Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I am aware of a group of priests in a local institution who are celebrating the ordinary form of the Mass, oriented toward the tabernacle, in the local language. It is a large institution, with many resident clients, visitors and employees. I’ve heard a handful of mixed reactions from the faithful. A few approve, and many reacting with anger, feeling alienated. Some even say that they will never attend Mass at that institution. I was wondering, what do the documents say about the orientation of the priest during Mass? As well, what could your experience and learning provide? — A.G., New York
A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says the following in No. 299:
“The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. The altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The altar is usually fixed and is dedicated.”
The expression “desirable wherever possible” led some to think that Mass facing the altar was somehow forbidden or declared undesirable by the new edition of the missal. A prominent cardinal requested a clarification to the Congregation for Divine Worship, which replied on September 25, 2000, with a letter signed by the prefect and the secretary of the congregation. The letter states:
“In the first place, it is to be borne in mind that the word expedit does not constitute an obligation, but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete seiunctum (detached from the wall) and to the celebration versus populum (towards the people). The clause ubi possibile sit (where it is possible) refers to different elements, as, for example, the topography of the place, the availability of space, the artistic value of the existing altar, the sensibility of the people participating in the celebrations in a particular church, etc. It reaffirms that the position towards the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier (cf. the editorial in Notitiae 29  245-49), without excluding, however, the other possibility.
“However, whatever may be the position of the celebrating priest, it is clear that the eucharistic sacrifice is offered to the one and triune God and that the principal, eternal, and high priest is Jesus Christ, who acts through the ministry of the priest who visibly presides as His instrument. The liturgical assembly participates in the celebration in virtue of the common priesthood of the faithful which requires the ministry of the ordained priest to be exercised in the eucharistic synaxis. The physical position, especially with respect to the communication among the various members of the assembly, must be distinguished from the interior spiritual orientation of all. It would be a grave error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is towards the community. If the priest celebrates versus populum, which is legitimate and often advisable, his spiritual attitude ought always to be versus Deum per Iesum Christum (towards God through Jesus Christ), as representative of the entire Church. The Church as well, which takes concrete form in the assembly which participates, is entirely turned versus Deum (towards God) as its first spiritual movement.”
The reply was published in Communicationes, the official publication of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts, CCCIC 32 (2000): 171-72. The English translation is taken from Adoremus Bulletin Online Edition, vol. 6, no. 9 (December 2000-January 2001).
It is therefore clear that the possibility of celebrating toward the altar is a legitimate one. The rubrics of the Roman Missal foresee this possibility by indicating the moments when the priest should turn toward the people, such as for the greetings and the “Behold the Lamb of God.”
In St Peter’s Basilica almost every altar, including the tomb of St. John Paul II, require this orientation when celebrating Mass. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have adopted this orientation when celebrating in the Sistine Chapel. Some other bishops have also done so in their cathedrals.
We could say that, unless this form of celebration is used or is proposed as somehow more orthodox than Mass facing the people, there is no theological objection. This was also stated by the Congregation for Divine Worship in the year 2000, in response to an American bishop who was concerned about some who asserted that there was something wrong with Mass facing the people. This letter, dated February 8, 2000, states:
“As regards the position of the celebrating priest at the altar during Holy Mass, it is true as Your Excellency indicates that the rubrics of the Roman Missal, and in particular the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, foresee that the priest will face the body of people in the nave while leaving open the possibility of his celebrating towards the apse. These two options carry with them no theological or disciplinary stigma of any kind. It is therefore incorrect and indeed quite unacceptable that anyone affirm, as Your Excellency sums up this view, that to celebrate towards the apse ‘is a theologically preferable or more orthodox choice for a priest who wishes to be true to the Church’s authentic tradition.'” [Origens (2001) 599-600]
In the light of all this, we can say that the decision is basically logistical, insofar as it can depend on the structure of the church and pastoral as to what is best for the faithful.
Unfortunately, some members of the faithful have developed the idea that facing the altar is to turn one’s back to the people. This idea was non-existent in all the centuries that Mass was celebrated facing the altar and is non-existent in practically all the Eastern Catholic Churches which continue to do so.
The fundamental idea, as mentioned in the first letter above, is that all together face God. When the priest turned toward the altar, it meant that all together, priest and people, turned toward the Lord. For this reason, during the Eucharistic Prayer, even when celebrating facing toward the assembly, the priest does not usually make eye contact with the people because he is not speaking directly to them but speaking to the heavenly Father on their behalf.
However, given that this reality is often misunderstood, it is necessary to explain to the faithful why the decision to face the altar has been taken, so as to avoid anybody feeling alienated due to a lack of formation regarding the spiritual sense behind either option of liturgical orientation.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.