Have you ever been to a Mass where the priest invited people (perhaps children) from the congregation to stand with him behind the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer? I have. While this practice is illicit, it is not my intention in this article to focus on that fact. Instead, I would like to reflect on what likely motivates this practice and what it can teach us about the orientation of our prayer during the Mass.
In Loco Christi?
Imagine a typical parish Mass (pre-COVID if you wish). Now imagine that the priest has asked certain members of the congregation to stand with him behind the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer. These folks leave their usual places in the nave and enter the sanctuary. Probably, they are self-conscious as they stand near the priest and the other ministers while the rest of the congregation looks on. They are in their street clothes while the priest, the deacon, and the servers wear sacred vestments. The priest and the deacon are busy about things at the altar, the servers ring bells and wait for their cues, but the displaced members of the congregation stand with “nothing to do.” They may feel like awkward spectators, as one sometimes feels when watching another person work.
Now it is most likely not the intention of the priest who invited these members of the congregation to stand with him at the altar to reduce them uncomfortably to watching him pray. On the contrary, he probably means to do the opposite. He wants to affirm them as active participants and to associate them with himself. This affirmation is expressed, in terms of posture, by having them stand behind the altar with him as he offers the Eucharistic Prayer.
An Alternative Solution
I would like to dwell more on this point, for it seems to be an attempted solution to a pastoral problem. The problem is that the people in the congregation—at least in this priest’s opinion—see themselves as merely watching the priest, as separated from him, perhaps even as isolated from him by the interpolation of the altar itself. The attempted solution in our imaginary scenario lies in re-locating and re-orienting certain members of the congregation so that they are on the same side of the altar as the priest and facing the same direction as him.
Now imagine a Mass celebrated ad orientem, with the priest offering the Eucharistic Prayer toward the apse of the church and the congregation behind him. What does this posture signify? It expresses precisely what the come-up-behind-the-altar approach means to—that the people are not the priest’s audience. In a Mass at which the Eucharist Prayer is offered ad orientem, all face the same direction as the priest. All are associated with him as he offers the Eucharistic sacrifice in the person of Christ. All are behind the altar. The interior and spiritual orientation of the Mass is reflected in and bolstered by the physical posture of the priest together with the people.
What does it mean to say that the congregation is associated with the priest? It means that they are doing something, even that—in a certain way—they are doing what the priest is doing. The faithful gathered for Mass not only attend the Eucharistic sacrifice, they offer it. As Pius XII puts it in Mediator Dei: “Nor is it to be wondered at, that the faithful should be raised to this dignity. By the waters of baptism, as by common right, Christians are made members of the Mystical Body of Christ the Priest, and by the ‘character’ which is imprinted on their souls, they are appointed to give worship to God. Thus, they participate, according to their condition, in the priesthood of Christ.” To be sure, the lay faithful do not offer the sacrifice in the person of Christ as the head of the Church. Only the celebrating priest does this. His role is unique and not reducible to being a delegate of the laity. The Eucharist’s consecration is effected “by the priest and by him alone, as the representative of Christ and not as the representative of the faithful.”
Bound Together for Glory
But merely insisting on the unicity of the ministerial priest’s power to consecrate obscures what the Eucharistic liturgy truly is, just as forgetting that same unicity does. The liturgy is not primarily an action of the ordained priest, just as it is not an action that originates within the congregation. It is Christ’s action. He was and remains the “leitourgos of holy things” (Hebrews 8:2), the “Apostle and high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1). The ordained priest participates in this action of the Lord’s in his person as head, while the congregation participates in the same action as the Mystical Body. It is the one Christ, the whole Christ, who offers and is offered in the Mass.
If priest and people are engaged in a single action, it makes sense for them to face together in a single direction. This is especially the case since the sacrificial action of the Mass is essentially directional. It is offered to the Father, by Christ, while the Holy Spirit binds the Church to Christ in his act of offering. A single action aimed at a single goal calls for a single orientation. There are other moments, such as the homily, where the priest addresses the congregation and not God the Father. At those times, of course, facing the people is obviously appropriate. But the sacrificial action, the heart of which is the Eucharistic Prayer, is different. Here the priest speaks to God, not to the people. But—and this point is crucial—the fact that the priest is not addressing the people does not mean they are not involved. The celebrant does not speak to them precisely because they are involved. They are not recipients of the oblation: they are co-offerers.
This is why it is problematic to refer to ad orientem worship as “the priest with his back to the people.” This characterization, while common (and literally correct), makes the congregation the point of reference—which implies that the congregation is the goal of the priest’s action. Besides ignoring God, this attitude also leaves the congregation with nothing to do. While there is a great deal to be said for spiritual receptivity as opposed to excessive activism, the congregation should never become merely an audience. Even though they kneel in silence during the Eucharistic Prayer, the faithful, too, are meant to offer themselves as a spiritual sacrifice through and with the priest. To quote Pius XII again, “the conclusion that the people offer the sacrifice with the priest himself is not based on the fact that, being members of the Church no less than the priest himself, they perform a visible liturgical rite; for this is the privilege only of the minister who has been divinely appointed to this office: rather it is based on the fact that the people unite their hearts in praise, impetration, expiation and thanksgiving with prayers or intention of the priest, even of the High Priest himself, so that in the one and same offering of the victim and according to a visible sacerdotal rite, they may be presented to God the Father.” Priest and people together offer the sacrifice, though in different modes. This is why the priest commands the congregation to pray (“Orate!”) for the acceptability to God of “my sacrifice and yours.”
And so, to speak of “the priest with his back to the people” is—unintentionally of course—to insult the lay faithful, as if they had nothing to contribute to the offering of the Mass but instead were only watching it. The deacon also stands and kneels behind the priest, but we do not speak of “the priest with his back to the deacon.” Why? Because we understand that the deacon is not the point of reference. He is there with the priest. He is involved in what the priest is doing, though according to his own office. So are the laity. Just as we do not say that the people in the first pew stand with their backs to all the people in church behind them, neither should we speak of the priest with his back to the people. When the ad orientem posture is used, the deacon, and the people in the first pew, and the people in the second, and so forth, all face the same direction as the priest. All face with him because all share in the same sacred action.
Common Extraordinary Journey
With the right catechesis and the gradual re-introduction of ad orientem worship in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, we can accomplish in a liturgically correct way what the practice of inviting people up behind the altar seeks in a more awkward manner to accomplish. We can express by our physical orientation the spiritual truth of the celebration—that the priest and people are united in a singular act of worship, an act directed toward God. Although priest and people participate in this act in qualitatively distinct ways, it remains one act.
The priest is not a performer, and the baptized are not spectators. We march together as the militant Church on her path to triumph. It is a path that leads up to the altar of God because it is the path of the cross, the necessary condition for following in the footsteps of our Captain. When we celebrate Mass ad orientem, we approach, priest and people, that little mount Calvary in the sanctuary of our parish church, all in the same movement, all on the same side, all behind the altar.
Notitiae 17 (1981): 61. ↑
Mediator Dei, 88. ↑
- Ibid., 92. ↑
Ibid., 20. ↑
- Ibid., 93. ↑
- It is sometimes mistakenly thought that Vatican II or the Roman Missal of the ordinary form changed the orientation of the priest during the Eucharistic Prayer. In fact, Vatican II did not say a single word about changing the tradition of ad orientem worship, and the rubrics of the Ordinary Form continue to presume this posture, while also envisioning the option of facing the people. For a fuller examination of the history of ad orientem worship and current liturgical law, see Uwe Michael Lang, Turning towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005). ↑
Father Dylan Schrader is a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, MO. He holds a PhD in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America and has authored various books and articles on liturgy, theology, and the Latin language. He is also the translator of several Scholastic works, including On the Motive of the Incarnation, the first volume in CUA’s Early Modern Catholic Sources series, and Book 2 of Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on the Sentences, edited by the Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine.