For the past several weeks, I have been diving and delving into Cardinal Ratzinger’s masterpiece, The Spirit of the Liturgy, which was published a few short years before his election as Pope Benedict XVI. The reason for my reengagement with this marvelous work is that it has been the text I’ve been discussing on the FORMED Book Club, which I co-host with Fr. Fessio and Vivian Dudro of Ignatius Press. We have spent four months in weekly discussions already and we are only halfway through, a sure testimony to its depth and richness.
One key element of the liturgy’s true spirit is the need for its true orientation toward the Lord. “Christians look toward the east, the rising sun,” Ratzinger writes. “This is not a case of Christians worshipping the sun but of the cosmos speaking of Christ.” From the time of the early Church, this praying toward the east in the liturgy was regarded as an apostolic tradition. “Orientation is, first and foremost, a simple expression of looking to Christ as the meeting place between God and man. It expresses the basic Christological form of our prayer.” This is why the Church’s liturgy, and especially the holy sacrifice of the Mass, should always be celebrated ad orientem:
Praying toward the east means going to meet the coming Christ. The liturgy, turned toward the east, effects entry, so to speak, into the procession of history toward the future, the New Heaven and the New Earth, which we encounter in Christ. It is a prayer of hope, the prayer of the pilgrim as he walks in the direction shown us by the life, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ.
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The celebration of the Mass ad orientem is, therefore, the orientation of man toward his true home in Heaven, pointing him in the right direction for the journey home. It is the true orientation of homo viator, pilgrim man, toward the Christ who has shown us the path to Heaven by the way of the Cross, which is why Ratzinger insists that “the symbolism of the Cross merges with that of the east.”
Seen in this light, which is nothing less than the light of Heaven itself, we can see how the celebration of the liturgy versus populum, in which the priest faces in the opposite direction to the people, is a radical disorientation, a turning away from the Lord. What is needed is reorientation toward Christ, which is why Ratzinger urges that “we should definitely take up again the apostolic tradition of facing the east, both in the building of churches and in the celebration of the liturgy.”
As for the widespread disorientation of liturgical practice in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger reminds us that “the council…says nothing about ‘turning toward the people.’” It is, therefore, ironic that Vatican II emphatically did not teach the turning away from the Lord versus populum which advocates of the disoriented liturgy have claimed in the so-called “spirit” of its name. It was, in fact, a rebellion against the way that the liturgy had always been celebrated. “[O]ne thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.”
One consequence of the disorientation of the Mass by the priest’s turning toward the people has been the placing of the priest at the center of the liturgy. The priest is no longer subsumed in persona Christi but becomes the star of the show, the master of ceremonies, the focal point for the liturgy itself.
In many churches, this meant the removal of the tabernacle from the high altar to make room for a throne on which the priest could “preside” at the liturgy. The Real Presence of Christ is set aside so that the priest can take center stage. The true host is removed to make way for the elevation of the priest as the new “host” of the disoriented liturgical “gathering.”
In addition, the altar cross is removed to ensure that the enthroned priest, seated behind the altar, can be seen by the people. Understandably, Cardinal Ratzinger was unequivocal in his criticism and condemnation of such liturgical abuse:
Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomena of recent decades. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than the Lord?
Unsurprisingly, Ratzinger labelled such widespread abuse of the true spirit of the liturgy as “an unprecedented clericalization”:
Now the priest—the “presider,” as they now prefer to call him—becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing…. Less and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by the human beings who meet here and do not want to subject themselves to a “pre-determined pattern.” The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself.
These words by the future pope say all that needs to be said about the absurdity of versus populum worship. His words strip away any last vestiges of legitimacy from those who have sought to turn the liturgy in the direction of anthropocentric narcissism in which the people of God seek self-gratification, not self-sacrifice.
In the face of such narcissistic nonsense, there is only one thing to be done. We should join Benedict XVI in turning toward the Lord. In doing so, we will unite ourselves with the true spirit of the liturgy, which is the holy sacrifice of the Mass, and to the Heaven-haven of the reward to which such sacrifice is itself oriented.