Nov 15, 1999

Bishop’s Decree Raises Questions

Online Edition – Vol. V, No. 8: November 1999

Bishop’s Decree Raises Questions

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

A decree issued by Birmingham Bishop David Foley forbidding any priest within his diocese to celebrate Mass facing the altar rather than facing the congregation has raised many questions across the spectrum of liturgical opinion.

The decree was sent to all priests and "juridical persons" in the diocese on October 18, to take effect on November 18.

The bishop’s introduction to the decree stated that a "well-intentioned but flawed movement" encourages priests "to take liberties with the Mass by celebrating in a manner called ad orientem, that is, with their backs to the people" without the permission of a bishop.

"This amounts to making a political statement, and is dividing the people", Bishop Foley wrote.

Two elements of Church law form the canonical basis for the bishop’s decree.

First, the bishop states that the practice of facing the people is a "legal custom" in the diocese; that is, it has been "legitimately observed for thirty continuous and complete years" (Canon 26); therefore the tradition (or "immemorial custom") of facing the altar is abrogated.

Second, he cites the authority of a bishop to govern the liturgy in his own diocese: "As bishop of this diocese, I have, as the successor of the apostles in union with the Holy Father, the absolute duty to protect it from innovation or sacrilege".

The decree, issued as a "particular law for the diocese of Birmingham in Alabama", proclaims that:

1. In churches and shrines, as well as oratories where Mass is open to the public, the priest celebrating the Eucharist at a free-standing altar is to face the people.

2. At any Mass that is or will be televised for broadcast or videotaped for public dissemination, the priest is to use a free-standing altar and face the people.

These norms apply to all priests who celebrate the public Eucharistic liturgy of the Roman rite within the diocese of Birmingham, including visiting priests.

A priest who violates either of these laws is liable to suspension or removal of faculties.

The second paragraph of the decree seems aimed primarily at the Eternal Word Television Network, located near Birmingham. EWTN televises the Masses celebrated, often by visiting priests from outside the diocese, for the cloistered Poor Clare nuns of Our Lady of the Angels. Mother Angelica, who founded EWTN in the mid 1980s, is abbess of the monastery.

Critics of Mother Angelica and her network have complained that the televised Masses are too traditional, and the network too influential. For the past several years, resident and visiting priests have usually celebrated Mass in Latin (Novus Ordo) in the small monastery chapel. They also face the altar, which is not free-standing, rather than the congregation of EWTN visitors and staff, though they face the cloistered nuns through a screen.

Bishop Foley, who has been bishop of Birmingham since 1994, and was auxiliary bishop of Richmond, Virginia, for the preceding eight years, was to have been the principal celebrant at the consecration of the nuns’ new, much larger chapel, originally scheduled for November 21. The consecration of the new church was postponed because of construction delays, according to EWTN officials.

Bishop Foley has also had a regular series on EWTN, and is a member of its board of directors. In August, Bishop Foley dedicated a new monastery for the nuns, and led a solemn procession with the nuns and invited guests chanting hymns in Latin. The nuns moved into their new quarters about 30 miles from Birmingham in September.

The unusual decree involves several important issues that have far-reaching consequences. It is beyond dispute that a bishop has, as the decree indicates, the right and responsibility to assure that the liturgy is celebrated according to Church law within his own diocese and to eradicate all abuses; and Catholics are to accept the authority of their bishop. Indeed, many faithful Catholics are rightly concerned about serious divisions within the Church caused by disobedience to the Magisterium, and think that most bishops are far too tolerant of even the most egregious liturgical abuses.

But there remain some unanswered questions, mainly concerning Church law. For example, can a bishop prohibit for his diocese a practice that is permitted as an option in the universal Church? What is the intention of the "custom" canon, and how is a canonically binding custom which "abrogates" a traditional practice determined?

Other related questions arise. Could a bishop legitimately decree that all people are to stand (or to kneel) for the entire Communion Rite? Could he require that all priests who say Mass in his diocese must use exclusively, say, Eucharistic Prayer II, or that they may never use it? Is it within the power of a local bishop to decree that Mass may only be said in Latin, or only in English or Spanish? Since receiving Communion standing has become standard practice since the Council, could a bishop invoke the "custom" canon to order the removal of all Communion rails from churches and forbid any priest in his diocese to administer Communion to people who are kneeling?

A related issue: does the recent Vatican decision confirming the right of priests belonging to the Fraternity of Saint Peter to celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass indicate that a religious superior cannot restrict a practice permitted for the universal Church?

The answer to these questions is still unclear.

Concerning custom in this particular issue, universal Church law has never forbidden a priest to face the altar (ad orientem) instead of toward the people (versus populum) when he celebrates Mass with a congregation. Although since the Council it has become common practice for the priest to face the congregation, this has not been made explicit law. References to the posture of the priest occur several times in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], first published in 1969. These GIRM references [see bottom of page], since they explicitly specify certain points during the Mass at which the priest is to face the people, imply that facing the altar, as was the traditional practice of the Catholic Church for many centuries, may still be considered the norm, not an abuse (much less an "innovation" or "sacrilege", as the decree implies).

More recently, a 1993 commentary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments addressing the issue, "Praying ‘Ad Orientem Versus‘", was published in Notitiae, an official publication of the Holy See [Notitiae 322, Vol. 29 (1993) Num. 5, 245-249]. The article proposed "points for reflection" in response to questions that had arisen concerning this matter. While affirming versus populum in general, the article makes several important clarifying points.

"The Church celebrates the Eucharist necessarily turned toward the Lord, in communion with Him and through Him directs herself to the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit", the article says. The placing of the priest and of the faithful in relationship to the "mystical table" has found different forms in various periods of history with different symbolic explanations, the article observes, but says that any one of these cannot be considered an "integral and basic part of the Christian faith".

The article stated that "to celebrate turned to the people" is not a theological issue but a "topographical-positional" matter: "Theologically the Mass is always turned to God and turned to the people…. Only in the dialogues from the altar does the priest speak to the people. All the rest is prayer to the Father mediated through Christ in the Holy Spirit. This theology must be able to be visible".

The article also said that the orientation of the altar versus populum is "something desirable in the current liturgical legislation. Nonetheless it is not an absolute value" over others, and there are a few circumstances where celebration ad orientem would clearly be preferable. The article emphasizes that the centrality of the altar, "the point of encounter between God and men for the sacrifice of the new and eternal covenant" is "theologically more important" than the celebrant facing the people.

Some priests who are not adherents of the "Tridentine" Mass and who celebrate the Novus Ordo exclusively hold that the ad orientem position of the priest better expresses the sacred and sacrificial nature of the Mass. They recognize that the very notion of sacrifice is repugnant to dominant forces in our culture, and that it is critically important to restore this vital and necessary aspect of the Mass which has been undermined in various ways in the celebration of the liturgy. It is well known in some circles that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has expressed the view that the symbolism of the priest as the one ordained to offer this sacrifice of the Mass on behalf of the congregation and in persona Christi is more clear and effective when the priest faces "liturgical east" the altar of sacrifice with the people.

At the same time, for many faithful and committed Catholic laity who strongly support a recovery of the sacred dimension of the liturgy, and understand and appreciate the ad orientem symbolism, the versus populum orientation is experienced as permitting a focus wholly, intently and without distraction on the action which transforms bread and wine into Body and Blood of Christ. For them, the sacredness of the consecration is intensified by being entirely visible and not obscured by the priest’s back.

Many Catholic laity regard the direction the priest faces as less critical than their own posture during the Communion Rite (e.g. kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer, after the Agnus Dei, and after Communion); or the visible presence within their churches of the tabernacle in which the Body and Blood of Christ are reserved.

But the rule of "custom" has not protected these traditional practices from attack by advocates of change who claim that the Church’s theology of the Eucharist was radically altered by the Second Vatican Council. In fact, incidents of coercive efforts of priests to interfere with legitimate options, or to make liturgical changes with no authorization whatever, have become alarmingly frequent. People also realize that effective action to correct fundamental errors which undermine the Catholic faith and divide the Church rests, essentially, with the bishops.

It is possible that Bishop Foley’s decree will lead to a resolution of some of these unresolved questions which affect the liturgy throughout the United States and beyond.


The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, as the name implies, gives directions for the celebration of Mass, and appears at the beginning of the Sacramentary. The ordinary posture of the priest is not explicitly stated in the GIRM; but at some points during the Mass specific instructions to face the people or the altar are given. The relevant citations (from the 1985 edition of the GIRM) follow.

Mass with a congregation

86. [Greeting] "then, facing the people"

107. [Orate fratres] "the priest returns to the center and, facing the people…"

115. [Agnus dei] "After the prayer, the priest genuflects, takes the Eucharistic bread, and, holding it slightly above the paten while facing the people, says, ‘this is the Lamb of God’".

116. [Communion] "Next, facing the altar, the priest says softly: ‘May the body of Christ bring me to everlasting life’".

122. [Conclusions] "Then, standing at the altar or at the chair and facing the people, the priest says, with hands outstretched, ‘Let us pray’".

Concelebrated Mass

198. [Agnus dei] "the principal celebrantfacing the congregation" [see 115 supra]

199. [Communion] "facing the altar" [see 116 supra]

Mass without a congregation

227. [Communion with server] "facing the altar" [see 116 supra]

On orientation of the altar:

262. "The main altar should be freestanding to allow the ministers to walk around it easily and Mass to be celebrated facing the people".

Code of Canon Law

Canon 838.1 – The supervision of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church which resides in the Apostolic See and, in accord with the law, the diocesan bishop.

Canon 839.2 – Local ordinaries are to see to it that the prayers and other pious and sacred exercises of the Christian people are fully in harmony with the norms of the Church.



Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.