Gallup, N.M. (CNA)—Bishop James Wall of Gallup announced that each Sunday a Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral will be said with the celebrant facing the same direction as the faithful, in order better to respect the Blessed Sacrament.
Such worship, he said in a July 22 letter to the Diocese of Gallup, is “a very powerful reminder of what we are about at Mass: meeting Christ Who comes to meet us. Practically speaking, this means that things will look a bit different, for at such Masses the Priest faces the same direction as the Assembly when he is at the altar.”
“More specifically, when addressing God, such as during the orations and Eucharistic Prayer, he faces the same direction as the people, that is, toward God (ad Deum). He does so literally, to use a phrase dear to St. Augustine, by ‘turning toward the Lord’ present in the Blessed Sacrament. In contrast, when addressing the people, he turns to face them (versus populum).”
The bishop wrote that “since the recent solemnity of Corpus Christi, the 11:00 am Sunday Mass will henceforth be celebrated ad orientem at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Gallup.”
Bishop Wall opened by reflecting on Benedict XVI’s recent letter in which he noted a certain laxity in how the Eucharist is approached.
“We would do well to remember,” Bishop Wall wrote, “that the Eucharist is not simply a nice ‘sign’ or ‘symbol’ of communion with God, but rather truly is communion with God.”
He acknowledged that such celebration can be “contentious” and that “to make changes to the way we pray can be difficult,” adding that “by explaining and advocating for this, I am in no way trying to disrupt the way the people of this Diocese pray.”
“Rather, I am trying to open the treasury of the Church’s patrimony, so that, together, we can all experience one of the most ancient ways that the Church has always prayed, starting with Jesus and reaching even to our own day, and thereby learn from the ‘ever ancient, ever new’ wisdom of the Church.”
The bishop wrote that “celebrating Mass ad orientem is one of the most ancient and most consistent practices in the life of the Church.”
However, he said that “celebration of Mass ad orientem is not a form of antiquarianism, i.e., choosing to do something because it is old, but rather choosing to do something that has always been.”
“This also means, in turn, that versus populum worship is extremely new in the life of the Church, and, while a valid liturgical option today, it still must be considered novel when it comes to the celebration of Mass,” he noted.
In ad orientem worship the main point, the bishop said, is that it “shows, even in its literal orientation, that the priest and the people are united together as one in worshipping God, even physically with their bodies.”
He added that describing such Masses as ones in which “the priest has his back to the people,” while technically true, “largely misses” this main point, which is “much grander and more beautiful.”
“Celebrating Mass ad orientem, then, is meant to remind us…that the Mass is not first and foremost about us, but rather about God and His glory—about worshipping Him as He desires and not as we think best. It is His work after all, not ours, and we are simply entering into it by His gracious will,” Bishop Wall reflected.
He also pointed out that a “common objection or at least misunderstanding is that this particular way of celebrating Mass was disallowed at or after the Second Vatican Council. This is not accurate, as none of the conciliar documents even mention this.”
In fact, “a close reading of the rubrics of the Roman Missal will still show today that ad orientem is assumed to be the normal posture at Mass: they often describe the priest ‘turning to face the people,’ which implies he is facing the altar before and after doing so.”