The Celebration of Mass <i>ad orientem</i> in the Ordinary Form
Feb 23, 2021

The Celebration of Mass ad orientem in the Ordinary Form

While the current edition of the Roman missal clearly provides for the celebration of Mass ad orientem, there are relatively few indications as how this is to be carried out. Few commentators have provided direction to celebrants desiring this form of celebration. Therefore, much has been left to the improvisation of individual celebrants. At times, this can leave much to be desired if celebrating Mass ad orientem is not informed by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite, as suggested by paragraph 42 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM).

This entry will assume the celebration of Mass ad orientem with the participation of ministers and the faithful. It will also assume that the sanctuary where Mass is celebrated conforms to the provisions of the GIRM, namely, that there is a seat for the celebrant and ministers, and an ambo for the proclamation of the Scriptures, along with a suitable credence table. These are oriented in the traditional manner, that is, the ambo is to the left as one faces the altar from the nave (what was formerly known as the Gospel side), and the credence table and chair for the celebrant are placed to the right of the altar as one faces it from the nave (what was formerly known as the Epistle side). In this case, there are relatively few modifications to the celebration of Mass ad orientem compared to celebration versus populum.


Upon arriving at the altar and then kissing it in the usual way, and after incensing it, the celebrant turns to his right and moves to the chair on the right side. He remains at the chair for the course of the Opening Rites and the entire Liturgy of the Word. During the Confiteor, Kyrie, Gloria, collect, Creed, and conclusion to the prayers of the faithful, he could orient himself, at least partially, in the direction of the altar if this can be done gracefully. This will depend on the placement of the chair and its relationship to the altar, as well as the ability of servers to hold the Missal in the proper position. Historically, all of those parts of Mass were said facing the altar. It would be an expression of the continuity of the celebration of the Ordinary From with the past to respect this principle whenever reasonable.

Standing at the chair, the celebrant turns to face the people when saying, “The Lord be with you,” extending and joining his hands. He faces them with hands joined to say, “Let us pray,” and to introduce the penitential act, asperges rite, or the Universal Prayer.


The manner of incensing a free-standing altar is described in a previous post. In the event that the altar at which the ad orientem celebration is taking place is not separated from the wall, such that the celebrant is not able to walk around it in order to incense it, the traditional practice offers guidance on how this can be done gracefully (Mutel and Freeman, Cérémonial de la sainte messe, 83-84). Standing at the middle of the altar after kissing it, the celebrant turns to his right. With his left hand on his chest, he imposes incense three times with his right hand. He returns the spoon to the deacon. Then, with his left hand on the altar, he blesses the incense in the form of a Greek cross with his right hand, saying nothing (Ceremonial for Bishops,108). He then joins his hands before receiving the thurible from the deacon. He takes the ring of the chain in his left hand, and the chain(s) near the bowl of the thurible in his right.

Beginning at the center of the altar, the celebrant incenses the back portion of the mensa of the altar to his right with three single swings. Arriving at the right side of the altar, he lowers his arm to incense the right-hand, vertical side of the altar with two swings. He then raises his arm to incense the front portion of the right side of the mensa of the altar with three swings, walking toward the middle. At the middle of the altar, he once again incenses the back portion of the left side of the mensa of the altar with three swings. At the left side of the altar, he drops his arm to incense the left-hand vertical side with two swings. Standing stationary in the same position, he incenses the front of the mensa of the left side of the altar with three swings from the edge of the altar to the center. He then lowers his arms to incense the vertical portion across the front of the altar with six swings, beginning at the left edge of the altar and concluding the incensation at the right edge of the altar. Returning the thurible to the deacon, the celebrant descends the altar steps from the side and goes to the chair.

If the altar cross is on the middle of the altar, the celebrant incenses the cross before incensing the altar. He bows, incenses it with three double swings and bows again, before beginning to incense the altar in the manner described above. Otherwise, he interrupts the incensation of the altar when he reaches the point closest to the altar cross and incenses it in the usual way before resuming to incense the altar (Elliott, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, 140).

Liturgy of the Eucharist

A number of differences between celebrations ad orientem and versus populum, however, arise during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. After receiving the gifts (or if he is going to the altar directly from the chair), the celebrant approaches the altar from the middle and bows to it upon arriving. He carries out the preparation of the gifts facing the altar, either to the right side for the preparation of the chalice, to be incensed, and to wash his hands, or at the center of the altar for the other parts of the preparatory rite. If incense is used, the gifts are incensed first in the usual way, then the altar cross if it is before the celebrant, and then the altar in the same manner as at the beginning of Mass. The deacon proceeds with the incensation of the celebrant and others in the usual way.

The invitation Pray, brethren is the only part of the preparation rite addressed to the faithful. Standing at the center of altar, the celebrant turns to his right to say the invitation. In the Ordinary Form, it would seem that he remains facing the faithful while they answer him. He then continues to turn to his right, completing the circle, in order to face the missal placed to his left at the altar and pray the prayer over the gifts.

After praying the Prayer over the Offerings, the celebrant begins the Eucharistic prayer with the dialogue. According to tradition, the celebrant does not turn to face the assembly at this point. When facing liturgical east, the traditional practice is for the celebrant to remain facing east throughout the entire preface dialogue since he will need the missal before his eyes for the three lines of the dialogue and for the musical notation if these dialogues are sung (Elliot, 282, n. 43). Since he does not say “The Lord be with you” facing the people, he does not extend his hands but places them flat on either side of the corporal, outside its edge. He raises his hands at “Lift up your hearts.” He extends them in the orans position at “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” Without joining his hands, he continues with the preface with hands extended in the orans position. The other gestures of the individual Eucharistic prayers are unchanged.

During the elevations, the celebrant does not turn around to show the consecrated Species to the faithful. Rather, he lifts them high enough above his head so that they can be seen while he remains facing the altar. The deacon or a minister usually kneels at the edge of the right side of the altar to incense both Species as they are elevated (Fortescue, O’Connell and Reid, Ceremonies of the Roman Rite, 114). Alternatively, this minister may kneel at the center of the sanctuary, between torchbearers to his right and to his left, or facing either in two rows on either side, to incense the Blessed Sacrament with three double swings (Mutel and Freeman, 130). The deacon or thurifer bows profoundly from the kneeling position before and after incensing both Species.

The celebrant does not turn to face the people when saying, “The mystery of faith,” or “Through him, with him….” Neither does he turn to the people when saying “At the Savior’s command” at the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer. The celebrant does turn to his right and faces people to say, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” and remains facing them during their response. When turning to his right, he steps slightly away from the center of the altar so as to avoid having his back directly facing the Blessed Sacrament then on the altar. He then continues to face the people to say, “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” Or, if this is said by the deacon, the celebrant turns to his left to face the altar again while the deacon now turns and addresses the faithful. The celebrant then turns to his right slightly to offer the deacon the peace. He may offer the deacon the peace according to the traditional manner. The celebrant might also turn to his right and left beforehand in order to offer the peace to any concelebrants standing next to him at the altar. The celebrant consistently avoids turning his back directly to the Blessed Sacrament on the altar.

After the conclusion of the Agnus Dei, the celebrant, holding the Host in his right hand over the chalice or the paten, turns to his right to face people and says, “Behold the Lamb of God.” He continues to face them as he joins them in responding. He then turns to his left and faces the altar to reverently consume the Host. He consumes the Precious Blood facing the altar. He turns to his right to give the Deacon communion under both species. He descends the altar from the center and distributes Holy Communion to the servers and the faithful.

After Communion

After the distribution of Holy Communion, the celebrant consumes what is left of the Precious Blood and the Hosts at the altar at the center, or collects the remaining Hosts at the altar and brings them to the place of reposition. Then, he may proceed to purify the vessels at the credence table or at the altar. If there is a deacon or an instituted acolyte, that minister may purify the vessels at the credence table. The celebrant may then sit at the chair for a period of silence. He stands at the chair for the post-communion prayer and what follows, a server holding the missal directly in front of him or slightly to his left, as circumstances suggest. He turns to the people with hands joined to say, “Let us pray.” He faces the missal for the post-communion prayer. He turns to the people and extends and joins his hands to say, “The Lord be with you,” and to impart the blessing. The deacon stands in such a way as to face the people in order to say, “Bow down for the blessing,” and the dismissal.

Alternately, after reserving the Blessed Sacrament (and the purifications which follow), the celebrant who wishes to remain at the altar for what follows should step to the left-hand side of the altar to allow for the deacon to retrieve the vessels and for others to remove the corporal, purificator, and pall. A server could reorient the missal to the center of the altar, parallel to the edge of the altar (Elliott,128). Then the celebrant may return to the center of the altar for silent prayer and the post communion prayer, blessing, and dismissal. Or, the celebrant leaves the altar by the right side in order to sit at the presidential chair for a time. During this time, ministers approach the altar to remove everything used for Mass. After a time of silence seated at the chair, the celebrant approaches the altar by the center for the post-communion prayer.

Prayer after Communion and the Dismissal

Once at the altar for the post-communion prayer, the celebrant turns to his right to say, with hands joined, “Let us pray.” Presuming that the missal is placed directly in the middle of the altar, parallel to its edge, the celebrant would then return to his left to face the altar. He prays the post-communion prayer with hands extended. At its conclusion, the celebrant could close the missal. After the prayer, he then turns to his right once again to say, extending his hands, “The Lord be with you,” to bless the people, and to dismiss them. When he blesses them, the celebrant places his left hand on his chest while using the fully extended right hand, fingers joined, to bless the faithful. The celebrant waits until the faithful have responded, “Thanks be to God,” before returning to face the altar to kiss it.

If the deacon dismisses the faithful, the celebrant turns toward the altar by his left immediately after blessing them to face the altar again. Then he is in position to kiss the altar once people have responded, “Thanks be to God.” The deacon faces the celebrant to receive the blessing, then turns to face the assembly to dismiss them, and then turns once again to the altar to kiss it with the celebrant. Having kissed the altar, the celebrant and the deacon leave from the center before turning again to bow to it (or by genuflecting to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle) upon exiting the sanctuary.

If the celebrant offers the solemn blessing or the prayer over the people (as on the Sundays of Lent) while standing at the altar, a server will need to remove the missal from the altar and hold it in both hands directly in front of him while the celebrant faces the people for the blessing. Similarly, the deacon turns to face the people to say, “Bow down for the blessing.” Having said this, he returns to face the altar and bows while the invocation(s) to the blessing are read by the celebrant. After receiving the blessing, the deacon turns again to face the people to dismiss them, and returns to the altar to kiss it with the celebrant. Together, both turn, descend the steps of the altar from the center, and depart as described above.

Monsignor Marc B. Caron

Monsignor Marc B. Caron, S.T.D., is the vicar general and the moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Portland, ME. He has served as a pastor, as the director of the diocesan Office for Worship, and as a chancellor of the diocese. Most recently, he was a member of the faculty of St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA, where he was also director of liturgy. In 2021, he received the doctoral degree from the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, writing on the sacramental nature of the diaconate. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.