Monday, June 19, 2006

Ad orientem and Versus Populum: re-thinking our terminology to reflect sacred realities

The words and terms that we use in describing things are quite important because they can either re-enforce truth or they can potentially distort it.

Recently there has been a discussion here on the NLM about "ad orientem" and "versus populum". A few points come out of this. In our common understanding, "ad orientem" has come less to typify an actual cardinal direction (East) and more a symbolic sense of Eastwardness, or the "liturgical East" which is typified in the common direction of the priest and the faithful. Moreover, "versus populum" has come to represent Mass where the celebrant faces the people, but not only that, it has come to have associated with it that skewed approach to the liturgy which would horizontalize it and make the priest into an emcee at the altar -- as though the altar where a kind of podium or platform for a performance.

Of course, if we critically look at this in the light of Church teaching, we see that neither term, in common liturgical vernacular, is absolutely precise. Allow me to explain.

"Versus populum" or Mass "facing the people" in the understanding that it has acquired these past decades is quite incorrect. In original usage, reference toward Mass facing the gathered faithful was merely a rubrical reference which explained to the priest what to do in those parts of the sacred liturgy which were dialogic. It was not, as is the case today, a kind of super-rubric by which the primary character and ethos of the sacred liturgy was determined and effected. It did not set the stage if you will, for the sanctuary to become a stage and for the primary emphasis of the liturgy to be upon the gathered community.

"Ad orientem" of course is a more precise term in relation to the fundamentals of divine worship. Where some confusion reigns with this term is the reference to the East. Historically of course, the Eastward direction of liturgical prayer did have a unique symbolic value in reference to the Resurrection and Second Coming of Christ. In many cases, this meant churches had sanctuaries, or the apse, built toward the East and thus the priest and people together faced the same common direction. In some cases, particularly inherited architecture from pagan Rome such as the Roman basilica, the nature of the architecture would often naturally put the apse of the church in the West end. This resulted in a situation whereby to literally maintain the historical principle of ad orientem would entail the priest to look in the direction of the nave where the people would be. In relation to the gathered faithful then, Fr. Uwe-Michael Lang discusses in Turning Towards the Lord that, in at least some early Christian church arrangements, the faithful may have sat in a kind of antiphonal arrangement (seated on the north and south ends of the building) as might have been inherited from the synagogue. There is also the discussion, had in Klaus Gamber's book, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, and again in Fr. Lang's book, that in churches where the apse/sanctuary was at the West end, during the appropriate points of the sacred liturgy the faithful would join the priest in turning ad orientem, in these cases, toward the narthex of the Church. Fr. Lang mentions that there are remnants of this early practice in some Eastern liturgies (if memory serves, the Syriac) where to this day one of the liturgical texts proclaims to the faithful, "Look to the East!"

It happened over time in the West (the Eastern churches still seems to retain this physical orientation to the East to a greater extent) that this symbol of the East came to be more symbolic and less literal. Instead of the emphasis being upon being actually "oriented" (turned toward the East), this came instead to be represented by a sense of the "liturgical East" -- a more symbolic conception of all, priest and faithful, being turned towards the Lord; together looking toward "the East", toward the Resurrection and Second Coming; together joined in the offering of sacrifice and worship to God the Father.

Of course, it can be legitimately pointed out that with the historical background of ad orientem which is partially retained in certain circles (such as the Eastern churches), and more symbolic in others (as is the case in many Latin rite churches), that "ad orientem" and "versus populum" are not strictly inimical. In short, there are historical situations where the sacred liturgy is offered both ad orientem and versus populum.

The counter-argument here is that while this may be the historical case, and while there may indeed have been a very few examples of this in modern practice even up until the time of the Second Vatican Council, overall the symbol of the Eastward direction of liturgical prayer came to be represented and understood more in the sense of liturgical Eastwardness, that is common direction of priest and faithful whatever direction the apse happened to be, and thus this is an appropriate way to understand this.

This argument, I think is tenable.

That being said, the problems with the understanding of versus populum still remain if we take that approach, because in this case, while there were a few historical examples of versus populum where the sense of sacred direction and liturgical emphasis was still properly maintained (the ad orientem dimension), overall this was a minor rubric and today, the understanding of versus populum is also conjoined with an understanding of the liturgy that is overwhelmingly horizontal and focused upon the relationship between the priest and the people.

Ultimately, whether or not the priest was facing the faithful to look to the East, or whether all where together facing the same direction, the intention was not to shift the focus of the liturgy between God the Father or the gathered Christian commnunity. In either case, the sacred liturgy must properly be with its focus upon God the Father, for it is the Sacrifice offered to Him; and it is that for which the Christian community gathers.

Today however, we have an entirely upside down point of reference with regards these terms and ultimately the sacred liturgy itself. The Christian community, rather than God the Father, has become our point of liturgical focus and reference. Thus, our understanding today of versus populum is not as a mere rubric, but rather it has come to denote our understanding of the emphasis of the liturgy as being directed toward the horizontal dialogue of priest and faithful. Thus, naturally, the priest, as though at a podium rather than at an altar, faces the people; he focuses his attention upon the people, and likewise the people focus their attention upon what the priest is saying to them. Similarly, those caught in this mindset regard ad orientem in a similar fashion: in its relationship to the Christian community. This is why we hear speak of Mass said this way as being with "the priest's back to the people". To them, the priest is then ignoring the people, he is separated or indifferent to them and the faithful are merely passive spectators.

What is wrong in all this, and that which leads to this skewed vision, is the core understanding of the focus of the liturgy has come to rest on man and not upon God. Simple catechesis on the nature of the Holy Mass as a sacrifice and as ultimately and primarily directed to the worship of God the Father explains very quickly to the faithful why ad orientem is not Mass "with the priests back to the people", and not the priest ignoring the faithful, but rather Mass offered with the priest and the faithful together turned towards the Lord. Likewise, it explains to the priest why Mass incidentally said with himself and the faithful facing toward each other is not about his taking on an emcee approach to the liturgy, but rather is still to be oriented to God the Father.

To draw this back to our starting off point, in thinking about this misperception of the primary end and focus of the sacred liturgy, I began to think that perhaps our terminology itself needs to be modified to better reflect the reality of the sacred liturgy. Words do matter and they can be powerful means to teach truths and to remind us of them. Our present terms are quick, succinct and easy to use, but still I wonder if it would be better if rather than speaking of versus populum or "Mass facing the people" if we shouldn't speak of saying Mass ad Deum, versus navem ("to God, facing the nave"); and while far less problematic, perhaps instead of speaking of ad orientem we can match our terminology to speak of Mass said ad Deum, versus apsidem ("to God, facing the apse").

Unfortunately such terms are less graceful and succinct that our existing terms, and one also hates to outright lose an emphasis upon the sense of the East, whether actual or liturgical -- but of course this sense can be applied to either "versus apsidem" or "versus navem" when the liturgy is properly celebrated and all are properly catechized. Ultimately, my thinking behind these terms is that they focus upon the fact of Mass, in whatever direction it is being offered, is offered "ad Deum", to God. Likewise, by taking away the reference to Mass being said "versus populum" we take away the misunderstanding of Mass being said "ad populum", that is, to the people rather than to God. Hence one speaks of Mass not being directed to the people but rather toward the nave, versus navem. In short, the point of reference is not with regards the faithful gathered, because Mass is offered always to God, but merely reduced again to its rubrical connotation.

Ultimately this suggestion to re-think our terminology may not go anywhere, and perhaps it is not absolutely necessary in the end provided there is strong catechetical effort madeto re-teach proper liturgical orientation. Likewise, if common sacred direction of the priest and people where to come back into normative force much of this discussion could be moot as that liturgical action would say far more than words can ever say. Whatever happens down the road we are left with the rubrical and liturgical realities we face here and now. Thus we perhaps need to find ways to counteract the prevailing liturgical understanding and examine if any of our existing approaches, terminology and so forth somehow contributes of enforces that misunderstanding, thus legitimizing it.

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