Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, once again called for priests and bishops to consider praying ad orientem during some parts of the Mass.
Speaking July 5 to the Sacra Liturgia UK 2016 Conference in London, Cardinal Sarah asked priests “to implement this [ad orientem] practice wherever possible, with prudence and with the necessary catechesis, certainly, but also with a pastor’s confidence that this is something good for the Church, something good for our people. Your own pastoral judgement will determine how and when this is possible, but perhaps beginning this on the first Sunday of Advent this year, when we attend ‘the Lord who will come’ and ‘who will not delay’ (see: Introit, Mass of Wednesday of the first week of Advent) may be a very good time to do this.”
The Cardinal asked bishops: “Please lead your priests and people towards the Lord in this way, particularly at large celebrations in your dioceses and in your cathedral. Please form your seminarians in the reality that we are not called to the priesthood to be at the center of liturgical worship ourselves, but to lead Christ’s faithful to him as fellow worshippers united in the one same act of adoration. Please facilitate this simple but profound reform in your dioceses, your cathedrals, your parishes and your seminaries.”
His remarks on ad orientem, and especially his encouragement to implement its return this coming Advent, led some to ask whether a particular mandate or official directive would be forthcoming from Cardinal Sarah’s Dicastery. In an attempt to alleviate any confusion, the Holy See Press Office offered a July 11 communication: “It would appear opportune to offer clarification in the light of information circulated in the press after a conference held in London a few days ago by Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship…. Some of his expressions have…been incorrectly interpreted, as if they were intended to announce new indications different to those given so far in the liturgical rules and in the words of the Pope regarding celebration facing the people and the ordinary rite of the Mass.
“Therefore it is useful to remember that in the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (General Instruction of the Roman Missal), which contains the norms relating to the Eucharistic celebration and is still in full force, paragraph no. 299 states that: ‘Altare extruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit. Altare eum autem occupet locum, ut revera centrum sit ad quod totius congregationis fidelium attentio sponte convertatur’ (‘The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. Moreover, the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns’.) […]
“Therefore, new liturgical directives are not expected from next Advent, as some have incorrectly inferred from some of Cardinal Sarah’s words….”
But confusion arises from the clarification. While Father Lombardi and the Press Office emphasize that “new liturgical directives are not expected next Advent” and “new indications different to those given so far in the liturgical rules” aren’t forthcoming, Cardinal Sarah and the Congregation for Divine Worship insist that the ad orientem direction is a practice “permitted by current liturgical legislation. It is perfectly legitimate in the modern rite” (July 7 address). In other words, even if some were confused by reports of the Cardinal’s comments, Cardinal Sarah himself never indicated that new directives were coming, as a reading of the Press Office’s communiqué might suggest, but that the ad orientem practice is already allowed by the Missal in the Ordinary Form.
Another element of the Press Office’s response is similarly confusing. Citing GIRM 299, the July 11 clarification recalls that “The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.” But many have asked: What exactly is “desirable whenever possible”? Is it 1) the altar’s position apart from the wall, 2) the possibility of walking around the altar, 3) the celebration facing the people, 4) all of the above, or 5) some combination of each?
While Latinists will no doubt continue to disagree about the interpretation of the Latin original, the legislator—namely, the Congregation for Divine Worship, under the authority of the Holy Father—at one time indicated “[that] which is desirable” is the freestanding altar and the possibility of celebrating versus populum.
In 2000, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments—of which Cardinal Sarah is now Prefect—had been asked “whether the expression in no. 299 of the Instituto Generalis Missalis Romani constitutes a norm according to which, during the Eucharistic liturgy, the position of the priest versus absidem [facing towards the apse] is to be excluded.” It’s answer: “Negative.”
The response offered the following explanation: “It is in the first place 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 sejunctum [detached from the wall] and to the celebration versus populum [toward 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 toward the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier (Cf. the editorial in Notitiae 29  245-249), 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…. If the priest celebrates versus populum, which is legitimate and often advisable, his spiritual attitude ought always to be versus Deum per Jesus Christum [toward 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. […]
“What always remains is the event celebrated in the liturgy: this is manifested through rites, signs, symbols and words that express various aspects of the mystery without, however, exhausting it, because it transcends them. Taking a rigid position and absolutizing it could become a rejection of some aspect of the truth which merits respect and acceptance.”
The series of recent clarifications continued on July 17 with Bishop Arthur Serratelli’s letter to U.S. Bishops. The Committee on Divine Worship’s Chairman, after citing the Vatican Press Office’s July 11 communiqué and its reliance on GIRM 299, went on to acknowledge not only the Congregation’s response in 2000 but also that the rubrics of the Missal themselves suggest a possible ad orientem celebration: “[T]he Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has clarified on earlier occasions that this [preference of versus populum] does not prohibit the celebration of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form ad orientem. In fact, there are rubrics in the Order of Mass which reflect the real possibility that the celebrant might be facing away from the assembly (see for example n. 29 before the Prayer over the Offerings: ‘Standing in the middle of the altar, facing the people, extending then joining his hands, he says…’). Although permitted, the decision whether or not to preside ad orientem should take into consideration the physical configuration of the altar and sanctuary space, and, most especially, the pastoral welfare of the faith community being served. Such an important decision should always be made with the supervision and guidance of the local bishop.”
Thus, at this printing, the discussion on ad orientem has returned from whence it came: there are no new directives in the offing concerning ad orientem, if for no other reason than that current directives and rubrics already permit bishops and priests to return to the practice.