persons used to the
Novus Ordo (New Order) Mass of the 1960's sometimes complain that the priest
"has his back to the people" in the 'Tridentine' Mass. This outlook may arise
because such persons have no background in liturgical history, because they
don't understand the reasoning for this orientation, or possibly because they
are used to being "the center of attention" in the Novus Ordo Mass. In the
'Tridentine' Mass, however, the focus is not on the people, but on Almighty God,
who from the earliest days of the Church has been represented as coming from the
East. As Cardinal Ratzinger stated...
common turning to the east [the traditional position, wherein the priest and the
people face eastward, and not each other]...remains essential. This is
not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking
at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord."
(Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, emphasis added)
Such persons may
mistakenly believe the Second Vatican Council called for a change in
orientation, but this is not true. As stated by Michael Davies...
the people is not once mentioned in any conciliar document. It has never been
the general practice in any Apostolic Church, Catholic or [the schismatic]
Orthodox. The invariable tradition has been to celebrate Mass facing the East, a
symbol both of the Resurrection and the Second Coming."
mandating a celebration facing the people has ever been promulgated since the [Second
Note that facing a
particular direction for worship may be traced back even to the Jews before
Christ. According to Davies...
in its present sense of facing a particular direction, is a religious custom
which long pre-dated Christianity. The Jews, wherever they lived in the world,
turned to face the temple in Jerusalem when they prayed. So-called liturgical
'experts' today often attempt to justify Mass facing the people by stating Our
Lord did not turn His back upon His Apostles at the Last Supper. Of course He
didn't, but neither did He face them across a table. They were all on the same
side, facing the temple! It is thus nonsensical to claim that we are returning
to a practice of the Last Supper by adopting the practice of a celebration
facing the people. Similarly, it is equally nonsensical to claim that having
Mass in the vernacular is a return to what took place at the Last Supper. A
major part of the Jewish paschal liturgy was conducted in Hebrew, as it is
today. Hebrew was no more comprehensible to an ordinary Jew at the time of Our
Lord than Latin is to an ordinary Mexican today, even though Aramaic (the
language then used in Palestine), was derived from Hebrew, just as Spanish is
derived from Latin."
Further, it should
be noted that Mass facing the people is not historical - contrary to the claims
of some. As Davies states...
"[At] no time
in the history of the Church have altars ever been constructed specifically to
facilitate a celebration facing the people. As I have already shown, there is no
precedent in the entire history of the Church for celebrating Mass facing the
people as an act of conscious pastoral policy. The practice constitutes a
radical break with Tradition, and has been invested with an anti-sacrificial
signification since its adoption by Protestants as a sign that they believe
their Lord's Supper to be no more than a commemorative meal."
By facing the east,
the direction of the rising sun, we are facing the direction which symbolizes
the heavenly Jerusalem and in the direction in which Christ is expected to
the priest faces eastward, he also faces the Lord directly and really – in the
tabernacle. In fact, turning the priest around to face the people in the Novus
Ordo Mass necessitated removing the tabernacle – containing Our Lord – from the
altar. As Pope Pius XII said...
the Tabernacle from the Altar is tantamount to separating two things which, of
their very nature, must remain together."
Those who criticize
the traditional orientation of the priest are criticizing nearly the entire
history of the Church and are criticizing the Eastern rites. They may fail to
realize that what occurs at the altar is mysterious and does not need to be seen
by the people (note that "the solemn moments of the Eastern liturgy are
conducted behind the iconostasis and not seen by the people at all"). They may
fail to realize that "clearly seeing what occurs at the altar does not increase
our attention - but over time, attention from it may be reduced." They should
also reflect on the fact that one cannot actually see the Transubstantiation
occurring. They may have never reflected on the fact that the priest may be
distracted by the actions of the people and the people may be distracted by the
expressions and mannerisms of the priest. Also, it is fitting that we should not
see the face of the priest, since the priest acts in the place of Christ.
Finally, it should
be noted that it is fitting that the priest, who reconciles sinful man with his
offended God (cf. Mt. 16:19, Mt. 18:18) be focused on God, rather than on man...
"It should now
be apparent how fatuous it is to speak of the priest celebrating Mass with 'his
back to the people'. During Mass the priest stands between people and altar, a
mediator between God and man, the outermost representative of humanity, standing
at the very point where heaven and earth come together when God the Son is
brought down upon the altar as our Sacrificial Victim (hostia). The priest is
also like a shepherd in eastern countries. He does not need to drive his flock
from behind, to watch them lest they stray. [He] walks before them, leading them
to green pastures [for] the safety of their fold. They know him and he knows
them. But Catholics at worship today no longer look outwards and upwards to
heaven, no longer fix their hearts and minds upon Our Lord. Contemporary
Catholicism is an introspective religion, symbolized aptly by the turning round
of the altar so that, turned in upon themselves, priest and people can fix their
minds upon each other." (Davies)
Did you know?
It is still possible – thanks be to God! – to lawfully attend the
Traditional Latin Mass in which the priest utilizes the traditional
orientation (eastward). The Traditional Latin ('Tridentine') Mass differs from
the 1960's Novus Ordo Mass in many & significant ways (try
here for more information). To locate a Traditional Latin Mass in your area,
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