Bishop Edward J. Slattery of Tulsa, Okla., faces the crucifix on the altar as he celebrates Mass in June 2009 at Holy Family Cathedral. (CNS photo/Dave Crenshaw, Eastern Oklahoma Catholic)
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 architectureintegral to
liturgical prayerthat supports Mass being celebrated in this more sacred and
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 adoptionthe 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
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
themat the mostonly 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.
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), 137138, n. 7), the liturgists had fuel to run
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.
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
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
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
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
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 Holiesthat is, the
presence of God himselfhas been eliminated through the removal of the tabernacle.
Which brings us to
the final challenge that ad orientem
faces architecturallythe 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.
words of the Mass, vestments, candles, and incense to the movements and
position of the priest and the faithfulcommunicates 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 symbolsthat it can affect
how they are communicated, and whether the teachings of the Church are either
reinforced or negatedreminds 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.