June 9, 2019, Pentecost Sunday

Celebration Ad Orientem In The Post-Conciliar Liturgy

 In recent years there has been renewed interest in celebration of Mass ad orientem (i.e., facing the East rather than facing the people). Celebration of the entire Mass ad orientem was almost universal in the Latin Rite just prior to Vatican II, although modest attempts were underway to widen the practice of celebrating various parts of the Mass versus populum (“facing the people”). The Council Fathers recognized that the promotion of liturgical life was fundamental to achieving the spiritual renewal they desired as the goal of Vatican II. Therefore they insisted on the centrality of the liturgy as the source and summit of Christian and ecclesial life and on the consequent need for clergy and laity to carry out fully their distinctive roles within the assembly. Based on this theological vision the Constitution on the Liturgy presented norms to govern the reform of the liturgy, including the Mass (nn. 22-42 and 47-58). For our present purpose it should be noted that Vatican II itself did not call for an end to celebration ad orientem nor did it make any mention of celebration versus populum.

Pope Paul VI entrusted the Consilium with the task of overseeing the liturgical renewal according to the prescriptions of the Constitution on the Liturgy. The Consilium’s Instruction of September 1964, approved in each detail (informa specifica) by Paul VI, required the liturgy of the Word to be done facing the people, but did not require the same for the liturgy of the Eucharist. Clarifying part of the Instruction in 1965, the Consilium indicated that “the faithful take part very well in a Mass . . . [even if] the celebrant turns…when at the altar (Documents on the Liturgy 383 [R28.3]). A letter from the Consilium in June of that year ventured the observation that since the introduction of the revised rites four months earlier, it had become clear that celebration facing the people “is most advantageous pastorally . . . [and] it is right to wish that the liturgy of the Eucharist might be celebrated facing the people” so that they could “follow the whole rite directly, thereby participating with greater awareness” (DOL415). The same letter, however, emphasized that facing the people at the altar is not necessary for pastoral effectiveness (DOL 415, see also DOL 428). An official Reply from the Congregation for Rites published in 1966 affirmed that “all priests [may] celebrate [the entire] Mass facing the people without permission of the Ordinary or the pastor” (DOL 4336).

Fr. Keller


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