Ad Orientum or Populum

In an icon, the figures all face towards the viewer.  If there are multiple figures, they don’t face each other, don’t look at each other, but relate directly to the person standing before them, ready to pray and venerate.  Only minor figures are occasionally shown in profile, or figures of evil such as a devil tempting someone, or Judas among the apostles, because our faith is one of relationship, and it is not conducive of good relationship to turn away. When figures do turn towards each other in the image, they are shown in a 3/4 view, both eyes visible, and directed outward and not towards each other.  They are leading us to prayer by relating to us personally, and inviting us with posture, gesture, and eye contact.

Myrrhbearing women at the tomb

Perhaps this understanding has colored my perception of the ongoing discussion of whether it is best for the priest to face the tabernacle/crucifix/east,  or the people, during the Mass.  This, plus my memories of being a small child attending pre-Vatican II Masses with my parents on Sundays.  The priest had his back to the congregation, facing the east, and the Mass was said in Latin then.  Altar boys spoke the responses for us, while all around elderly men dozed, elderly woman said their rosaries, children read picture books of Bible stories or their illustrated missals.  Adults remaining attentive did so by following along in their own missals, or said their private prayers.  It is no surprise to me that even today, enough of this legacy persists to make Catholics notoriously lax in praying aloud, singing together, or responding with enthusiasm, compared to our Protestant brothers and sisters. 

The atmosphere of the Mass was for me distant, obscure.  The view of the backs of the priest and altar boys kept it remote and more of a performance to my child-eye view, a performance that neither interested nor involved me.  It went on without me, indifferent to my presence.

Honestly, though, the language used at Mass is as important in these observations as the orientation is for me, probably more so. The use of Latin especially (a language that I do not know nor understand a single word of besides “Domini”) kept it intellectual and detached.  No wonder people brought along something to read, or a rosary to say, or special intentions to pray for privately, while they waited for the Consecration and Communion.

But after Vatican II, wow.  I was galvanized, mesmerized and following every second of the Mass, not with a missal & pictures, but directly feeling part of it all.  It became my worship, my prayer, and I felt that I was an active and important part of the liturgy.  I didn’t then, and still do not, feel that the reverence is lost from the Mass said facing the people, and in the vernacular.   It is like sitting at the Last Supper with Jesus, solemn and reverent, watching Jesus’ hands move over the bread and the cup, hearing the words spoken, with wonder and awe.  All of us, sitting together at the table, part of the mystery of salvation and redemption.

I love the simple elegance of our current Roman Mass, no matter what kind of music is played at our parish.  Here, the sense of worship is never lost.  The readings and homilies are listened to attentively.  At the moment of Consecration, the entire place is absolutely still, absolutely engrossed, absolutely focussed.  It is not just my parish that is that way:  I would like to quote an excerpt from a recent post from the blog, New Things:

As the Holy Father was preparing for the Mass, the cameras panned over the crowds and you could hear occasional loud hoots and hollerings when the audience caught a glimpse of themselves on the screen.  I was initially bothered by this, don’t they know that the Mass is being prepared and a solemn, beautiful thing is about to happen.  I wondered aloud if they could all hear what is happening?  The back of the crowd looks to be several blocks away from what is taking place on the altar.

A fb friend shared an aerial view of the phenomena, and I could see several large screens set up, and I’m sure there are speakers as well.  As the Holy Father began the consecration, a beautiful, amazing thing happened.  An estimated number of 3 million observers and participants went from a dull roar (with occasional loud bursts of hooting and hollering) to complete silence, as the prayer of the priest was performed, and Jesus was made present for us again in the Eucharist.

What a beautiful witness of unity.

I don’t know which way the Holy Father was facing, or if he spoke in Latin or the venacular, but I know that the essence of the Mass does inspire reverence and awe in people of faith.  I am glad that in the long run, our church is big enough to celebrate both ways and touch the souls of worshippers in the most effective way for them.

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About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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8 Responses to Ad Orientum or Populum

  1. Lyn says:

    I’m still a baby Catholic, lol…so all of this is new and wonderful to me. I think the Latin is beautiful, but, like you, I can’t imagine being able to really participate if I don’t know what it means. I do understand some of it, but it’s by will…you have to learn it first, and know how to say it right, and know what it means, all at the same time. For a wee brain like mine, that’s a lot to ask, lol. I love the readings, and the responsorial psalms, and the unity of praying together, with understanding. I love being able to see the face and movements of the priest, of course, I have never known it any other way, but I like eye contact, and to feel connected…

    I agree, it’s awesome when a church can offer both, so that there is a choice for those who desire the Latin, and those who prefer the English.

    Good thoughts, Kat.

  2. Biltrix says:

    Cardinal Ratzinger, before becoming Pope, made a great reflection about this in Spirit of the Liturgy. He suggests that the notion behind the term “ad populum” is misguided. His point is that whether the priest is facing the people or not, the whole congregation faces Christ in the Eucharist at the center. This was also the symbolic significance of facing ad orientem, toward the rising sun, which early Christians related to Christ’s resurrection. This meaning is also preserved, in a different way, in cruciform Churches. Ratzinger makes the point that in this case the fact that the priest faces the people is only incidental, because the whole congregation and the priest faces the center of the cross, where Christ becomes really present during the consecration, and that should be the focal point of the Mass.

    His point is that understanding the significance of postures and gestures in the Liturgy aids our participation, and in turn, fuller participation lends itself to our understanding these elements of the Liturgy. Of course, post-Vatican II adaptations, such as praying in the vernacular, more active participation of the laity, and the personable touch that face to face contact with the priest give us are strong aids that facilitate our participation and understanding.

    I never attended a Tridentine Rite Mass (or extraordinary form of the ordinary rite — too verbose for me), but I have been to several Masses at side altars positioned against a wall. It’s a different experience of the Mass and it does affect my participation. I’m not sure why, but it makes me more attentive. It also adds to the sense of awe, wonder, and reverence for me since we are all facing in the same direction, worshiping God (and it does not make a difference if we are facing East or not). However, I still prefer to have the priest facing the congregation and would not want to go back to doing it the other way.

    Cardinal Ratzinger may have been right in suggesting that the discussion over “ad populum” vs “with his back toward the people” hinges on a false distinction; but in effect, that’s is the experience we naturally have and it does make a huge positive difference. The vast majority Catholics, when asked whether they prefer the priest “facing the people” or “with his back to the people” would definitely say, “facing the people.” It was a change for the good, and at this point, there’s no turning back!

  3. reinkat says:

    Thanks for the comment, Biltrix, and your explanations. It surprises me how much controversy there is about this, but it shouldn’t. The way that people prefer to pray is deeply personal and very important. It is good that we are now able to enjoy both or either ways, according to how our own spirit moves us. I love to hear of people’s own impressions and personal stories.

    Some more anecdotes: A few years back, we were bringing an elderly (90 year old) woman to church with us every Sunday. She had never adapted herself to the English “new” mass, and continued to say her rosary to herself throughout the entire liturgy, stopping only to listen to the homily.

    I am surprised that you have never been to a Tridentine Mass. I guess I am showing my age here, actually remembering it as being the norm.
    It was first offered here (again) a year or two ago (still is, once a month I think). I went with a friend, a convert of 10 years or so. After we left the church, we looked at each other. She said to me “I’m glad that I went, for the experience, but if that was the way Mass always was, I would leave the church.” Upon reflection, I have to agree. And so I thank God that there is the other option, and rejoice that through both kinds of celebration, we are all brought closer to our beloved Lord.

    • Biltrix says:

      Thanks for sharing these reflections. I have to agree that we are blessed to have such richness in the Church and we can appreciate both the old and the new.

      I might have mentioned this before at one point, but I’m the first “cradle Catholic” in the family. My parents converted from being Methodists shortly after they were married and shortly before they brought me into the world. This all occurred as the Second Vatican Council was being wrapped up. RCIA did not exist back then, and weird practices were being introduced at that time — for example, my parents were “rebaptized,” but were not confirmed when the came into the Church. In fact, I was confirmed 5 years before they were (and now my Dad’s a deacon). We sort of learned our faith together over the years, and in many ways, we taught each other. It was like a gradual, natural awakening.

      I saw a video taped Tridentine mass when I was in my 30s and that was the only time I witnessed it, except for in pictures. My impression was like that of your friend. They had a choir sining beautiful polyphonic music I’d never heard before for some of the invariable parts of the Mass. All the incense and gestures and vestments were “awesome,” in the true sense of the word, because it made visible their reverence toward God. Anyone seeing it would have to say, “This is worship.” Unfortunately, people don’t always come away from our current liturgy with the same impression (but they don’t pray the rosary during Mass either).

      And here’s what I came away with: Thank God I don’t have to sit through that every Sunday! I don’t think I could tolerate it.

      Well, that’s obviously not the only thing I came away with. The irony was actually a bit unsettling to me. Liturgists can do a lot more to make the Eucharistic Celebration a meaningful experience for everyone and not just a Sunday obligation. It isn’t as though they are not doing enough things — we don’t need to add more things and we don’t necessarily need to change things. As Jesus said to Martha, there is only one thing needed, namely, Christ at the center and meaningful participation in the mystery of Christ that we celebrate in every Eucharist. When people experience that, they walk a way (are sent) with something that will never be taken from them.

      The book I mentioned, Spirit of the Liturgy, by Cardinal Ratzinger (at the time of the book’s publication) gives a lot of insight into this whole issue. It has a really good chapter on sacred art, by the way. I wish more people, especially liturgists, would read it and take it to heart.

  4. geloruma says:

    Hi Reinkat,
    I also have the blessing of my father (R.I.P) being a Catholic DeaconHe too was baptised a Methodist, (in the 1930’s) . I have seven sisters and one brother, all Catholic, one marrried to a Methodist and two to Anglicans. ( more in common than I thought yesterday…) As a close knit family we attend a variety of services, within that spectrum. We blend in to whatever church service we are at – however, I wouldn’t ask them to come to a Tridentine high mass with me as it lasts on average three hours. (One reason I don’t go to them often)
    Perhaps that is my predjudice though, as last month a group of protestant ladies wondered into the shrine of Saint Philomena, entranced by the sung Latin….and they stayed because they found the whole thing beautiful. If more people had understood why the priest faced east, they may have been o.k. with it; there was a sad lack of catechesis in the 60’s and 70’s. I suppose anyones words can be mis- interpreted, just as was Vatican two. My only problem with Novus Ordo, is that in the priest facing the people, there is more emphasis on his personality ( as often happens with protestant preachers) than focusing on the person of Christ. Not the case for Padre Pio of course, but he was exceptional.

  5. reinkat says:

    I really appreciate the comments here from Biltrix and geloruma. Thank you for sharing part of your own stories. You got me thinking more about this. I will be looking up the book Spirit of the Liturgy. It sounds like a very relevant and interesting book. I like the author, too. 🙂

    Back to the Mass: I think that for me it is more of a language thing than an orientation. I like it once in a while, having a Latin High Mass. Just the same way I like Orthodox Divine LIturgy, or an Eastern Rite Catholic Liturgy. They are different, reverent, beautiful, all of them. But, still, like you both, I would prefer not to sit through that week after week. I love the intimacy of the Novus Ordo Mass. I love knowing exactly what is happening. Having the priest’s personality play a part happens because we are human, but overall, the focus is on Christ each and every time for practicing Catholics. The priest’s personality plays an even larger part in the homily, it seems to me.

    The beauty of the Latin Mass on occasion: I liken it to my experience of an album of sacred music that I have, by the soprano Leontyne Price. On that recording, she sings both versions of Ave Maria: the Schubert one in German, and the Bach one in Latin. Naturally I understand neither. But I listen, and am deeply moved by the tone, the emotion in her voice. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. LIke the sight of the vestments, the scent of incense, the chanting choirs . . . I know that I am experiencing true prayer and it lifts me along with it in prayer and worship as well. A wordless expression, and as an artist, I do have appreciation for that! In a similar way, I really enjoy playing a CD recording of Gregorian Chant—never understanding a word the monks say, just carried along by the prayerfulness and tone of praise and worship.

    And it is for me wordless and all tone: I will confess that although I am a cradle Catholic, and went to 12 years of Catholic school, mostly in the post-Vatican2 era, I am very ignorant about many things. Latin? Well, as much as I love my musical renditions of Ave Maria, it has only been the last 8 or 10 years or so that I finally realized what the words meant. Nobody I had asked previously ever had a clue–or didn’t believe that my question was sincere. There are other things, too, that I am still trying to find out: what is the Angelus. What is Te Deum. Stuff like that. What is Deus ibi est, some lyrics from a Latin-language song whose spelling I might have all wrong? (My son and I figured out that Deus must mean God, but he says it means “God’s on CBS”. Somehow I doubt it, but it’s the best guess I’ve heard so far.)

    Anyway, enough of that. My point with the language is that I can love the beautiful sounds, and enjoy those visual/sensual expressions of faith, but I think saying the Mass in the vernacular makes it so much better for most people. By understanding what we say, truly, and in all of its connotations, we grow in faith and love with every celebration of the Mass. Being able to make eye contact and respond verbally enhances that experience, and I do hope that we will always have that option available.

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