The Normativity of Ad Orientem Worship According to the Ordinary Form’s Rubrics
Today, most people who take a serious interest in liturgy know that celebrating Mass “facing the people” or versus populum was never mentioned even once in the documents of Vatican II, that it was never mandated by any law or instruction of the Church, that the Vatican said historic high altars should continue to be used and not supplanted by table altars, and that it remains perfectly lawful for any priest at any time to celebrate Mass “facing east” or ad orientem.
What is still not known nearly as well as it should be is the simple fact that the very rubrics of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite demonstrate the normativity of the traditional orientation of prayer at Mass. Every edition of the Novus Ordo Missae, from the earliest down to the latest revised translation, contains rubrics that clearly presuppose that the priest is facing the altar or “liturgical east” and that he will need to turn around to address the people at various points.
For some readers this will be familiar territory, but for others, it may be one of those obvious points that has nevertheless managed to escape notice until now. Below, I will simply reproduce the texts that contain instructions pertinent to the priest’s position vis-à-vis the people.
From “The Order of Mass” (MR 2002/2008 in the current English translation)
(Numbers below refer to the internal numbers in the Missal. The quoted texts are taken verbatim from the current Missal.)
1. When the people are gathered, the Priest approaches the altar with the ministers while the Entrance Chant is sung. When he has arrived at the altar, after making a profound bow with the ministers, the Priest venerates the altar with a kiss and, if appropriate, incenses the cross and the altar. Then, with the ministers, he goes to the chair. When the Entrance Chant is concluded, the Priest and the faithful, standing, sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, while the Priest, facing the people, says: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The people reply: “Amen.”
23. The Priest, standing at the altar, takes the paten with the bread and holds it slightly raised above the altar with both hands, saying in a low voice: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” Then he places the paten with the bread on the corporal. If, however, the Offertory Chant is not sung, the Priest may speak these words aloud; at the end, the people may acclaim: “Blessed be God for ever.”
(24. Water and wine. 25. The prayer over the chalice. 26. “With humble spirit…” 27. Incensations.)
28. Then the Priest, standing at the side of the altar, washes his hands, saying quietly: “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”
29. Standing at the middle of the altar, facing the people, extending and then joining his hands, he says: “Pray, brethren…”
If the priest were assumed to be always or normatively facing the people throughout the offertory, there would be no need for the rubric to specify that at the “Pray, brethren” he should now be “facing the people.” This phrase is to be taken in contraposition to “standing at the altar,” i.e., in the ad orientem position.
After the Preface, the Eucharistic Prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer, we come to the giving of peace:
127. The Priest, turned towards the people, extending and then joining his hands, adds: “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” The people reply: “And with your spirit.”
Again, if during the Eucharistic Prayer and ensuing Communion Rite the priest had already been facing the people throughout, the boldfaced rubric would be superfluous. There is no reason to specify that the peace should be given “turned towards the people” unless he has been turned away from them until this point.
Summarizing the next few paragraphs: 128. If appropriate, the sign of peace. 129. Fracture. (Note that if the priest is celebrating ad orientem, he will be turning towards the Lord again at this point — which will make sense out of the upcoming n. 132, as we shall see below.) 130. Agnus Dei. 131. Prayer before communion.
132. The Priest genuflects, takes the host and, holding it slightly raised above the paten or above the chalice, while facing the people, says aloud: “Behold the Lamb of God…”
Here and in the following number, the rubrical presupposition of eastward celebration is particularly obvious. If we imagine that the priest is celebrating versus populum, it would be strangely inconsequential for the rubrics to say that he should be turned towards the people at the giving of peace (n. 127) and then to note again, a mere matter of moments later, that he should be “facing the people” for the “Behold the Lamb of God” (n. 132). The obvious implication is that between these two moments, he must have turned eastwards to face the Lord present upon the altar of sacrifice. Once he picks up the host and paten or host and chalice, he then needs to turn around again to address the people. This reading is confirmed by n. 133.
133. The Priest, facing the altar, says quietly: “May the Body of Christ keep me safe for eternal life. And he reverently consumes the Body of Christ.”…
Again, if “facing the altar” and “facing the people” mean one and the same thing, as they do in a versus populum scenario, this phrase is meaningless. But once we re-envision the rubrics in the context of an ad orientem celebration, it all clicks into place. The pattern goes like this:
- From the Prayer over the Gifts to the giving of peace, the priest has been facing ad orientem.
- At the giving of peace, he turns around to address the congregation (n. 127).
- He turns again to the altar for the fraction, Agnus Dei, and prayer before communion.
- He turns to the people to say “Behold the Lamb of God…” (n. 132).
- He faces the altar again to consume the precious Body and Blood of Christ (n. 133).
This may sound like a lot of turning back and forth, but as clergy and faithful know who have attended Ordinary Form Masses celebrated in perfect accord with these rubrics, the actions flow smoothly and, what is far more important, they make sense. When addressing primarily the people, the priest faces them; when addressing primarily God, he remains in the normative position of facing Him, symbolized by the east and, after the consecration, truly present upon the altar of sacrifice.
139. Then, standing at the altar or at the chair and facing the people, with hands joined, the Priest says: “Let us pray.” All pray in silence with the Priest for a while, unless silence has just been observed. Then the Priest, with hands extended, says the Prayer after Communion, at the end of which the people acclaim: “Amen.”
It should not be necessary by now to point out that if there exists a need to specify that the priest ought to be facing the people for the Prayer after Communion, it is because he cleansed the vessels in his usual posture for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, viz., standing at the western side of the altar, facing eastwards.
140. If they are necessary, any brief announcements to the people follow here.
141. Then the dismissal takes place. The Priest, facing the people and extending his hands, says: “The Lord be with you…”
The phrase “facing the people” would seem superfluous here, but the possibility of an interruption by announcements might prompt a question about the stance the priest should take up afterwards. In any case, this rubric falls into the pattern of the priest being told to face the people when saying “The Lord be with you,” with some notable exceptions: see n. 31 and all the Preface dialogues, where the priest is never told to be facing the people.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2011, 2nd ed.) matches the foregoing rubrics in every respect, with the same implications as above. One may consult GIRM 124, 146, 154, 157, 158, and 165; cf. 181, 185, 243, 244, 257, 268. The controversy over the egregious mistranslation of GIRM 299 is not our concern at present; see here to read more. I will limit myself to the observation that one who clings to the mistranslation of n. 299 effectively consigns over a dozen other paragraphs of the GIRM, namely those listed above, to incoherence or total superfluity.
Particularly striking, in any case, is this passage from GIRM 2:
[T]he doctrine which stands out in the following sentence, already notable and concisely expressed in the ancient Sacramentary commonly called the Leonine — “for whenever the memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated the work of our redemption is accomplished” — is aptly and exactly expounded in the Eucharistic Prayers; for as in these the Priest enacts the anamnesis, while turned towards God likewise in the name of all the people, he renders thanks and offers the living and holy sacrifice, that is, the Church’s oblation and the sacrificial Victim by whose death God himself willed to reconcile us to himself; and the Priest also prays that the Body and Blood of Christ may be a sacrifice which is acceptable to the Father and which brings salvation to the whole world.
Part of the new liturgical movement is surely rediscovering how just and right it is when the priest is “turned towards God in the name of all the people” — and when the people, facing east together with him, offer up the sacrifice of praise.
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