People, Look East!

The growing trend of bishops forbidding their priests to offer Holy Mass “Ad Orientem,” that is, facing liturgical (east or the tabernacle), is the result of bad translations, irrational fear, poor theology, and abuse of authority.

(Image: Josh Applegate |

It seems a bit of a firestorm has erupted and is spreading of late, whereby some bishops have forbidden their priests to offer Holy Mass “Ad Orientem,” that is, facing liturgical (east or the tabernacle), so that priest and people, together, face the same direction. Such directives have come from Chicago (well known for its liturgical propriety), Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh, with varying degrees, from a total prohibition to a demand to seek permission of the Ordinary.

Let us be clear at the outset: There is not a word in Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium raising this topic and, further, no bishop has the authority to enact such a regulation. Now, let’s examine the issue calmly and seriously.

Sometimes, a bishop bases his decision on Paragraph 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which reads: “The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.” On a certain reading, it would seem that what is “desirable wherever possible” is that Mass be celebrated “facing the people.” However, that interpretation arises from a clunky English translation of the Latin original. In the Latin, the English clause, “which is desirable. . . .” is introduced by the neuter relative pronoun “quod” (which). To what word in the main clause is that pronoun referring? It is “altare seiunctum” (altar separated from the wall). In other words, building an altar away from the wall is desirable. Why? So that the priest can circumambulate the altar for the incensations – and also to celebrate facing the people.

In other words, the rubric is not weighing in on the desirability of Mass “versus populum”; it is weighing in on the issue of an altar’s construction.

Secondly, if celebration facing the people were normative, why do the rubrics consistently direct the priest to turn and face the people for the various greetings or directives (e.g., “The Lord be with you”; “Pray, brethren”; “The peace of the Lord be with you”; “Behold the Lamb of God”; the concluding rites). To be sure, the presumption is that at other times, the priest is not facing the people!

Thirdly, some bishops have expressed concern that a proper catechesis precede the change in the priest’s direction. That is a legitimate concern, however, the catechesis need not be a years-long explanation. A few years ago, I was the keynote speaker at a major conference in Ireland and the principal celebrant of two of the Masses. At dinner, the local Ordinary said, “I understand you’re going to celebrate Mass tomorrow facing East. How do you think the people will react?” I assured him I planned on giving a brief but cogent catechesis beforehand. Which I did, giving the historical background and the basic rationale, namely, that when we talk to the people, we face the people; when we talk to God, we face God. No one suffered shock, requiring an ambulance ride to the emergency room. Interestingly, the bishop himself (who had been skeptical) remarked that my explanation took into consideration all the concerns and that he didn’t notice any discomfort among the congregation.

And why would there be? For more than a quarter of a century, I have assisted at Holy Innocents Church in Midtown Manhattan. For years, I celebrated a Latin Mass there according to the Usus Recentior, facing East, with not a single problem. The parish has five daily Masses (four in the vernacular and the fifth in the Usus Antiquior); for the past six years, all the Masses have been offered Ad Orientem, again, with no pastoral difficulties. Interestingly, visitors (who abound) often remark about how much they appreciate the experience, frequently with comments like, “It was much more prayerful.”

Further, most priests will say that, once they have offered Holy Mass Ad Orientem, they too find it far easier to celebrate. Mass facing the people facilitates clericalism as the priest becomes the center of attention, leading some priests to take on the role of a ring-master for their liturgical circus. After all, does it make any sense to pray, “To you, therefore, most merciful Father,” staring at an assembly of onlookers? The only complaints I have ever encountered have come from octogenarian left-over hippies; they are the real ones who ought to heed Papa Bergoglio’s assault on “backwardism” in their desire to return to the nuttiness of the 1960s. No, Adelante, as he often presses. Move forward, leave behind the 60s!

Can a bishop mandate which of the three forms of the Penitential Act a priest must use? Which Eucharistic Prayer? That he offer the Sign of Peace? Of course not. Nor does he have the authority to mandate versus populum celebrations.1 As one venerable Jesuit mantra would have it: “I have no obligation to obey what you have no right to command.” Which gets to the heart of the matter.

As I have noted elsewhere, for the past decade, we have been living under a pontificate of lawlessness and brute force. Hence, the barrage of motu proprios or just outright disregard for settled norms and even doctrine. Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship, has taken his cues from Francis, engaging in draconian measures and – contrary to canon law, Vatican II’s theology of collegiality, and the incessant papal appeals for synodality – has arrogated to himself the lawful rights and responsibilities of diocesan bishops.

Now, it seems that some diocesan bishops have taken their cue from Roche in their attempts to circumscribe the legitimate autonomy of priests. Why don’t bishops fight Roche for his incursions on their rightful authority, rather than bullying their priests? Being old enough to remember, I find myself experiencing ecclesiastical whiplash as we witness the revival of the liberal dictatorship of the immediate post-conciliar era.

Bishops behaving in this way abuse their authority and cause disregard and disrespect for legitimate authority. Truth be told, most of those bishops are selective in their call for absolute obedience, epitomizing the Irish proverb that “the willing horse gets flogged the most.” They do not enforce genuine liturgical norms because they know they will not be heeded. No, they operate like the delusional king in The Little Prince, who tells his planetary visitor that everything in his kingdom obeys him, even the sun which rises when he tells it to rise at dawn and which sets when he tells it to set at dusk. The Little Prince astutely observes that “you’re only telling it to do what it would do, anyway.” Comes the royal reply: “The secret for a successful king: Never give a command that you know will not be obeyed.”

The sad – and relatively unspoken – part of the whole saga is that episcopal overreach is worsening priestly morale, which is already at a very low ebb. Bishops need to take seriously the wise counsel of Sirach: “Fathers, do not provoke your sons to anger” (6:4). The seemingly endless onslaught on traditional ways of living and doing are driving many clergy and laity into extremist positions. Faithful whom I have known for decades as centrist Catholics have moved very far to the right, thanks to the lunacy promoted at times over the past ten years. And many others have been driven into the waiting and welcoming arms of the Lefebvrists or even sede vacantists.

Simply put: Out-of-control liberals are shooting themselves in the foot. In truth, they are doing exactly what Our Lord accused St. Paul of doing in his opposition to “The Way”; they are “kicking against the goad” (Acts 26:14), which is an exercise in futility. How so? In short order, the young “backward-looking” priests will be the only players left, and their current persecutors will have made them exponentially more “traditional.”

While we’re talking about episcopal authority over the Sacred Liturgy, let’s sweep away another misconception. No bishop can forbid a priest from celebrating the current form of the Mass in Latin. The Code of Canon Law stipulates: “The eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in the Latin language or in another language provided that the liturgical texts have been legitimately approved” (c. 928). No one ever needs permission to celebrate in Latin; permission is needed for the vernacular.

To conclude, I would like to offer all bishops a modest proposal in two parts as we go through a supposed “Eucharistic Revival.” Deal with the phenomenon of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and the practice of Communion-in-the-hand. You see, those are two areas where bishops do have the right to intervene.

So, first, in my work, I regularly visit up to 15 or 20 dioceses every year. It is a rarity to come upon a parish or other institution that does not employ so-called “Eucharistic ministers.” And I have not found a single one whose use corresponds to the requirements of Paul VI’s Immensae Caritatis, the Code of Canon Law, or Redemptionis Sacramentum. As one woman corrected me, “No, I am an ordinary minister of Communion. I do it all the time.” Of course, she is right.

Secondly, if an episcopal conference votes in favor of Communion-in-the-hand and has that vote ratified by the Holy See, every diocesan bishop still has the right to restrict the practice in his own diocese. Yet even the most “conservative” bishops are loathe to do so (all the while privately decrying the practice) because they fear all liturgical hell would break loose.

Those two practices – never even remotely envisioned by Vatican II – have become sacred cows. And so, some bishops content themselves with flogging the willing horse. Bad theology and even worse psychology.


1In a strange twist of events, quite counter-intuitively, some readers may recall the battle royale among the Syro-Malabar Catholics in India over this very issue and the demand of Pope Francis that they return to the immemorial tradition of celebrating the Eucharist ad Orientem! Unfortunately, the rebellion continues. At the same time, Francis publicly humiliated Cardinal Robert Sarah (then prefect of Divine Worship) for suggesting the same for the Roman Rite!

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 267 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


    • And many “traditionalists” are like protestants also as they pick and choose what teachings that they will follow, which Councils they will accept, and which Popes they think valid. Both ends play the same game.

      • All we need do is follow the Catechism, allow scripture to inform our lives, and respect the entire magisterium of the Church and her Tradition. Then we’d all be traditionalists.

      • When a Pope like Francis (actually, he is in a league of his own) flatly contradicts his predecessors, then we are forced to choose. Many insist that we follow the one who wields power now, however much many of his “teachings” vary from those of every pope who came before him. Others are rightly skeptical of such an unreasonable order.

  1. The Church is not the Church of the USA, the Church is global. John Paul II the Great visited over 100 nations and the missionary church thrived and increased. Benedict XVI stated that the Latin mass was never disallowed. There are many rites in the Catholic Apostolic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. The great problem in the Church right now is that the Traditionalists blame all the evils of the present time on the Church in general, forcefully demand the entire church to turn back and worship as of old only. The big problem is the condemnations of the whole Church by the Traditionalists and that all the ill of our times can only be solved by the priest facing east and everyone receiving Communion on the tongue while the Church has proven otherwise. Let all rites prevail in the Church and may the most Holy Spirit of our God bring His holy fruits where it pleases Him while the people of God and His Holy Priests practice love and charity to one another.

    • Right on the mark Edith. There those who complain against being excluded who would be satisfied with the exclusion of everyone else. Facing East West North or South has nothing to do with faith in Christ.

    • “Worship as of old” — I think you are inadvertently showing a part of the problem. You view the patrimonial rites of the church as “old worship” as opposed to just worship.

      What’s more, you speak pejoratively of “traditionalists” in a very generalist, broad stroked way.

      Pots shouldn’t be calling kettles black surely.

      I’m of the mind that so many are so traumatized, so broken by what has transpired since the 1960’s and 70’s that the only way past it is to let all those generations who found themselves in the midst of adulthood during those times pass, so that people can see clearly.

      Benedict started to achieve that “pax Romana” but sadly its all been sidelined for now, but it never will be fully achieved until those with post-conciliar baggage, of whatever stripe, are past. Then, perhaps only then, shall we start to see a modicum of Catholic sense and patrimony properly reclaimed.

    • My thoughts exactly. Does Jesus say I like how they pray the Latin Mass but not the modern. Christ calls us to pray, he makes know disstention of which is right or wrong; just pray.

      Gather my flock, let none go astray.

    • “Benedict XVI stated that the Latin mass was never disallowed.”

      And if the Pope and bishops who followed him had stuck with that, ad Orientem would probably not be being banned in any dioceses, and the Tridentine Rite would not be being banned from parish churches where the people desire it.

      There are certainly a few vocal traditionalists who call for the Latin Mass only. Does the existence of traditionalists with wrong wishes make it right to *actually* squash traditional practices? If an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, what do you think an eye for a wish against an eye will do?

  2. Perhaps Ad Orientem is your sacred cow. It certainly appears that way. When Jesus was asked by his disciples to teach them to pray, He didn’t say, “Absolutely necessary to face east.” If it were as important as you say, he surely would have mentioned it. Instead, he raised his eyes to heaven to pray to the Father. He didn’t turn his back on them to pray, either.

    Actually, I think it’s a nice custom and I face east for my morning and evening prayer, but nothing as essential as you claim, especially for mass, when the priest is standing in the place of Christ. God is in our midst. How beautiful to see the bread and wine at the moment of consecration, and to hear the words of consecration. One feels more connected to the Lord and the others worshipping him together.

    • Interesting that you say you like to see “the bread and wine at the consecration.” Apparently, not seeing with the eyes of faith!

      • As you well know, the desire to see the host at consecration In no way diminishes one’s FAITH that this is the true body and blood of Christ.

    • I agree that the moment the priest raises the newly consecrated Host of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the moment that the priest raises the Chalice of Christ’s Precious Blood fills me with thoughts and sentiments of awe, beauty, praise, and thanksgiving, and more thoughts and sentiments inexpressible by mere human language.

      Because the host and the priest’s hands are more often hidden from view until the words of Consecration and the Elevation (celebrated according to the Usus Antiquior) that moment IS worth waiting and fasting for.

    • Isn’t that a straw man? No one is saying ad orientem is “essential,” just a valid option.
      My last two pastors each did it once, with catechesis, and our parish loved it.

  3. Making ANYTHING “ordinary” about the Eucharist is a problem in my opinion. Sadly, I agree with the woman who noted she was an ordinary minister as she does it all the time. I attend daily Mass. There is likely about 35 of us there. A small enough number for the priest to handle communion on his on. Yet, resolutely, an EM will stand up and “help”. I have no problem with receiving from an EM at a busy Sunday or Holyday Mass. I simply do not think they are needed for everyday Mass. At worst, the Priest operating alone to distribute communion might take an extra minute to do so with a crowd that small. Not a disaster. When Communion becomes a situation in which “anybody can do it”,a loss of the sense of the sacred is inevitable. How shocked should we be that at this point some 75% of Catholics think the Eucharist is just a symbol? Taking the EM’s off daily Mass duty should be a realistic thought of every pastor, if they really want a Eucharistic revival.

    • At my parish, Communion is on the tongue and at the altar rail. Two priests distribute, and the process takes maybe seven minutes for a congregation of 200 to 250. At the parish down the street from me (where I never attend except in extremity), attendance again is 200 to 250 per Mass, but I have counted as many as 15 EMHCs in use, plus the priest and a deacon, making for seven or eight “distributions stations.” Because Communion is given under both kinds at that parish, the process takes about as long as at my parish. Bottom line: I see no rationale for using EMHCs.

  4. We are not all clones that need to be the same. The secular world is screaming for equality and uniformity. We are different, worship differently and over time grow to see things differently. Let’s practice charity toward each other and allow differences as allowed by the magisterium. If we keep our eyes on Jesus and take our brother’s hand and walk together toward the Light perhaps we will reach our goal together.May God bless us all.

  5. “their desire to return to the nuttiness of the 1960s”

    That’s exactly it. In the super liberal Catholicism where I grew up the only irreverence was reverence. Based on this, idea of Catholicism I had growing up was that it wasn’t serious or important.

  6. The only complaints I have ever encountered have come from octogenarian left-over hippies; they are the real ones who ought to heed Papa Bergoglio’s assault on “backwardism” in their desire to return to the nuttiness of the 1960s.

    Bingo. I’ve never seen anyone under the age of 70 raise a peep about ad orientem. By contrast, my NO parish, which introduced it two years ago, is teeming with young families.

    And pushing centrist orthodox Catholics to extremes is a feature of this pontificate, not a bug.

  7. There ya go. I remodeled / restored a classic romanesque church. Prior to my asking, a skilled carpenter in his 40s offered to build a communion rail. We used the communion rail at every Mass. I prayed ad orientem regularly on weekdays and on some feast days. Nobody under 50 complained. They all understood, prior to my explanation, that I was leading them in prayer to God The Father. Boomers at times have tears and quivering lips as if I am depriving them of the Eucharist.
    I have never used EMHCs on a weekday. However, even in our most stable of a diocese, there are those boomers who covet the chance to distribute communion. In EVERY parish I have had, I have had to ask persons to not distribute communion because of illicit lifestyles.

    And, again, Thank you Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI for understanding the Council and for understanding Sacred tradition and Scripture.

  8. Lord Jesus in Heaven please quickly us of this pathetic boomer generation from your Holy Church who have caused some much destruction..

    • I’m a millennial who assists at an FSSP Mass. I’m rather fond of many of the boomers there, and happy to have them stick around.

      And as it turns out, there’s plenty of Millennials who have completely bought into woke awfulness which will undoubtedly continue to cause horrific destruction in many lives.

      Maybe pray for conversion of heart and faithfulness to Divine Revelation. We can’t fix this society simply by having old people die.

  9. I didn’t understand this transition in your article: ““which is desirable. . . .” is introduced by the neuter relative pronoun “quod” (which). To what word in the main clause is that pronoun referring? It is “altare seiunctum” (altar separated from the wall).” How did you draw that inference? I couldn’t follow the logic and thought you could elaborate a bit. If the neuter relative pronoun is used, does that necessarily mean that it refers back to the first clause (the part about the altar being separated) as opposed to the second clause (the part about facing the people)? It seems a bit odd to me to say that the altar “should” be built separate from the wall and then water that “should” down with “which is desirable wherever possible.” Any help on this would be appreciated.

  10. Yes a ring leader is an correct summation of the current state that Mass finds itself. I offered Mass of the 1962 missal on the 20th anniversary of my ordination in the church where I was raised and ordained. The experience was unforgettable and your concentration on Who was there was a lesson in learning from the Master, rather than preforming in a circus ring. Now due to the all powerful roach this is but a memory, but WHAT A MEMORY!!!

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