Nov 15, 1999

[Re]Turn to the East?

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

[Re]Turn to the East?

A young priest asks if it is time to consider a change in practice

by Father Thomas Kocik

In her book The Desolate City, Anne Roche Muggeridge offers this trenchant proposal:

If an angel allowed me one suggestion as to what more than anything else would most quickly restore the sense of the sacred to the Mass, it would be this to do away with Mass facing the people. I am convinced that the position of the priest at the altar is the single most important liturgical "external" symbol, the one that carries the most doctrinal baggage. To put the priest back on our side of the altar, facing with us towards God, would at one stroke restore the Mass from an exercise in interpersonal relationship to the universal prayer of the Church to God our Father. With the priest facing God once more as leader of the people, the importance of the microphone will diminish, and the priest can stop making faces at us. He and we can go back to thinking only about what is happening in the Mystery. (Anne Roche Muggeridge, The Desolate City: Revolution in the Catholic Church, rev. ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990, pp. 176-77.)

The purpose of celebrating Mass in the traditional manner ­ priest and people facing the same direction, toward the East (if not literally then at least symbolically) ­ has nothing to do with seeking to obstruct people’s view of what is taking place at the altar by having the priest’s back to them. Nor is it even primarily for the sake of facing the altar or tabernacle. Rather, the priest stands before the altar, facing the same way as the faithful, to manifest the eschatological and sacrificial dimensions of the Eucharist. In The Feast of Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explains:

Where priest and people together face the same way, what we have is a cosmic orientation and also in interpretation of the Eucharist in terms of resurrection and trinitarian theology. Hence it is also an interpretation in terms of parousia, a theology of hope, in which every Mass is an approach to the return of Christ. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986, pp. 140-41.)

This is the point I tried to convey in the worship aid for my First Solemn Mass (Novus Ordo) two years ago: "The Eucharistic Sacrifice will be offered in the manner traditional to the Roman Rite and to all liturgical rites of the Church: priest and faithful together facing the same way, in a common act of worship, symbolizing our common pilgrimage toward the returning Lord, the Sun of Justice."

History of "Liturgical East"

Why the insistence on an Eastward-facing position for both priest and congregation? From early on, Christians adopted the Jewish practice of praying toward Eden, in the East (Gen. 2:8), the direction from which Ezekiel saw come "the glory of the God of Israel" (Ezek 43:2,4), the direction in which Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives and wherefrom He will return (Acts 1:11), and the direction whence the Angel of the Lord will come in the end time (Rev. 7:2). Tertullian informs us that Christian churches are "always" oriented "toward the light".

Origen asserts that the direction of the rising sun obviously indicates that we ought to pray inclining in that direction, an act which symbolizes the soul looking toward the rising of the true light, the Sun of Justice, Jesus Christ.

Saint John Damascene says that, while waiting the coming of the Lord, "we adore Him facing East", for that is the tradition passed down to us from the Apostles. Other Church Fathers who confirm this usage are Clement of Alexandria, Saint Basil and Saint Augustine. To this day, the ancient Coptic Rite of Egypt retains in its eucharistic liturgy (just before the Sursum corda) the age-old exhortation of the deacon: "Look towards the East!"

In The Reform of the Roman Rite (San Juan Capistrano, Calif.: Una Voce Press; Harrison, N.Y.: Roman Catholic Books, 1993, chaps. XII-XV), the late Monsignor Klaus Gamber, director of the Regensburg Liturgical Institute, demonstrates convincingly that the precedents for freestanding altars with Mass "facing the people" have been highly exaggerated. In agreement with such eminent (and unquestionably orthodox) liturgists as Father Josef A. Jungmann and Father Louis Bouyer, Gamber shows that the practice of celebrating the Eucharist versus populum flourished only in the city of Rome and in parts of North Africa, where the pagan custom of having the façade (rather than the apse) of a temple facing East was continued; but even then, the historical evidence shows that, while the celebrant did in fact face the people, they did not face him, but turned their backs on him during the prayers so that they, too, could face East.

In addition to the historical and theological justifications for returning to the Eastward-facing position, there are other reasons. Akin to Muggeridge’s observations is this critique, from a psychological perspective, of Mass versus populum:

While in the past, the priest functioned as the anonymous go-between, the first among the faithful, facing God and not the people, representative of all and together with them offering the Sacrifice, while reciting prayers that have been prescribed for him today he is a distinct person, with personal characteristics, his personal lifestyle, his face turned towards the people. For many priests this change is a temptation they cannot handle…. Some priests are quite adept some less soat taking personal advantage of a situation. Their gestures, their facial expressions, their movements, their overall behavior, all serve to subjectively attract attention to their person….

To [some priests], the level of success in their performance is a measure of their personal power and thus the indicator of their feeling of personal security and self-assurance. (K. G. Rey, "Pubertätserscheinungen in der Katholischen Kirche" ["Signs of Puberty in the Catholic Church"], Kritische Texte, Vol. 4 (Benzinger), pg. 25; quoted in Gamber, pp. 86-87 and 169-70).

Simply put, the Latin-rite liturgy must be literally re-oriented. (Whenever I hear the Advent hymn "People Look East", I am always tempted to interject, "including the priest!")

Pastoral considerations

Perhaps it would be imprudent and pastorally insensitive to press for change right away, especially after the upheaval of the last thirty years. The faithful need to be prepared. They need to know why a celebration ad orientem, rather than versus populum, better expresses the true meaning and sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.

The Eastward position emphasizes an eschatological note that is both biblical and patristic. It avoids focusing attention on the personality and mannerisms of the celebrant and reminds us that he is important only insofar as he stands at the altar in persona Christi, offering the Sacrifice of Calvary. Moreover, it symbolizes a worshipping community open to the world beyond the here-and-now, on pilgrimage to the Promised Land.

Many are no doubt aware that the documents of the Second Vatican Council nowhere mention, let alone require, celebrating Mass versus populum. The 1964 Instruction Inter Oecumenici (On the Proper Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites after the Constitution had been passed but before the end of the Council, does no more than say that the main altar should be freestanding so that the ministers can walk around it and Mass can be celebrated facing the people: "It is better that [praestat ut] the main altar be constructed separately from the wall, so that one can go around it with ease and so that celebration can [peragi possit] take place facing the people" (#91; my emphasis).

Similarly, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM] has only this to say: "The main altar should be freestanding so that the ministers can easily walk around it and Mass can be celebrated facing the people. It should be placed in a central position which draws the attention of the whole congregation" (# 262).

In fact, the current Sacramentary implicitly presumes that the priest is not facing the people when celebrating Mass; otherwise he would not be instructed by the GIRM and by the rubrics to "face the people" at specific moments of the Mass and then to turn back to face the altar (86, 107, 115, 116, 122, 198, and 199; Order of Mass, 2, 25, 104, 105, 111 and 113.)

There can be no doubt, therefore, as to the legitimacy of returning to the traditional practice.

Search for sense of the Sacred

I believe there are already signs that a return to the traditional orientation would be favorably received, not just by older Catholics, but by the young who have never experienced Mass ad orientem. One hears of the growing number of young Catholics, born well after Vatican II ended, who are drawn to the Tridentine Mass. They find in the old liturgy the sense of mystery and transcendence sorely lacking in the modern rite (as it is commonly practiced), owing largely to what is perhaps the most notable feature of the old rite (besides the Latin language): the priest facing liturgical East.

To be sure, the new rite can be celebrated in Latin, having the priest on the same side of the altar as the congregation, as my First Mass was offered. Lamentably, though, such Masses are scarce. One can more easily find an indult Tridentine Mass than a normative (i.e., Latin, ad orientem) Novus Ordo Mass! At any rate, my point is that the young are not "turned off" because Father does not look at them when he prays at the Lord’s altar.

Personal experience, too, makes me hopeful. Recently, because of work being done in the nave of our parish church, weekday Masses were celebrated with the people confined to one of the transepts. Because the freestanding altar could not (for various reasons) be turned ninety degrees to allow for Mass facing the people in the transept, I had to choose between celebrating Mass facing out onto an empty nave, or facing the high altar and tabernacle. Either way, the congregation would have a side view of me when I stood at the altar. I chose the latter.

After Mass, an elderly parishioner came into the sacristy and thanked me for saying Mass facing the altar, "like it should be". Nostalgia, perhaps. But then one has to consider the observations of my 13-year-old altar boy: "That was so different, Father. I think I would like Mass that way all the time. It just seemed — well — better focused."

Better focused. That pretty well sums it up. This from a boy blissfully oblivious to post-Vatican II liturgical squabbles, whose parents can recall only dimly the preconciliar years.

Ex ore infántium . . .

Father Kocik, who was ordained in 1997, is Parochial Vicar at Saint Francis Xavier in Hyannis, Massachusetts.



Father Thomas Kocik

Father Thomas Kocik is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River (MA). In residence at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Hyannis, he serves as chaplain to Cape Cod Hospital and to the Latin Mass Apostolate of Cape Cod. He is a member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy and former editor of its journal, Antiphon. Among his many published works are The Reform of the Reform? A Liturgical Debate (Ignatius Press, 2003) and Singing His Song: A Short Introduction to the Liturgical Movement (Chorabooks, 2019). A complete bibliography is available at