Q: Is it contrary to liturgical law to celebrate the postconciliar Mass <i>ad orientem</i>?
Sep 12, 2022

Q: Is it contrary to liturgical law to celebrate the postconciliar Mass ad orientem?

A: According to the current Roman Missal, Mass can be celebrated either with the priest “facing the people,” versus populum, or with the priest facing in the same direction as the people, often called ad orientem, whether or not this common direction is literally east. More accurately, it is primarily the Liturgy of the Eucharist that is celebrated ad orientem, while during the Introductory Rites, Liturgy of the Word, and Concluding Rites, the Missal foresees the priest generally facing the people (see Order of Mass, n. 1, 29, 127, 132, 141).

The basic logic of the liturgy is that when the priest is speaking to the people he faces them; when the priest is offering the sacrifice to God the Father, he is facing in the same direction as the people, as their head. While the Son took flesh and dwelt among us, the Father is spiritual and immaterial, so praying to the Father has traditionally been signified by praying in the same direction, almost universally toward the East, or orient. As St. Augustine puts it, “when we stand at prayer we face the East…. This is not to signify that God is dwelling there, as though he had forsaken the other parts of the world—for God is present everywhere, not in habitations of place but in power of majesty. It is done so that the mind may be admonished to turn toward God while its body is turned toward” the East.[1]

There have been various assertions made recently that the current norms laid down in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) prescribe that the entire Mass can only be said versus populum, facing the people. The current GIRM does not prescribe the priest to face toward the congregation or in the same direction as the congregation.

Central to the controversy is paragraph 299 of the GIRM. The pertinent section of paragraph 299 reads: “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 at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.” (Altare exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit.)

The central assertion is that the quod clause, “which is desirable wherever possible,” is asserting “that Mass can be celebrated…facing the people” whenever possible. Much has been written on the question of the grammar and syntax of this sentence and what exactly is being said. Latinists largely agree that the translation given in the 2011 Roman Missal is not well expressed. While some assert that the relative pronoun, quod, should be taken to refer back only to the preceding clause, “celebratio versus populum” (“celebrated facing the people”), this seems untenable. As one author observed, “Quod cannot refer back to the celebratio phrase alone, as celebratio is feminine and the relative pronoun quod is neuter. (Pronouns must agree with their antecedents in gender and number.) The quod clause makes the best sense when taken as referring back to the whole preceding sentence.”[2]

Nevertheless, “the meaning of the adverb ubicumque weighs against interpreting the passage” as advocating the celebration of Mass facing the people as normative. “Ubicumque is an adverb of place, not time:” in other words, the phrase wherever possible “should be construed as referring to the physical placement of the altar.”[3]

Thus, a better translation would be: “Wherever it is possible, it is expedient that the principal altar be built separate from the wall, so that it may be walked around easily, and so celebration facing the people may be conducted upon it.”[4]

This translation more adequately conveys what the then-Congregation (now called “Dicastery”) for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments wrote with regard to GIRM 299. Significant here is the fact that Cardinal Medina Estevez’s Congregation was principally responsible for drafting, updating, and approving the Latin text of the GIRM that was published with the new edition of the Missale Romanum in the year 2000. On October 25, 2000, the Congregation penned the following in Notitiae, the official journal of the Congregation, in response to a question about the orientation of liturgical prayer in relation to GIRM 299:

“In the first place, it is 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 seiunctum (detached from the wall) and to the celebration versus populum (towards 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 towards the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier (cf. the editorial in Notitiae 29, 245–49), without excluding, however, the other possibility.”

The Dicastery’s 2000 interpretation also fits better with the location of this paragraph in the GIRM, appearing in “Chapter V: The Arrangement and Ornamentation of Churches for the Celebration of The Eucharist.” As Lawrence Feingold notes, “if the GIRM really intended to mandate a celebration versus populum wherever possible, this section on the position of the altar would seem to be an inconspicuous place for such an important rubric.”[5] That is, if the phrase “desirable whenever possible” (expedit ubicumque possibile sit) referred exclusively or even primarily to the direction of the praying priest, it would likely appear in another section of the GIRM, for example, “The Different Elements of the Mass” (nos. 29-90) or “Mass with the People” (nos. 115-170). But since “desirable whenever possible” appears in the section of the GIRM bearing the title, “Arrangement of the Sanctuary for the Sacred Synaxis,” the context suggests that it refers principally to the position of the altar, which should be freestanding.

If, then, celebrating the Liturgy of the Eucharist ad orientem is a legitimate practice—one in keeping with liturgical tradition and current liturgical law, and affirmed as at least an option by the Holy See—can a diocesan bishop prohibit it, as is the case in some norms implementing Traditionis Custodes on the local level? When the revisions following the Second Vatican Council first emerged, many questions came along with them. One of them wondered about a bishop limiting the various options in his diocese for the sake of uniformity: “In order to attain uniformity when more than one possibility is given by the rubrics, whether the territorial authority competent for the whole region or the Bishop for his diocese can establish that a single way of doing things be adhered to by all?” The responsa from the Vatican answered: “Per se this is permissible. But always keeping before one’s eyes not to take away the freedom the new rubrics provide of adapting the celebration in an intelligent manner both to the church and to the group of the faithful, so that the universal sacred rite may actually be a living thing for living people.”[6]

The 2004 Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (“On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist”), written by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments at the request of Pope John Paul II (see Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n.52), invokes this same clarification when describing “The Diocesan Bishop, High Priest of his Flock”:

“It pertains to the diocesan Bishop, then, ‘within the limits of his competence, to set forth liturgical norms in his Diocese, by which all are bound.’ Still, the Bishop must take care not to allow the removal of that liberty foreseen by the norms of the liturgical books so that the celebration may be adapted in an intelligent manner to the Church building, or to the group of the faithful who are present, or to particular pastoral circumstances in such a way that the universal sacred rite is truly accommodated to human understanding” (21).

Quoting Canon 838 § 4, the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum clarifies that the ability of the diocesan bishop to set forth liturgical norms in his diocese is circumscribed “within the limits of his competence.” Thus, a bishop can legislate for the liturgy within his diocese, but, it appears, he cannot narrow the options that the universal law permits. That is, he cannot establish norms contrary to higher law: “A lower legislator cannot validly issue a law contrary to higher law” (Canon 135, §2).[7]

In short, it is clear from the Church’s own history and legislation that the Liturgy of the Eucharist celebrated ad orientem is not contrary to liturgical law—whether it is pastorally advisable is a separate question. The bishop’s authority to restrict this legitimate practice is less clear.

—Answered by the Editors


  1. Augustine of Hippo, Commentary on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount with Seventeen Related Sermons, ed. Hermigild Dressler, trans. Denis J. Kavanagh, vol. 11 of The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1951), 125–126.

  2. Rev. Robert Johansen, “Letters to the Editor: ‘Ad Orientem Debate Continues….’” Accessed on 19 August 2022: https://adoremus.org/2016/09/letters-3/

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Lawrence Feingold, The Eucharist: Mystery of Presence, Sacrifice, and Communion (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Academic, 2018), pp. 444.

  6. Consilium for Implementing the Constitution on the Liturgy, Dubium: Notitiae 1 (1965) p. 254; translation by Father Dylan Schrader.
  7. See John M. Huels, Liturgy and Law: Liturgical Law in the System of Roman Catholic Canon Law—Gratianus Series (Montreal, Canada: Wilson & Lafleur Ltée, 2006), 47.

The Editors