Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Thoughts on "Ad Orientem"

“As Jesus was the true worshipper of the Father, so let prayer and contemplation be the soul of all they are and do.

Let them participate in the sacramental life of the Church, above all the Eucharist.” (Art. 8a-b, Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order)

Before the death of Senator Edward Kennedy hit the news wires, I was preparing to comment on a story I read on the National Catholic Reporter website, posted on August 21, 2009. It was from Kristen May of the Religion News Service. She reported that Bishop Edward Slattery of the Diocese of Tulsa, OK, was going to be celebrating the Eucharist “ad orientem.” This means that he will be facing away from the congregation.

There have been many comments on this, many in support, saying that this brings about a more sense of the sacred; that it focuses the attention of the people on God, rather than on the priest. There were comments on maintaining a sacred tradition, the history of that tradition, and so forth.

Well, I am going to add to the debate. As I think I may have mentioned in an earlier posting, one of the great concepts, great teaching, I think, to come out of the Second Vatican Council, was that of the common priesthood of the faithful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 1141:

“The celebrating assembly is the community of the baptized who ‘by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, that through all the works of Christian men they may offer spiritual sacrifices.’ This ‘common priesthood’ is that of Christ the sole priest, in which all his members participate:

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be lead to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people, ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ have a right and an obligation by reason of their Baptism.”

All the faithful are called to actively participate in the Eucharistic liturgy. No longer is the laity to be just passive observers of the liturgy, but are to join with the priest in prayer, through their responses, and through their praising of God in song. And as part of the common priesthood of the baptized, the laity is worthy to witness the divine action, when through the words of consecration, the bread and wine on the altar becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. For me, this is why it is so important for the priest to be facing the congregation. Granted, there have been priests who distract, by their words and movements from the central act taking place, but the solution is not turning back the clock, but better training.

The Eucharistic liturgy is no longer a secret act by the priest, with the laity given the privilege of seeing only the elevated Host and Chalice. No, the Eucharistic liturgy, especially the Consecration, should be witnessed by all the faithful, so that all the faithful can be drawn into this wondrous Mystery.
Image by RNS

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan,

    I totally agree: active participation is so important. I just wonder if it can only be realized with the priest facing the people.

    The old Latin Mass was hardly the only rite where the priest and people faced the same direction. Actually, the ad orientem posture is almost exclusively the posture used in all 29 different Catholic rites. Because it's such a universal way of praying, many would assert, along with Pope Benedict, that this universality of practice we see in the 29 rites is not an accident of history (some medieval privatization of the Mass): this universality points to something important--you might read Joseph Ratzinger's ''The Spirit of the Liturgy'' as he tries to sketch what it is.

    Because it's such a constitutive part of our practice as a universal Church we should not simply turn our back on it because it's now out of fashion in the Western Church. I think the liturgical changes that happened so fast in the 60's left behind some really good things and I think the ad orientem posture is one of them.

    On a personal level, the ad orientem posture really speaks to my heart and helps me to participate more actively in the Mass: facing the Father together, in a common direction, with the priest standing in the person of Christ and leading us (with us) to the Father's house! Then, when we have offered the worhsip of Christ's Sacrifice to the Father, Christ turns to us in the person of his priest and feeds us with his own body and blood! Talk about increasing my active participation: it speaks to the imagination!

    I have been blessed at many Masses where the priest was facing the people, but isn't there room for both postures? And shouldn't we be open to discovering why this way of praying is such a universal practice?