Ad Orientem Worship

Mass celebration at the high altar

The following Masses are currently celebrated ad orientem:

  • First Sunday at 7:00 PM in the Mission Church
    (Next Mass will be March 3rd at 7PM)

Letter from Fr. Anthony on the Introduction of Ad Orientem Masses

October 2022

Dear Friends,

This past June, Bishop Barber came to our parish to celebrate the 225th Anniversary of the founding of the Mission. At the anniversary Mass on June 11, he dedicated (consecrated) the high altar, also known as the main altar, of the Mission Church. As explained at the time, the 1985 Mission Church was constructed with two new altars, the main altar and the freestanding one. Only the free standing altar was dedicated in 1985, as the Rite of Dedication does not anticipate two altars. Very few (if any) churches constructed after the close of the Second Vatican Council are built with both high and freestanding altars. The inclusion of a high altar in the design and construction is historically accurate and reminds us of the long history and tradition of our Catholic worship.

As one can see by the design of the Mission and its sanctuary, the high altar is central. It’s the focal point. The fact that it is called the “main” altar also indicates its centrality. Even the solar illumination that happens twice each year draws our attention to the high altar. Use of the high altar is often referred to as “ad orientem,” a Latin term meaning “to the east.” In the Mission, the altar happens to actually face the east, but the true meaning of “liturgical east” is to face the direction of the rising sun, to turn our gaze to the resurrection. The east is the direction of hope and of new life. Offering the Mass in this way is often reduced to a simple yet misleading description: “the priest has his back to the people.” While that is true, it’s more important to highlight that the priest faces the same direction as the people, leading them forward, much like any other head of a body.

Didn’t Vatican II change the direction the priest faces during the Mass?

In practice, yes, that was a broad shift that occurred. However, this change (known as versus populum, or “toward the people”) is not found in any of the sixteen documents produced by the Council, yet it is perhaps one of the most visible changes that the Church has seen. The change occurred without the direction of the Council and is not one of the intentions of Vatican II. In fact, the Roman Missal, which is the book the priest prays from during the Mass, presumes that the priest is praying ad orientem. For example, when the priest is at the altar and says, “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father,” the instructions written for the priest indicate that he says this while “facing the people,” which means that he was not previously facing the people. 

Isn’t it wrong for the priest to turn his back to the people while he is at the altar?

Not at all. The Mass is not entertainment and the congregation is not an audience. The congregation is the assembled Body of Christ, praying together with the priest the great prayer of the Church, sharing in the sacrifice led by the priest. As seen in the prayers and dialog of the Mass, we are primarily praying to God the Father. Comparatively, there is very little dialog between the priest and the people, and the people and themselves. Is it not wrong to face the person you are speaking to, which is what ad orientem worship allows the priest to do together with the people: to face God in this most ancient and deeply-rooted Christian practice of facing the east, where the sun rises and the Son rises. 

In Cardinal Ratzinger’s well known book The Spirit of the Liturgy, he addresses this topic in terms of the errors of modern church buildings and liturgical practices. Because we have lost a sense of the significance of praying together in the same direction and, when possible, making that direction the east, the Mass has come to be characterized primarily as a meal. He goes on to say:

“In reality, what happened was that an unprecedented clericalization came on the scene. Now the priest–the ‘presider’, as they now prefer to call him–becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing…The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself. The common turning toward the east was not a ‘celebration toward the wall’; it did not mean that the priest ‘had his back to the people’: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together ‘toward the Lord’. As one of the fathers of Vatican Il’s Constitution on the Liturgy, J. A. Jungmann, put it, it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession toward the Lord.”

Since the Mission’s high altar was consecrated in June, Mass has been celebrated on it twice, both times by Bishop Barber. With his support and encouragement, I am pleased to announce that ad orientem worship is being introduced to our parish on a more regular basis. Beginning November 2 (All Souls), the First Wednesday 7pm Mass and First Sunday 7pm Mass will be celebrated ad orientem using the Mission’s high altar.

As we find ourselves in the midst of the national Eucharistic Revival, I hope that experiences of ad orientem worship will serve as an opportunity to focus more on our Lord’s true presence, and be more united in the prayer that brings about that presence: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Sincerely Yours in Christ,

Fr. Anthony Huong Le

Pastor

Pope Francis Celebrating Mass Ad Orientem