Celebration of Pontifical Solemn Mass at Sacra Liturgia 2016, at Church of our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Westminster. (www.facebook.com/Sacraliturgia2013/)
esteems reason without rationalism, authority without authoritarianism.
Catholicism works when the Church’s authorities act in a rational
manner, using their reason to interpret the Church’s teaching rightly
and in turn to teach it with fidelity. As the Magisterium is servant to
the Word of God, as a pope is bound to the Magisterium, ecclesial
authority at every level is constrained by the truth of the Church’s
Contradiction and a thousand cuts
however, it seems a few of the Church’s authorities use their authority as
bishops, or, on a parish or diocesan level, as priests or lay
functionaries, to subvert, correct, or contradict what’s said plainly in
the Church’s official documents. For instance, it’s not too hard to
find ecclesial authorities nowadays who will advert to conscience in
suggesting the faithful can be unfaithful to what the Church teaches in
its Catechism on (say) sexuality if their consciences tell them contrary, and in doing so also contradict what the Catechism says on conscience (cf. CCC 1776-1802).
hard on laypeople and lower clergy who are trying to be faithful to the
Church’s teaching when the Church’s authorities act, speak, and govern
in ways that undercut, sell short, or sell out Catholic teaching as it’s
spelled out in the Church’s official documents. It’s hard to explain to
our children why, sometimes, what we teach them in their religious
instruction differs from what they experience or what some ecclesial
The texts say what they say, from the documents of Vatican II to the Catechism and
beyond, to say nothing of what came before. Catholics can read, and
some can read Latin. Catholics are rational; our reason can make good
sense of the texts’ presentation of authoritative human and divine
teaching. Sometimes, however, it seems the glorious truths of our
official documents suffer the death of a thousand cuts from the knives
of a thousand committees by the time they travel from Rome to parishes
in Portlandia or Lake Woebegone. But the texts are there, published
officially as books or on the internet by organs of the Vatican or
episcopal conferences. Presumably, the Church’s authorities want the
official texts read. And so Catholics read.
And yet Catholics
often encounter contradictions between what an official document says
and what’s happening on the ground in parishes and diocese. There’s one
subject Church in history, one mystical Church which is Jesus Christ as
head with his members, but sometimes it seems as if there’s two. Were
one to raise the issue of discrepancies between Catholic teaching and
local practice on matters moral or liturgical, one might imagine certain
authorities in the mold of Chico Marx’s character Chicolini in the Marx
Brothers’ movie Duck Soup, saying, “Well, who you gonna believe? Me, or your own eyes?” But Catholics can read. They can read the Catechism, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the rubrics of the Roman Rite, the actual text of the GIRMsome of us in Latin.
Obedience to the rubrics
With regard to liturgy, the Church has been in this situation since the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae,
now the ‘Ordinary Form’ of the Roman Rite, for its celebration is often
at odds with what the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium says, with what its own rubrics say, and with what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal
for the Ordinary Form instructs. And so those who desire faithful
liturgy find contemporary practice lacking, for they can read the texts.
every text needs interpretation (even reading a grocery list is
low-level interpretation as our minds make sense of the black marks on
the paper), but modern Catholic documents are not so arcane that it
takes episcopal oracles to reveal their mysterious secrets to us.
Catholics are not gnostics, and modern Catholic documents are written to
be understood. Catholics are people of reason. Catholics can read, and
believe they should read. Yet the lay faithful often encounter the worst
sort of clericalism when they run up against legalistic authoritarians
insisting they alone can know what the official texts say, and come up
with some pretense for inaction.
But the liturgical texts say what they say. And whatever other practices have arisen, such as versus populum, the liturgical texts at issue assume that ad orientem posture is the normative posture for the Roman Rite. Those who desire a return to the ad orientem posture
are not angling and agitating for their own particular personal
preferences and predilections, but rather desire fidelity in liturgy,
obedience to the rubrics. They trust the Church, and desire her teaching
and law on matters liturgical obeyed. It’s shame and scandal that some
distrust the Church so much and regard the faithful so little that they
feel free to ignore the Church’s liturgical teaching.
A liturgical tempest
And so we come to the latest development in the furore over ad orientem that
Cardinal Sarah unleasheda tempest born of one Cardinal’s clarion call
to liturgical fidelity. The Most Rev. Arthur J. Serratelli, the good and
faithful bishop who actually does a very good job heading up the
USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship, penned a letter
to his brother bishops in the US, reminding them of Fr. Lombardi’s
statement of July 11 from the Holy See Press Office that no liturgical
changes regarding the celebrant’s posture are in the offing for Advent,
and so no changes to the GIRM or mandates for ad orientem posture are coming. Then (1) he asserted that “n. 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does
show a preference for the celebrant’s facing the people ‘whenever
possible’ in the placement and orientation of the altar”; but (2) he
mentioned that “the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline
of the Sacraments has clarified on earlier occasions that this does not prohibit the celebration of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form ad orientem,” conceding that “there are rubrics in the Order of Mass which
reflect the real possibility that the celebrant might be facing away
from the assembly”; and then (3) closed the letter advising prudence in
light the “pastoral welfare of the people” and stated, “Such an
important decision should always be made with the supervision and
guidance of the local bishop.”
Fr. Lombardi’s statement, to which
Bishop Serratelli adverts, is unfortunate, as is Bishop Serratelli’s
final paragraph, for the claims and implications of both are highly
dubitable. To discuss them properly, let’s start by recognizing that not
only the rubrics but also the GIRM for the Ordinary Form of the Roman
Rite operate with the assumption that the celebrant normally employs ad orientem posture.
In brief, one finds the rubrics instructing the priest celebrant to
face the people at certain points (cf. e.g. nos. 1, 29, 127, 132, 139,
141), as well as instructions to face the altar (cf.
eg. no. 133). These instructions to face the people and to face the
altar would be redundant if the rubrics assumed a constant versus populum posture, but they make sense with the ad orientem posture.
As the GIRM no. 299 is used to shut down the ad orientem posture, let’s look at the GIRM more broadly. In the GIRM
too one finds the instruction to face the people (cf. nos. 124, 146,
154, 157) and at other times to face the altar (cf. nos. 158, 244,
268)which makes sense since it’s tracking with the rubrics. And again,
as with the rubrics, these directions would be redundant if the GIRM
really assumed a constant versus populum posture.
The instructions in the GIRM nos. 157-158 are striking, for they assumeeven demandad orientem posture at the Ecce Agnus Dei and the priest’s communion (emphases mine):
When the prayer is concluded, the Priest genuflects, takes a host
consecrated at the same Mass, and, holding it slightly raised above the
paten or above the chalice, facing the people, says, Ecce Agnus Dei (Behold the Lamb of God) and together with the people he adds, Lord, I am not worthy.
158. After this, standing facing the altar,
the Priest says quietly, Corpus Christi custodiat me in vitam aeternam
(May the Body of Christ keep me safe for eternal life), and reverently
consumes the Body of Christ. Then he takes the chalice, saying quietly,
Sanguis Christi custodiat me in vitam aeternam (May the Blood of Christ
keep me safe for eternal life), and reverently partakes of the Blood of
Note the shift: In no. 157, the priest faces the people to present the host to the people. But then no. 158 instructs him to face the altar: he has to turn. This makes sense if he’s on the people’s side of the altar where he’d need to be to employ ad orientem posture. If the GIRM assumed constant versus populum posture,
the instructions to face the people (no. 157) and then face the altar
(no. 158) would make no sense, for the priest celebrant would already
facing both altar and the people at the same timeas in most Masses
today, in spite of the rubrics and the GIRM.
If that weren’t enough, the very Introduction orienting(!) priest celebrants to the GIRM affirms ad orientem posture at the anamnesis in no. 2 (emphasis mine):
is taught in this way by the Council is consistently expressed in the
formulas of the Mass. Moreover, the doctrine which stands out in the
following sentence, already notable and concisely expressed in the
ancient Sacramentary commonly called the Leonine "for whenever the
memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated the work of our redemption is
accomplished"is aptly and exactly expounded in the Eucharistic Prayers;
for as in these the Priest enacts the anamnesis, while turned towards God likewise in the name of all the people,
he renders thanks and offers the living and holy sacrifice, that is,
the Church's oblation and the sacrificial Victim by whose death God
himself willed to reconcile us to himself; and the Priest also prays
that the Body and Blood of Christ may be a sacrifice which is acceptable
to the Father and which brings salvation to the whole world.
towards God likewise in the name of all the people”; priest and people
together. Is there a better phrase summing up the ad orientem posture?
Assuming ad orientem
In sum, both the rubrics of the Ordinary Form of the Mass and the GIRM assume ad orientem. If the GIRM is coherent, then no. 299 cannot be cited to claim the GIRM forbids (or disfavors) ad orientem posture.
GIRM no. 299 is much discussed because it’s much mistranslated and thus
much misunderstood resulting in much mischief, but it becomes the
sneaky bureaucratic sledgehammer crushing the Ordinary Form’s rubrics
and instruction in smashing ad orientem. Go to the pertinent sections here or here or here for detail, but in brief: the GIRM no. 299 concerns the construction of altars, not versus populum posture
directly, suggesting that it is desirable that altars be built away
from the wallin Latin, it simply does not say that the versus populum posture is desirable wherever possible. If anything, the GIRM at this one point permits versus populum posture
as (perhaps) an experimental innovation, but it should not be read
against the rest of the GIRM and the rubrics of the Mass to preclude the
normative ad orientem posture.
This means two things:
First, the Holy See Press Office’s communiqué on the matter is clumsy. It mentions the GIRM no. 299 to effectively forbid ad orientem,
and then relates that Pope Francis reminded the “Dicastery for Divine
Worship” that “the ‘extraordinary’ form, which was permitted by Pope
Benedict XVI for the purposes and in the ways explained in his Motu
Proprio Summorum Pontificum, must not take the place of the ‘ordinary’ one.”
dealt with the GIRM no 299 already. As regards the issue of the
relationship of two forms of the one Roman rite, Benedict himself
clarified that it was not licit to mix features of one form with the
other. For instance, priests may not substitute the older, longer
version of the Confiteor found in the Extraordinary Form for
the first option for the Penitential Act in the Ordinary form, which,
although based on the older Confiteor, is much shorter.
The problem is that the communique implies that the ad orientem posture
would be an illicit pollution of the Ordinary Form brought in from the
Extraordinary Form. But that’s not true, for we’ve seen that the ad orientem posture is not something that belongs to the Extraordinary Form alone with versus populum the posture proper to the Ordinary Form. Rather, ad orientem is the normative priestly posture for the Roman rite in both forms.
Second, beyond the mention of the GIRM no. 299 and the mention of Lombardi’s communiqué, Bishop Serratelli’s claim that ad orientem
posture is something subject to the bishop’s control must be
challenged. It is true that a diocesan ordinary is responsible for the
proper celebration of liturgy in his domain (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 22 and 41, CIC 838 § 4, and Sacramentum Caritatis
39), but that does not mean a bishop may prescribe what his priests
must do and proscribe what they may not do in a way contrary to the rite
itself. The bishop is to direct liturgy “within the limits of his
competence” as Ordinary (CIC 838.4) and canon law makes clear that “The
Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the
prescriptions of their own rite” (CIC 214). In short, a diocesan bishop
has as his task ensuring the proper celebration of the Mass according to
the rubrics and instruction of the rite. Bishops do not have the right
to forbid or permit something the rubrics and GIRM assume as normative, as if ad orientem posture was a matter of local indult.
Indeed, it almost seems as if Bishop Serratelli sees a contradiction
between the GIRM and the CDWDS’ clarification and then decides to punt
to local ordinaries to resolve it on a case-by-case basis.
are people of reason, and so it would be helpful if someone could
demonstrate how the rubrics or the GIRM demand (or merely favor) versus populum and forbid (or merely tolerate) the ad orientem
posture. For faithful Catholics “receive with docility the teachings
and directives that their pastors give them in different forms” (CCC 87). What one often finds from those who disdain the ad orientem posture,
however, is jejune squealing over the Vatican’s supposed “smackdown” of
Cardinal Sarah, or admonitions to the virtue of prudence so extreme
they become the vice of cowardice, or a desire the whole thing would
just go away. One does not find them making good rational arguments
about the meaning and import of the rubrics and the GIRM, to say nothing
of broader theological and liturgical principles.
often finding themselves in a situation in which the Church’s
authorities sometimes seem to set themselves against the Church’s own
teaching and rites. The faithful layperson who is eager to receive and
embody what the Church teaches us to know, believe, and do to be saved
finds the dissonance disorienting. Worst is when ecclesial authorities
act as authoritarians in service of rationalism, in which the deformed
reason of the spirit of the age judges the Church’s teaching and finds
it wanting, or panders to the narcissism inherent in our recalcitrant
flesh. These are the ways of gnosticism, in which it is understood
hylics simply cannot have the capacity to access and appreciate the
arcane mysteries known by the elite. Fortunately, we are Catholics, and
Catholicism works when reason and authority embrace truth.
educated Catholic laity whom everyone from Augustine to Blessed John
Henry Newman and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council desired are
here, and we can read. And so we ought to read again Cardinal Sarah’s ad orientem appeal in his now-famous address,
and ask the question whether the Church’s liturgical tradition, the
rubrics, and the GIRM favor himdoes the Cardinal prefect responsible
for the Church’s worship and sacraments not know the rubrics or the
GIRM?or rather those who wrongly wield the GIRM no. 299 against him.
Who you gonna believe? Them, or your own eyes?