Giving ad orientem a chance — with surprising results

Thanks to Father Z for putting me on to “Rev. Know-It-All” — the nom-de-blog of Father Richard Simon of Skokie, IL — and his recent thoughts on celebrating parts of the Mass ad orientem. He explains, first of all, why he wanted to try it:

I did it as an experiment. I suspect that the Council Fathers of Vatican II never envisioned Mass facing the people. I wanted to know what the Mass of Vatican II would really be like, some English, some Latin, Gregorian chant, unaccompanied singing and a balance of facing toward people when addressing them and facing the altar with them when addressing the Father. 

The experiment went about as well as could be expected — meaning most of the congregation hated it. Some angrily informed him that “the Pope had sent a letter to all priests telling them that they had to face the people.” The same pope who routinely celebrates the Mass ad orientem himself. Um, ok.

But what I found most interesting was not the people’s reaction, but the priest’s:

I, however, wish I had not said Mass facing away from the congregation, and not because of the anger directed at me. I am a Catholic priest. I am used to people being angry with me. I wish I had not said Mass in what I believe to be the posture assumed by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, because it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my priestly life. You cannot imagine what it was like to say words like “we” and “our Father” and “us” while standing at the head of a congregation that was turned together in a physical expression of unity. No matter how one might argue to the contrary, it is impossible to say “we” while looking at 500 people and not be speaking to them. 

The Mass is a prayer addressed to the Father, and despite our best intentions, we clergy address it to the congregation at whom we are looking. You cannot help it. The human face is a powerful thing. Last Saturday night I realized for the first time that I was part of a family of faith directed toward the same heavenly Father. I felt as if I was part of a church at prayer. It was not my job. It was my church. I never realized how very lonely it is to say Mass facing the people. I am up there looking at you. I am not part of you. For 13 or 14 minutes. You weren’t looking at me. We were looking at God. 

In all the debate about how alienating ad orientem is for the congregation, I had never thought about how alienating Mass said facing the people could be for the priest. It’s a powerful statement about the us-them divide that some people feel exists between priests and the laity — and how it could be overcome with a simple change of posture.

I do hope Father Know-It-All’s congregation gives it another chance. His description of a Mass with “some English, some Latin, Gregorian chant, unaccompanied singing,” and a mix of postures (where appropriate to the rubrics) sounds like my ideal liturgy, frankly. Yes, I know it’s not about me and my tastes, but I’ve often felt torn in these liturgy wars, wishing we could find some common ground between the Tridentine form and the Novus Ordo as it’s currently celebrated. Sadly, we seem stuck in this “all or nothing” approach to the Mass — but surely that’s not how it has to be.

Have any readers celebrated a Novus Ordo Mass this way? What did you think? Would you be open to trying something like this in your own parish?

By

Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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