Cardinal Robert Sarah celebrates Mass in Port-au-Prince in January 2011. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)
With Advent around the corner, one cannot
help but wonder if any pastors or bishops will accept the
controversial invitation Cardinal Robert Sarah made last July. As keynote speaker at the 2016 Sacra Liturgia conference, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments called
for a “return to a common orientation of priest and people eastwards.” He urged
that the change be implemented beginning on the first Sunday in Advent.
The news was met with intense
consternation in some quarters and a tendency to paint Cardinal Sarah as a
rogue throw-back, suffering from a warped nostalgia. With the dampening
reaction made by the Holy See Press Office shortly afterward, followed by the considerable
papal changes to the membership of the congregation, it is unlikely that there
will be widespread implementation at this time, but it does not follow that
there will be none.
What is clear is that a great deal of education
and de-mythologizing must take place first.
I can understand the shock and even aversion
to Sarah’s proposal. I was raised on the idea that before Vatican II, the Church
was stuck in the Middle Ages and the priest said Mass with his “back to the
people.” In fact, when the opportunity arose in the ’90s for me to attend ad orientem Masses, I avoided it for some
I was blessed to work in-house at
Ignatius Press for two years. While I liked and respected the Press’ founder
and editor, Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, I was a little hesitant to attend his
Masses. I had grown up in the charismatic movement, and expected his style of
Masswhile fine for those who liked itto be too different from my spirituality
for me to enjoy.
When I finally went, it turned out to be
a real eye-opener. I was pleasantly surprised to find how much I learned and,
ultimately, how perfect it was.
What really struck me was that Father
didn’t “turn his back to us” the whole time as I expected, but frequently
turned around to address us. As he explained to me afterward, “When I’m talking
to the people, I face the people. When I’m talking to God, I face God.” He
didn’t have his back to us but his face to God. He was facing God with us,
leading us in prayer.
Years later, Father
I don’t say Mass “with my back to the people” any more than Patton
went through Germany with his “back to the soldiers.” Patton led the Third Army
across Germany and they followed him to achieve a goal. The Mass is part of the
Pilgrim Church on the way to our goal, our heavenly homeland. This world is not
our heavenly homeland. We don’t sit around in a circle and look at each other.
We want to look with each other and with the priest towards the rising
sun, the rays of grace, where the Son will come again in glory on the clouds.
Father Fessio didn’t come up with this
all on his own. The director for his doctoral thesis was Joseph Ratzinger. In
other words, Father Fessio studied
with the future Pope Benedict XVI less than a decade after Vatican II. Ratzinger
was not only present at the Council, in the capacity of a peritus (expert, or consulting theologian), but was a shining light
there, a featured speaker on theological topics. As early as 1967, Ratzinger
spoke of “exaggerations and aberrations” that had crept in to the new Mass, asking,
“Must every Mass, for instance, be celebrated facing the people?”  This indicates that that
orientation was not intended by the Council to be the norm.
The change took hold nonetheless (along with
many others made in a free-form “spirit of Vatican II”). Years later, as
prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger
reflected: “Looking at the priest has no importance. What
matters is looking together at the Lord…. What corresponds with the
reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement
forward expressed in a common direction for prayer.” 
My hesitation in attending Father Fessio’s
Mass had been that I thought it would be in what we now call the Extraordinary
Form. While there is nothing wrong with that, I was, like many born after the
Council, a little leery of the pre-conciliar liturgy, of which we know little
and that only by dark rumor. (I have since attended Tridentine Masses and can
see why people are attracted to its reverence and mystery.)
The vast majority of Catholics don’t
realize that there is a third option. Father Fessio celebrates the Novus Ordo (New Order) Mass according to
the rubrics set down by the conciliar documents and the Missal. He
describes it as a middle road between, on the one hand, the usual Novus
Ordo: “the kind of informal Mass, all in English, facing the people, with
contemporary music,” and on the other, “the Mass of 1962.” Both are permitted
and legitimate, he points out, but neither is what the Council had in mind. The
middle road is “the liturgy according to the Council, according to the presently
approved liturgical books…what I've called ‘the Mass of Vatican II.’”
This is what Cardinal Sarah and Pope
Emeritus Benedict XVI have in mind: simply to follow the guidelines set down by
the Second Vatican Council. Orientation is among the most effective ways of
restoring reverence and imparting sound theology.
Giving focus and taking focus
Having some acting and directing
experience, I can’t help but notice that the arrangement of the last 50 years
is, theatrically speaking, if not theologically, all wrong.
I’m not suggesting that the sanctuary
should be treated as a stage. I’m saying that it has already been rendered a
stage. And stage rules help demonstrate that.
Principles of good stagecraft are based
on human tendencies, on what captures our attention. One well-known adage is to
“never turn your back to the audience.” Now this is not an absolute: It’s meant
for the one speaking, not for everyone on stage, nor all the timeeven for the
speaker. This is chiefly for the very practical reason that, unless you have a
microphone, you are much less audible when you’re facing away from the
audience. The sound waves are sent in the wrong direction. Another reason is
that with his back to the audience, the speaker is not as noticeable. That
posture generally doesn’t grab or hold a viewer’s attention.
This adage, however, does not apply to the
priest at Mass.
First, it does not apply on a practical
level. He usually does have a microphone. (Even in the rare cases when a
microphone goes out, it’s fine. If it were to go out when he’s speaking to the
people, he is already facing them. If it were to malfunction while he’s
speaking to God, he doesn’t have to be audible at that point; we could follow
along with a missal.) Furthermore, to describe the traditional posture as the
priest having his “back to the congregation” is to treat the Mass as a
spectacle and the sanctuary as a stage. The priest is not on stage, and he is not
meant to be the focus anyway.
In theater, we also talk about “giving
focus” and “taking focus.” You can either give focus to others or take focus
from them by where you place yourself on the stage, what you do, where you are looking.
Generally, the person who is “center-stage” is easiest to find and the natural
focal point. If for some reason the speaker is elsewhere on stage, the
audience’s attention can be directed to him. He can “take focus” by facing the
audience, moving, and/or speaking. The human eye is naturally drawn to the
human face, to movement, and to noise, especially speech. The speaker is
supposed to “take focus.” Everyone else should help the audience find the key figure:
they “give focus” by holding still, turning toward the speaker, and especially
by looking at him. When spectators see them, they will naturally follow the
line of their gaze. If everyone on stage is looking at the speaker, the audience
These human tendencies are at play (no
pun intended) wherever we are. According to these principles, if the priest is
standing in the center of the sanctuary, speaking, and looking at the people, he
is absolutely “taking focus.”
If he is turned toward the Lord, however,
he is giving focus. The people will look
the same way; they will look beyond him to the Lord too.
Cardinal Sarah obviously realized this as
well, for later he
remarked that with ad orientem, “we
are so much less tempted to take ourselves for actors, as Pope Francis says!”
The purpose of a priest
What is a priest? What does he do? A priestacross
time, culture, and creedis one who offers sacrifice to God on behalf of the
people. If a Catholic priest is facing
the Lord during the Mass, his role is so much more obvious: he has stepped
forward from among us, is leading us in prayer, and offering sacrifice to God with
us and for us.
Interestingly, after Vatican II, an attitude
arose of bringing priests down to our level, not treating them as being above
the laity. On the one hand, I would disagree with that perspective since ordination
is not merely an empty ceremony but a divine action that eternally changes the
ordained. Moreover, a priest has given up so much and dedicated his life to
serving God and serving us, he deserves respect and gratitude.
On the other hand, however, I find it
ironic that those who want to down-grade the office of priesthood are usually
the same people who end up effectively putting priests on a pedestal. Having
the priest constantly face the people makes him the focus of a spectacle. The
Mass is not meant to be a vehicle for giving a priest the respect he deserves;
rather, it is our highest prayer, our communal worship, and our participation
in the sacrifice of Jesus.
In Catholic theology, the priest is not
only one who offers sacrifice, he is also alter
Christus; he acts in persona Christi.
He has become another Christ, acting in the person of Christ. At the
consecration, the priest no longer speaks in his own voice but in the voice of
Christ. He doesn’t say, “This is the Body of Jesus,” but, “This is my Body…This
is my Blood.” Christ, the Great Eternal Priest, speaks and acts in and through
Personally, I find it easier to realize
this if I’m not looking at Father So-and-So’s face. His face at that moment is
a distraction. From the back, in his liturgical robes, he melts into Jesus; I
can forget about him as an individual and more easily believe that Christ is
speaking through him. At the zenith of the Mass, when he raises the consecrated
Host, and then the chalice, in the traditional orientation the priest is utterly
giving focus to Christ, for he must hold the Eucharist as far above himself as
he can reach.
When the priest prays facing the Lord with us, that orientation puts everything
in proper order. We creatures, his people, are all facing the Almighty
together, with the priest in front, giving focus to God and leading us in
The phrase “ad orientem” is Latin for “toward the east.” But why east? In fact,
why any direction? Do we find God only in the east?
Obviously not. Nor do we find him only in
a church. God is everywhere, and we can address him anywhere.
need special places, to help us focus our minds. That is the point of a “sacred
space,” and the point of distinguishing the sacred and profane. (The word profane originally meant everything
outside a temple.) Yes, we are to pray at all times, wherever we are. But we
also need quiet places to which we can “come away” as Jesus invites us, and
focus on him (Matthew 6:31).
In the same way, when we worship together
we need a common focal point. For most of our history, Catholics have
worshipped facing east. This not only follows ancient Jewish practice, but is
also based on our expectant look for Christ’s Second Coming. Though Christ our
Light has come into our lives like the sun at dawn, we are still surrounded by
a lot of darkness as we await his second and final coming. Looking east is a
symbol and reminder of that reality.
However, not all churches were built with
that orientation. In the early Church, the people
in such cases would turn and face east with the priest, even if it meant the
altar was behind them. Probably more commonly, the solution for centuries was for
the priest, like the people, to face the apse, as a “liturgical east.” The apse
is usually decorated with a sacred image or crucifix, which can serve as the common
focal point. And this is precisely what Cardinal Sarah suggested: a return to a
shared turning “ad Dominum,” to the Lord, by the priest and the people.
That is the point of “ad orientem” worship: to focus on the
Cardinal Sarah’s real agenda
The media coverage of Cardinal Sarah’s
remarks last summer was often misleading. He wasn’t mandating an overnight,
whole-scale revolution. First of all, it wasn’t a command, but a recommendation.
Secondly, he is hardly the first to suggest the ad orientem Mass. Ratzinger as theologian, bishop, cardinal, and
pope, for instance, has been recommending it since the Council ended, and it
has been done in some places for decades. The Church not only allows it, but the
Missal even presumes it: there are places in the Mass where the rubrics
tell him to “turn to the people”which of course presumes that beforehand he
was facing ad Dominum.
Finally, media accounts often missed the
qualifications Cardinal Sarah added. He suggested implementing this first at
the cathedral of a diocese, not immediately in every single parish. And he
understood that different places could encounter different challenges: “I
humbly and fraternally ask you to implement this practice wherever possible,
with prudence and with the necessary catechesis…. Your own pastoral judgement
will determine how and when this is possible, but perhaps beginning this on the
first Sunday of Advent this year.”
As mentioned above, further explanation recently
came from Cardinal Sarah, during an October interview on his new book, The
Strength of Silence. To unite with
God in prayer, he said, we must be “with all our heartturned toward the Lord.”
He then connected this with liturgical orientation:
can we enter into this interior disposition except by turning physically, all
together, priest and faithful, toward the Lord who comes, toward the east
symbolized by the apse where the cross is enthroned?
outward orientation leads us to the interior orientation that it symbolizes. Since
apostolic times, Christians have been familiar with this way of praying. It is
not a matter of celebrating with one’s back to the people or facing them, but
toward the east, ad Dominum,
toward the Lord.
He also recognized that in some churches
“it is physically not possible to celebrate ad orientem,” and reiterated
Pope Benedict XVI’s solution, namely, “to put a cross on the altar in plain
view, as a point of reference for everyone. Christ on the cross is the
More importantly, Cardinal Sarah revealed
his heart to be both fatherly and pastoral (additional important aspects of
Catholic priesthood). “I wish that this question would not become the occasion
for an ideological clash of factions! We are talking about our relationship with
God. … I am just making the heartfelt suggestions of a pastor who is concerned
about the good of the faithful. I do not intend to set one practice against
another.” He plainly did not desire to engage in any “liturgical wars.” He
simply desires to help us grow closer to God.
This was also clear back in June 2016 when
he wrote that those
parts of the Mass where the priest faces the congregation have “no other end
than to lead them to a téte-à-tète with God, who through the grace of the Holy
Spirit, will make it ‘a heart to heart.’”  It was obvious when he gave the address that led to the controversy. “All
present were profoundly moved by the cardinal’s humility,” reported
Dom Alcuin Reid, international coordinator of Sacra Liturgia. “It was clear
that he is attempting to lead people to a more faithful understanding and
practice of worship according to the mind of the Church.”
As the prefect of the Congregation for
Divine Worship and the Sacraments, Sarah is a spiritual father and a shepherd
to the global Church. His role is to help us worship better. His stance
throughout his tenure has been loving, paternal, and directed to our spiritual
growth and welfare. From his speeches to his books, his perennial call is,
“Turn to the Lord!”
We can help him in this effort by
charitably educating others on the valid reasons for his ad orientem suggestion and on the beauty and power of the Mass in
 J. Ratzinger, “Catholicism after
the Council,” trans. P. Russell, The Furrow 18 (1967): 11-12. Quoted in
Uwe Michael Lang, “Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer”,
Adoremus Bulletin, 11, no. 2 (April
2005), online edition, http://www.adoremus.org/0405LiturgicalPrayer.html.
 Joseph Cardinal
Ratzinger, “The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer”, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John
Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 81.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, “The Silent
Action of the Heart”, L'Osservatore
Romano, June 12, 2015.