“Ad orientem” and the problems of modern church architecture

Even if every priest were to suddenly have the desire to celebrate the Mass in the ancient and traditional orientation, there remains a major obstacle—the architecture of the churches themselves.

Since Cardinal Robert Sarah’s speech at a London liturgical conference urging a return to the traditional practice of celebrating Mass ad orientem, there has been a fair amount of debate and even acrimony. What is clear, however, is that a more reverent posture is not only permissible and laudatory, but also calls for a shift in the design of sacred architecture—integral to liturgical prayer—that supports Mass being celebrated in this more sacred and appropriate way. 

Is it really the liturgical default that the priest face the people? The General Instruction of the Roman Missal seems to imply that it does not necessarily need to be the norm (GIRM 299). Furthermore, an explicit declaration from the Congregation of Divine Worship in 2000 acknowledged that celebrating ad orientem was entirely licit (Notitae Prot. No 2086/00/L).

There is no doubt that the Council allows for Mass to be celebrated versus populum, as the first instruction issued by the Council on the reform of the Mass, Inter Oecumenici, certainly encouraged this option. Whether or not versus populum was to be the only form or how much it was to be encouraged are not my concerns today, save to note that the instruction used terms such as “permit” and “allow” rather than “require” or “mandate.” Yet, even if every priest were to suddenly have the desire to celebrate the Mass in the ancient and traditional orientation, there remains a major obstacle to its widespread adoption—the architecture of the churches themselves.  

Sadly, almost every church built or renovated since 1965 has significant design impediments to celebrating the Mass ad orientem. Because of confusion about what exactly the Second Vatican Council’s reform of the Mass required of sacred architecture, the traditional design of a church was radically altered in such a way that a return to the traditional posture of the priest facing liturgical East is difficult, if not impossible, in many churches.

From a practical perspective, the current state of church architecture seems to be tailor-made to prevent the Mass celebrated ad orientem. The above-mentioned Inter Oecumenici states that the main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people (Inter Oecumenici 91).

In the rush to conform to this instruction, priests, architects, and liturgists payed absolutely no heed to the older orientation. So altars were ripped out, moved, and reconstructed, often in the most simplistic way possible, by placing them—at the most—only a few inches away from extreme edge of the sanctuary. Even in cases where churches were given “thrust stage” type sanctuaries extending into the nave, the altar was still placed so that there was little to no space on the liturgical West for the priest to stand and celebrate the Mass. Without addressing this architectural obstacle, any encouragement of ad orientem worship remains, at best, merely an academic exercise.  

Another practical obstacle to the encouragement of ad orientem in post-conciliar architecture is the abundance of the so-called “church in the round.” Taking the architectural form of theaters, liturgists would arrange pews, or more likely simple chairs, around the central altar, either arranged in a full circle or a fan shape.

Probably the single most popular form for progressive church architects in the second half of the 20th century, “in the round” is often justified with explanations that it was built “according to the requirements of Vatican II.” This is due to an overly literal interpretation of Inter Oecumenici that calls for the altar to be “truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there” (Inter Oecumenici 91). Despite a clarification from the Vatican (in 1965) that stated “truly central” was meant in a figurative sense rather than a literal one (Notitiae 1 (1965), 137–138, n. 7), the liturgists had fuel to run rampant.

This “in the round” church presents the simple question of what direction the priest is really facing liturgically. If everyone in the church is surrounding the altar, the priest is necessarily facing only half of the congregation, while having the other half at his back. If he moves to the opposite side of the altar, he faces the same dilemma. Often this is moot, as priests who prefer such an arrangement often wander about the church throughout the course of the Mass, facing this way and that, further muddling any sense of orientation. But this lack of orientation was seen as a good thing, because the casualness and the focus inward on the congregation were what was desired. Being able to see everyone else in the “community” of the church is one of the prime objectives of such designs. 

Finally, the direction the congregation faces in an “in the round” church reduces any sense of orientation as well. In a traditional church with a long nave that has been flipped to accommodate versus populum orientation, simply turning around will suffice, as everyone is facing in generally the same direction, but this cannot happen in these theater shapes. The congregation still is not unified in facing the same direction as the priest. Clearly the symbolism of the orientation is lost, when practically every member of the congregation is facing a different direction.

So what, then, is a priest to do who wishes to celebrate Mass ad orientem in such a church? Often, simply choosing a direction away from the front door is possible, but in some cases, there isn’t a clear main axis or main entry door. No matter what the priest does, the architecture manages to conflict with facing east because the church lacks a clear architectural representation of orientation.  At best, a pastor could work at reorganizing the entire interior of the church, by creating a sanctuary area on one side and arranging the seating to toward this one direction.

More than just practical issues, the problems presented by contemporary church designs for ad orientem are also profound symbolic problems. One can, of course, arrange a “church in the round” or a fan-shaped church so that there is some semblance of an orientation facing east, but without major renovations, the symbolism of the circular church is extremely hard to overcome.

This is because the contemporary concept of sacred architecture is shaped by a desire to move away from the traditional concept of the Mass as a sacrifice offered by the priest in the sanctuary to God the Father, and to move toward the view that it is the entire community that offers the Mass, with the priest as a facilitator, or a “presider,” of the Mass. We move away from the church building as the “domus dei,” the house of God, replacing it with the “domus ecclesiae,” the house of the Church. Thus, the emphasis shifts to looking at our neighbor instead of looking to the east and to the Word of God. There was indeed no better way to do this than to put the altar at the center of the church. 

In the church in the round, we do not look towards Christ sacrifice, but rather inward, only at ourselves. The idea that we face east and face toward God in the Mass is fundamentally and intentionally stripped from sacred architecture. To accomplish this, the liturgists urged the complete abandonment of the traditional nave and sanctuary arrangement in favor of the fan or circle, and therefore the architectural and symbolic connection of Christian sacred architecture to the Old Testament Temple of Solomon was destroyed. 

The Temple, of course, was a development of the tabernacle, the tent where God decreed that the Levitical priesthood was to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people while they wandered in the desert. More than just demanding sacrifices, God also decreed a specific shape, size, and configuration that this temple tent was to take. The temple would consist of the main body, the Holy Place where priests would bring offerings to God. At the end of the Holy Place would be the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was to go, where God himself would be present, seated atop the Ark of the Covenant. The tabernacle had an orientation, a long shaped hall, facing toward God. When the Temple was built by Solomon, it rendered the tent into an edifice of stone, and it followed the model of the tabernacle exactly, right down to the perfect cube of the Holy of Holies, and the placement of the Ark.

Later when the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people nevertheless continued to build synagogues in the same shape, where all gathered facing toward the Torah Ark, which was empty but for the scrolls of the Sacred Scriptures and the Torah and which stands as an echo of the Holy of Holies.

This configuration was carried forward in Christian sacred architecture as well. While adopting some architectural forms from the Romans, this configuration of Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was retained. The Holy Place is replaced by the nave of the basilica, and the sanctuary replaces the Holy of Holies. The priest, standing in persona Christi, would offer up Christ in the Eucharist as the perfect sacrifice to God. The symbolism of this becomes then the “foretaste” of Heaven, as we have yet to have full union with Christ in Heaven. It is toward this that we are facing. The Book of Revelation points out that the shape of the New Jerusalem is exactly the same as the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament Temple, so we have a deep and profound connection to both the Old Jerusalem, as well as the New. The sanctuary preserves the idea that throughout the past, present, and future, Christ is with us. 

In a church built according to this tradition, when the priest faces east he stands in the image of the Old Testament priest, offering sacrifice in the Holy of Holies to the presence of God, and Christ who is truly present in the Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle looks forward to the Heavenly City to come. But our post-conciliar sacred architecture has removed the altar from the sanctuary, destroying this distinction between the nave and the sanctuary, between the place of the faithful and the place of the priest and the intercessor. Moreover, the strongest connection to the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies—that is, the presence of God himself—has been eliminated through the removal of the tabernacle. 

Which brings us to the final challenge that ad orientem faces architecturally—the fact that for the past 50 years, the tabernacle has been moved from the sanctuary with an almost zealous enthusiasm. The symbolism of the tabernacle in the sanctuary is as rich and as deep as any within sacred architecture, one which has been needlessly diminished through a misapplication of a directive regarding its location.

From a desire to ensure that the dignity of the Eucharist is not despoiled, the Vatican urged that in large churches, such as cathedrals and others with many visitors, it might be best to move the tabernacle to a smaller side chapel (Eucharisticum Sacramentum 1973). But misreading this prudent directive as a dictate for all churches, and ignoring the fact that the GIRM gives no preference as to where it should be located (GIRM 315), the tabernacle often is shoved into a corner or a closet somewhere in the church.

But looking back to the church building as the fulfillment and development of the Temple, we can see that one of the most profound developments began in the Middle Ages with the reservation of the Sacrament in the tabernacle. Thus, the symbolism of the Church as the fulfillment of the Temple blossomed to its fullest. With Christ truly present in the tabernacle, the priest became in fact the fulfillment of the Old Testament priesthood. So when the priest faced east, he faced not only the symbolic rising of the Sun, the Resurrected Christ, but also the actual real presence of Christ. 

Despite the flippant claim of progressive liturgists, Mass was never offered to the wall, but to God himself. Recovering this connection between the Temple and the Church, and of offering our sacrifice to God himself, requires a recovery of sacred architecture as well as liturgy.

Liturgy—from the words of the Mass, vestments, candles, and incense to the movements and position of the priest and the faithful—communicates deep and powerful signs and meanings. So too sacred architecture, which is intended to give a fitting place for the worship of God, to be a handmaiden to the liturgy.

Knowing that sacred architecture can affect how we view the Mass and its symbols—that it can affect how they are communicated, and whether the teachings of the Church are either reinforced or negated—reminds us that it is not simply an afterthought for Christian worship. A church is not just “a skin for liturgical action,” but is as essential to the symbolism of the Mass as other liturgical elements. 

So when Cardinal Sarah called for priests to consider reinstating the practice of facing ad orientem in the Mass, to renew the rich symbolism of the Mass, we rejoiced.  But if we are to seek to find the rich meaning of our liturgical practices, we must consider a renewal of our sacred architecture to be a critical part of that effort as well.

About Erik Bootsma 0 Articles
Erik Bootsma is an architect practicing in Richmond, Virginia. A graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California and the Notre Dame School of Architecture, his firm, Erik Bootsma Design, specializes in sacred architecture. His academic interests include philosophy of aesthetics and the canonical requirements of post-Vatican II sacred architecture.