Cardinal Sarah’s pastoral call to “turn to the Lord”

Some de-mythologizing needs to take place in order for many to accept Cardinal Sarah’s call to celebrate Mass “ad orientem.”

Cardinal Robert Sarah swings a censer as he celebrates Mass in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010. (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.

Anti-Vatican II?

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 time.

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 Mass—while fine for those who liked it—to 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 Fessio wrote:

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?” [1] 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.” [2]

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 time—even 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 will too.

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 priest—across time, culture, and creed—is 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 the priest.

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 worship.

Why “ad orientem”?

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.

But we 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 Lord.

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 heart—turned toward the Lord.” He then connected this with liturgical orientation:

How 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? 

The 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 Christian East.”

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.’” [3] 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 general.



[1] 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,

[2] 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.  

[3]Cardinal Robert Sarah, “The Silent Action of the Heart”, L’Osservatore Romano, June 12, 2015.

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About Jeanette Flood 17 Articles
Jeanette Flood is a freelance writer living in Ohio with her husband and their six children. After graduating from Franciscan University of Steubenville, she received her M.A. from the Catholic University of America. Her book Eight Ways of Loving God: As Revealed by God, was published by Ignatius Press in 2019.

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