what can this imply about its relationship to mission?

On the other hand, when a group of people sends forth an individual to speak on their behalf, it is implied that the single emissary represents and speaks for the people who have selected him. The individual is not above the group, but a part of it. We see, for example, the story of queen Esther. Stepping before the king she represents all of her people, and she gives voice to their universal cry for life and freedom. This representational identity is essential to the Catholic priesthood:  “Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness” (Heb. 5:1-2). To serve at the altar is to be a humble representative of the holy people of God. The priest and the people together form a single Body, worshipping Jesus their Divine Head.

We are able to visibly see this communal dimension of the liturgy explicitly when the people and the priest together face the same direction, in what is known as ad orientem (to the East). This is not only the norm for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, but is perfectly licit for the Ordinary Form in the vernacular, and is even implied by the rubrics of the Missal. The priest, in this more visibly communal form of Mass, does not have his “back to the people”; rather, the priest, praying the Mass ad orientem and acting as the representative of the people before God, simply faces the same direction as the people who have called him to this sacred office. He knows the humility required for his office, and he knows that he prays the Mass to God for and with the people, and not to the people for God. During Mass he almost becomes anonymous, thinking as John the Baptist did, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

When the community, instead of forming an enclosed circle, physically faces the same direction, they clearly symbolize with their bodies their spiritual reality as fellow pilgrims on the journey to Christ. They journey together, priest and lay person, as companions to the Last Supper and to the Cross. By physically manifesting the common direction of their spiritual lives towards Christ, they visibly manifest their commitment to mission, justice, and evangelization. Their full participation in this journey is not one of “mere external activity,” but a “greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to daily life” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 52). As we embrace the New Evangelization and the call to witness Christ in the world, perhaps we should prayerfully discern and explore the celebration of mass ad orientem. How we pray says much about how we live our faith; if the lay faithful and the priests pray together as fellow pilgrims on the path of faith, how much greater will the Christian life be lived and shared in world!