Sunday, October 08, 2006

Lord, to whom shall we turn?

[An NLM Guest article by frequent contributor and vestment maker, Michael Sternbeck of Australia. Michael wishes to propose a discussion about the posture of the celebrant at a modern Roman rite liturgy outside of the question of the liturgy of the Eucharist, wherein the priest is at the altar. The piece is theoretical and intended to promote debate and discussion given its theoretical nature.Fr. Michael Lang takes up this question in his own way in his excellent book, Turning Towards the Lord, which is well worth a read.

One caveat I should like to personally note: the issue of the well-established precedent of "versus populum" is, I think, not necessarily so well-established. I should again like to direct people to Fr. Lang on this point. That caveat aside, the article:]

by Michael Sternbeck

Although there is a great deal of discussion now and a body of scholarship concerning the revival of the celebration of Mass ad orientem, I have found that this discussion is almost entirely limited to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Yet, the principle concerns the orientation of Liturgical prayer throughout the entirety of the Mass. Amongst the many innovations introduced after the Council was a provision (Ritus Servandus 1965, no. 23) for the celebrant to pray the Kyrie, Gloria, Collect and Creed at a sedilia, rather than at the altar (as had previously obtained). This provision was, of course, taken a step further with the introduction of the new Missal in 1970.

Dom Emmanuel of the Benedictine Abbey of Le Barroux gave a paper to the 1997 CIEL Conference about this topic. In a comprehensive analysis, which discusses firstly the position of the celebrant during the Kyrie, Gloria, Collect and Creed and secondly, the celebrant during the readings from the Scripture, he reached this conclusion:

Do we find that the law in force until 1962 is universally attested in the history of the Roman Mass, or do we find that there are exceptions? Having finished our enquiry we may now answer this question: as far we can judge from the texts currently available, the Roman Mass, both according to the use of the [Roman] Curia and those of the dioceses and religious orders, show us that the simple priest is at the altar for the Gloria, the Collect and the Creed, and that this is the case until 1962. So the Ordo Missae of 1965 departs from the common (and almost universal) practice up to that point when it prescribes that the simple priest may carry out these functions at his seat. For the readings the celebrant goes to his chair near the altar. By having the celebrant positioned at the sedilia for the readings, the Ordo Missae of 1965 (and then that of 1970) do not depart from what we know of Roman usage (taken as a whole) through the centuries.

Dom Emmanuel's study and of course many other works on liturgical history, reveal that in the early church (and we know that from archaeological evidence as well the ancient churches which still exist) the Cathedra of the bishop was mostly placed in the apse, behind the altar, with benches for the presbyters on either side. This was a position, as Dom Emmanuel concludes, which emphasised the jurisdiction of the Bishop. He argues, however, that it never was customary in the Western liturgy for the priest-celebrant to occupy such a position, because he did not have jurisdiction. Instead, as Dom Emmanuel discusses, the priest celebrant recited the Kyrie, Gloria and Collect at or near to the altar ad orientem. Similarly, a bishop who did not have jurisdiction occupied a seat on the right of the altar, but read those prayers from that position ad orientem.

Leaving aside the issue of the priest-celebrant facing the people at the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist (for which, of course there is well-established precedent in liturgical history which was used as the basis for the reinstatement of "Mass facing the people"), what I would like identify is that an entirely new concept has been introduced into the 1970 Mass, namely, the priest-celebrant as Presider. To me, this seems nowhere more prominent in the New Order of Mass than in the Introductory Rite: a rite which is an innovation in the history of the Western liturgy. Furthermore, this role of Presider is codified by the instruction on where the chair of the celebrant is to be placed within the sanctuary: namely at the head of the sanctuary in an apse; in short behind the altar (GIRM 271):

The chair of the celebrant should indicate his role of presiding over the assembly and of leading the prayers. Hence the most suitable position is at the head of the sanctuary facing the people, unless the construction of the building or other circumstances prevents this; for instance, if communication between the priest and the assembly of the faithful is made difficult because of too great a distance.

Both the position of the chair of the priest-celebrant (which emphasises "presidence") and the offering of prayers (facing the congregation) from that chair, instead of before the altar, represent a break with Liturgical Tradition. I would like to suggest that this particular break with Tradition has largely facilitated the widespread distortion where right from the beginning of the Liturgy the priest becomes more of a compere or emcee, rather than a celebrant.

What might be done, to recapture the Church's tradition at this point in the new rite of Mass? In many places, this has begun already to happen, where priests have felt uncomfortable with the prominence of their (often elevated) chairs, and have opted to place the chair at the side of the sanctuary in front of the altar, in the manner of sedilia. I have also read where some priests with chairs in the position just described, have turned slightly toward the altar (rather than toward the congregation) for the Penitential Rite, Gloria and Collect. All of this would seem to be able to take place within the current framework of the new rite of Mass. It also does not exclude the celebrant giving a brief introduction to the Mass, but it might be hoped that this is quite distinct from the prayers of the Rite itself.

What about a reform to re-instate the tradition? Something like this: The celebrant might conduct the Penitential Rite ad orientem "at the foot of the altar", then go up to the altar for the Kyrie, Gloria and Collect. Then he could go to the sedilia for the reading of the Scripture. He would bless the deacon (and incense, if it used) at the altar, not the sedilia. After the Gospel, he would return to the altar for the Creed and General Intercessions (both ad orientem). Note that these ceremonial positions might be used even if the Liturgy of the Eucharist continued to be celebrated versus populum. In fact, this might be a gradual way of reintroducing ad orientem to the entire Mass.

Some thoughts for consideration.

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