Wednesday, June 14, 2006

CNS STORY: Conference: Priest facing east at Mass won't ensure focus on Jesus

[Please see my commentary at end]

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Having the priest face east, usually away from the people, when celebrating Mass is not a magic way to ensure that both the priest and the congregation focus on Jesus, said participants at a conference in northern Italy.

Father Enzo Bianchi, prior of the Bose ecumenical community and host of the conference, summarized the discussion in the June 14 edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.

The conference brought together Catholic liturgists, theologians and church architects from Europe, North and South America and liturgical experts from Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches.

The theme "Liturgical Space and Its Orientation" was chosen because of renewed research and debate about the placement of the altar in churches and the direction the priest and people face.

Father Bianchi said participants agreed that something must be done to help celebrants and congregations focus more firmly on Jesus and recover dimensions of the liturgy that have weakened since the Second Vatican Council.

In the old liturgy, when the priest faced east during the eucharistic prayer, not only was he not the focus of people's attention, but his posture was meant to evoke the Christian expectation of Christ coming again -- the Book of Revelation says he will come from the east -- and the "cosmological symbolism" of Christ being the sun that rises in the east, Father Bianchi said.

To recover those dimensions, he said, "that which appears urgent today is a profound rethinking of the position of the priest in respect to the faithful."

One of the speakers at the conference was Father Uwe Michael Lang, whose book "Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer," presents arguments for returning to the practice of having the celebrant facing east with his back to the congregation.

The book includes a foreword written in 2003 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger supporting Father Lang's thesis, but suggesting a more thorough, calmer discussion is needed.

In his own book, "The Spirit of the Liturgy," the cardinal, now pope, suggested that to avoid creating further disruption and confusion by changing the direction the priest faces, a crucifix placed on the altar or suspended above it could be an appropriate alternative.

Msgr. Stefano Russo, an official of the Italian bishops' conference, told participants that different aspects of the liturgy are highlighted by the direction the priest is facing; when the priest and people are looking at each other and at the altar, it emphasizes the communal aspect of the Mass, while the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is emphasized by the priest and people facing the same direction.

He said having the priest face the people "is not better or more correct" than having them face the same direction, "but is only more appropriate and coherent with the faith lived by believers today."

People must be honest enough to admit that either position "by itself is insufficient to convey the totality of the mystery celebrated," Msgr. Russo said. "No ritual form, no text or liturgical gesture could ever exhaust the richness of the mystery of God."

U.S. Jesuit Father Keith Pecklers, a professor of liturgy at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, said the conference was important for bringing balance to a discussion that has been used to polarize or label Catholics.

He told Catholic News Service that a key conclusion of the discussion was that priests need to be trained "to preside with grace, ease and transparency, drawing people to Christ and not focusing attention on themselves."

Link: CNS STORY: Conference: Priest facing east at Mass won't ensure focus on Jesus

NLM Commentary:

Let's first of all get the main point out of the way. Indeed, there is no "magic fix" and it is possible for a priest to celebrate the Mass versus populum in way which is reverent and God-centred. Fr. Christopher Smith's first mass DVD from St. Mary's, Greenville, was an evident example of this potentiality.

That being said, the sense I get from this liturgical conference is that at least some those present wish to maintain the status quo with some catechesis thrown on top -- though given all the quotations we see here, I must question how the conclusion could be as simplistic and seemingly insufficient as it is portrayed. I'd be interested in hearing the story of the conference from one who was there to see if this is "spin" by those who support the present liturgical practice and who wish to unduly emphasize that point or no.

Now the good thing about this conference is that the issue is being discussed, which demonstrates that it is now an issue that is tangibly "out there". Whether or not all take the perspective as a Fr. Lang, Cardinal Ratzinger, or many of us here, that much is at least a good thing. It means that, unlike the past few decades, the issue is no longer a marginalized issue, deemed only of consequence to some few.

Still, is the status quo enough? Indeed, we must train our priests in the ars celebrandi. This means taking away the undue imbalance prejudiced toward a horizontal sense of the liturgy, and restoring that vertical, Godward, eschatological dimension. This must not only be done with our priests, but also with the Catholic laity.

There is certainly a significant need to catechize in these regards. The thing which I think has perhaps been under-emphasized here (at least in the article) is the natural conclusion one would draw from the role of liturgical praxis in helping re-assert that catechesis, and re-confirm it. I think as well there is a need here to acknowledge that the present lack of catechesis of both priests and lay faithful is as such that there may be a need to put in place rubrics which help move us against the very modern temptation to make the liturgy self-centred.

The problem seems to be acknowledged and bravo for that. But if we acknowledge that while indeed versus populum isn't inherently inimical to a correct celebration of the liturgy, we need to ask these few questions:

What about tradition? Ad orientem had been the universal tradition, held for millenia and from the earliest days of Christianity, up until 40-50 years ago and the advent of the demise of the liturgical movement. Does tradition hold any sway at this point in the Latin church or no? That is a serious and important aspect to this issue.

What are the liturgical ills today they are referencing and are they more likely to be put in an "occasion of sin" (I use this analogously, not as literal sin) by versus populum than by ad orientem in the present climate at very least? The ills that are referenced are a lack of sense of the Mass as sacrificial, which in turn implies the lack of sense of the vertical dimension of the liturgy (which is primary); also the problem of the priest calling undue attention upon himself, which again also implies the former. To these I might add the over-emphasis upon the communal, and the lack of clear distinction between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of all the faithful. Clearly it is acknowledged that there is a need for a shift here: "that which appears urgent today is a profound rethinking of the position of the priest in respect to the faithful" said Fr. Bianchi.

What then accomplishes a sense of the liturgy which is communal as well as focused upon God; which emphasizes the sacrificial dimension of the liturgy and also the nature of the Christian priesthood? Given the problems we presently have, and given the television and entertainment culture we live in, it will be a very hard battle indeed for priests as well as the faithful, if we leave the present practice as is, especially in consideration of our fallen human nature inclined to self-centredness and pride. It will be very difficult indeed to resist and to root out the "emcee" approach at the altar and the liturgy to be all about us.

Second, given the relationship, lex orandi, lex credendi, it also seems that it will be difficult in this context and the dominant sense of the liturgy and priesthood that is presently out there, to merely make the switch by academic, catechetical means. It is also difficult to rely on individual priests, at individual parishes, as well as all the individual faithful, to shift their present liturgical habits, or the seminary/parish formation they have been or will be given, without there being some sort of objective rubrical change to help push the matter along and reinforce the intellectual catechesis.

A shift in practice would be very helpful, if not necessary if from only a practical (rather than theological) consideration. As well, the aspects of the Mass that we are presently "missing" in popular belief (not in formal teaching) are quite primary: sacrifice, worship, adoration, and the distinction bewteen the priest and the laity. If one can reasonably suggest that the former practice does give better emphasis upon these dimensions ("when the priest and people are looking at each other and at the altar, it emphasizes the communal aspect of the Mass, while the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is emphasized by the priest and people facing the same direction") and likewise acknowledge that these are serious issues, it seems logical that the most important task is to regain these lost aspects of belief by a means of shift in practice. Fr. Lang, in his work, has already laid out the "compromise" position in respect to the new liturgy which combines versus populum in respect to the Liturgy of the Word and those rites directed toward the lay faithful, and ad orientem in respect to the Liturgy of the Eucharist and that offered to God the Father.

Another question that must be asked: if the sense of worship, of sacrifice and of the Christian priesthood is lacking, does this not have an effect of distorting the communal dimension of the liturgy? Can not the communal dimension of the sacred liturgy only be properly understood within the context of these dimensions? In short, that which takes place in the context of the worshipping community of believers, communally present at the sacrifice of the altar, and communally worshipping God through the public liturgy of the Church? It seems to me that if these primary aspects are lacking, then even the communal aspect is lacking insofar as it is distorted, and in danger of becoming a self-centered celebration; a humanistic celebration. That being the case, all the more important is it to make these other aspects emphasized within the liturgy so that Christian community may be properly celebrated and realized.

I've already referenced the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi but this is also a question that must be posed. Is this not a Catholic principle? It seems well acknowledged that there is an intimate relationship between practice and belief. As such, it wouldn't seem to make much sense to speak about a need to re-catechize about the liturgy without giving great weight to this classic Catholic principle which testifies to the catechesis that comes from liturgical practice. In short, in the acknowledgement of the relationship of practice and belief insofar as belief informs practice and practice informs belief. We need both for a clear catechesis.

A couple of final comments.

When Msgr. Russo says this: "[versus populum is not better or more correct, it] is only more appropriate and coherent with the faith lived by believers today" what does he mean to suggest? If there is a significant lacking in priests approach to the liturgy which focuses attention upon themselves, and if as also comes out, there is a lack of understanding of the liturgy as sacrificial and as worship, then that "faith lived by believers today" is deficient. It therefore cannot be the standard. That Catholic Faith as given us by the Magisterium and Apostolic Tradition is the standard.

Finally, a thought about the possible CNS spin on this article. While it may be so that "having the priest face east... when celebrating Mass is not a magic way to ensure that both the priest and the congregation focus on Jesus", is this not missing the point? Rather than speaking about whether it is a "magic way", why not focus on whether it is a particularly effective way? To speak of whether something is or is not a magic way, it seems to me is not terribly honest. There are few "magic ways" with regards anything. And indeed, sometimes there are multiple ways. But where there are multiple ways, is there a way which is more effective, or will be most corrective in our present cirumstances? That is the real question, and it must not be avoided by unnecessary diversions about magic ways.

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