The Reform of the Liturgy and the Position of the Celebrant at the Altar | Uwe Michael Lang | From "Turning Toward the Lord" | Ignatius Insight
The Reform of the Liturgy and the Position of the Celebrant at the Altar | Uwe Michael Lang | From Turning
Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (2nd edition)
The reform of the Roman Rite
of Mass that was carried out after the Second Vatican Council has significantly altered the shape of Catholic worship.
One of the most evident changes was the construction of freestanding altars. The versus populum celebration was
adopted throughout the Latin Church, and, with few exceptions, it has become the prevailing practice during Mass for the
celebrant to stand behind the altar facing the congregation. This uniformity has led to the widespread misunderstanding
that the priest's "turning his back on the people" is characteristic of the rite of Mass according to the
Missal of Pope Saint Pius V whereas the priest's "turning towards the people" belongs to the Novus Ordo
Mass of Pope Paul VI. It is also widely assumed by the general public that the celebration of Mass "facing the
people" is required, indeed even imposed, by the liturgical reform that was inaugurated by Vatican II.
However, the relevant conciliar and post-conciliar documents present quite a different picture. The Council's
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, speaks neither of a celebration versus populum
nor of the setting up of new altars. In view of this fact it is all the more astonishing how rapidly "versus
populum altars" appeared in Catholic churches all over the world.  The instruction Inter
Oecumenici, prepared by the Consilium for the carrying out of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and
issued on September 26, 1964, has a chapter on the designing of new churches and altars that includes the following
Praestat ut altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in
eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit. [It is better for the main altar to be constructed away
from the wall so that one can easily walk around the altar and celebrate facing the people.] 
It is said to be desirable to set up the main altar separate from the back wall, so that the priest can
walk around it easily and a celebration facing the people is possible. Josef Andreas Jungmann asks us to consider
It is only the possibility that is emphasized. And this [separation of the altar from
the wall] is not even prescribed, but is only recommended, as one will see if one looks at the Latin text of the
directive.... In the new instruction the general permission of such an altar layout is stressed only with regard to
possible obstacles or local restrictions. In a letter addressed to the heads of
bishops' conferences, dated January 25, 1966, Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, the president of the Consilium, states
that regarding the renewal of altars "prudence must be our guide". He goes on to explain:
Above all because for a living and participated liturgy, it is not indispensable that the altar should
be versus populum: in the Mass, the entire liturgy of the word is celebrated at the chair, ambo or lectern, and,
therefore, facing the assembly; as to the eucharistic liturgy, loudspeaker systems make participation feasible enough.
Secondly, hard thought should be given to the artistic and architectural question, this element in many places being
protected by rigorous civil laws. With reference to Cardinal Lercaro's exhortation
to prudence, Jungmann warns us not to make the option granted by the instruction into "an absolute demand, and
eventually a fashion, to which one succumbs without thinking". 
permits the Mass facing the people, but it does not prescribe it. As Louis Bouyer emphasized in 1967, that document does
not at all suggest that Mass facing the people is always the preferable form of Eucharistic celebration.  The rubrics
of the renewed Missale Romanum of Pope Paul VI presuppose a common direction of priest and people for the core of
the Eucharistic liturgy. This is indicated by the instruction that, at the Orate, fratres, the Pax
Domini, the Ecce, Agnus Dei, and the Ritus conclusionis, the priest should turn towards the
people.  This would seem to imply that beforehand priest and people were facing the same direction, that is,
towards the altar. At the priest's communion the rubrics say "ad altare versus",  which would be
redundant if the celebrant stood behind the altar facing the people anyway. This reading is confirmed by the directives
of the General Instruction, even if they are occasionally at variance with the Ordo Missae.  The
third Editio typica of the renewed Missale Romanum, approved by Pope John Paul II on 10 April 2000 and
published in spring 2002, retains these rubrics. 
This interpretation of the official documents
has been endorsed by the Roman Congregation for Divine Worship. An editorial in its official publication,
Notitiae, states that the arrangement of an altar that permits a celebration facing the people is not a question
upon which the liturgy stands or falls ("quaestio stantis vel cadentis liturgiae"). Furthermore, the
article suggests that, in this matter as in many others, Cardinal Lercaro's call for prudence was hardly heard in the
post-conciliar euphoria. The editorial observes that changing the orientation of the altar and using the vernacular
could become an easy substitute for entering into the theological and spiritual dimensions of the liturgy, for studying
its history and for taking into account the pastoral consequences of the reform. 
General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which was published for study purposes in the spring of 2000, has a paragraph
bearing on the altar question:
Altare exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et
in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit. [Let the main
altar be constructed separate from the wall so that one can easily walk around the altar and celebrate facing the people
-which is desirable wherever possible.] The subtle wording of this paragraph
(possit - possibile) clearly indicates that the position of the celebrant priest facing the people is not made
compulsory. The instruction merely allows for both forms of celebration. At any rate, the added phrase "which is
desirable wherever (or whenever) possible (quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit)" refers to the provision
for a freestanding altar and not to the desirability of celebration towards the people. 
Nonetheless various news reports about the revised General Instruction seemed to suggest that the position of
the celebrant versus orientem - or versus absidem - was declared undesirable, if not
This interpretation however has been rejected by the Congregation for Divine Worship in a
response to a question submitted by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna. The response is dated 25
September 2000 and signed by Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez, then Prefect of the Congregation, and
Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino, its Secretary:
In the first place, it is to be borne in
mind that the word expedit does not constitute an obligation, but a suggestion that refers to the construction of
the altar a pariete seiunctum (detached from the wall) and to the celebration versus populum (towards the
people). The clause ubi possibile sit (where it is possible) refers to different elements, as, for example, the
topography of the place, the availability of space, the artistic value of the existing altar, the sensibility of the
people participating in the celebrations in a particular church, etc. It reaffirms that the position towards the
assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier (cf. the editorial in Notitiae 29 
245-49), without excluding, however, the other possibility. Obviously, the relevant paragraph of the General Instruction must be read in light of this
However, whatever may be the position of the
celebrating priest, it is clear that the eucharistic sacrifice is offered to the one and triune God and that the
principal, eternal, and high priest is Jesus Christ, who acts through the ministry of the priest who visibly presides as
His instrument. The liturgical assembly participates in the celebration in virtue of the common priesthood of the
faithful which requires the ministry of the ordained priest to be exercised in the eucharistic synaxis. The physical
position, especially with respect to the communication among the various members of the assembly, must be distinguished
from the interior spiritual orientation of all. It would be a grave error to imagine that the principal orientation of
the sacrificial action is towards the community. If the priest celebrates versus populum, which is legitimate and often
advisable, his spiritual attitude ought always to be versus Deum per Iesum Christum (towards God through Jesus
Christ), as representative of the entire Church. The Church as well, which takes concrete form in the assembly which
participates, is entirely turned versus Deum (towards God) as its first spiritual movement. 
Already in the sixties, theologians of international renown
criticized the sweeping triumph of the celebration versus populum. In addition to Jungmann and Bouyer, Joseph
Ratzinger, then professor of theology at Tübingen and peritus at the Council, delivered a lecture at the
Katholikentag of 1966 in Bamberg that was received with much attention. His observations have lost nothing of
We can no longer deny that exaggerations and aberrations have crept in which
are both annoying and unbecoming. Must every Mass, for instance, be celebrated facing the people? Is it so absolutely
important to be able to look the priest in the face, or might it not be often very salutary to reflect that he also is a
Christian and that he has every reason to turn to God with all his fellow-Christians of the congregation and to say
together with them 'Our Father'? The German liturgist Balthasar Fischer concedes
that the turning of the celebrant towards the people for the entire celebration of the Mass was never officially
introduced or prescribed by the new liturgical legislation. In post-conciliar documents it was merely declared possible.
In view of this, however, the fact that the celebration versus populum has become the dominant practice of the
Latin Church shows the astounding extent to which "the active role of the people in the celebration of the
Eucharist" has been realized; for Fischer this is indeed the fundamental issue of the liturgical reform after
Vatican II. 
Two main arguments in favor of the celebrant's position facing the people
during the Eucharist are usually presented. First, it is claimed that this was the practice of the early Church that
should be the norm for our age. Second, it is maintained that the "active participation" of the faithful, a
principle that was introduced by Pope Saint Pius X and is central to Sacrosanctum Concilium, demanded the celebration towards
the people. 
The aim of this study will be to counter these arguments in a twofold
First, an examination of the historical evidence will show that the orientation of priest and people
in the liturgy of the Eucharist is well-attested in the early Church and was, in fact, the general custom. It will be
evident that the common direction of liturgical prayer has been a consistent tradition in both the East and the
Second, I should like to argue, relying on the thought of contemporary theologians, that the
permanent face-to-face position of priest and people is not beneficial for a real participation of the faithful in the
liturgy, as envisaged by Vatican II. Recent critical reflection on participatio actuosa has revealed the need for
a theological reappraisal and deepening of this important principle.
Cardinal Ratzinger draws a useful
distinction between participation in the Liturgy of the Word, which includes external actions, especially reading and
singing, and participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where external actions are quite secondary. He
Doing really must stop when we come to the heart of the matter: the
oratio. It must be plainly evident that the oratio is the heart of the matter, but that it is important
precisely because it provides a space for the actio of God. Anyone who grasps this will easily see that it is not
now a matter of looking at or toward the priest, but of looking together toward the Lord and going out to meet
Him. The statement of the Congregation for Divine Worship already quoted shows that
speaking of "celebrating towards the people" indicates merely the position of the priest vis-à-vis the
congregation at certain parts of the liturgy but does not refer to a theological concept.  The expression
versus (ad) populum seems to have been used for the first time by the papal master of ceremonies, Johannes
Burckard, in his Ordo Missae of 1502  and was taken up in the Ritus servandus in celebratione
Missae of the Missale Romanum that Pope Saint Pius V issued in 1570. The Ritus servandus deals with
the case where the altar is directed to the east and, at the same time, towards the people (altare sit ad orientem,
versus populum). This is indeed the state of affairs in the major Roman basilicas with the entrance facing east and
the apse facing west. Here versus populum is to be looked upon merely as an explanatory appositive, namely in
view of the immediately following directive that in this case at the Pax Domini the celebrant does not need to
turn around (non vertit humeros ad altare), since he already stands ad populum anyway.  It is in
this topographical sense that the similar passages in Amalarius (ca. 830)  and Durandus (towards the end of the
thirteenth century)  are also to be understood.
When these texts use the phrase versus
populum, they do not necessarily mean a visual connection between the people and the sacred action at the altar. It
is by no means suggested here that nothing should limit, let alone block, the faithful's view of the ritual acts of the
celebrant. Such an interpretation would have seemed alien to the understanding of the liturgy that was common from
Christian antiquity until well into the Middle Ages and is still found in the Eastern Churches. Thus it is hardly
surprising to find that even with altars versus populum the sight was significantly restricted, for example, by
curtains that were closed during certain parts of the liturgy or already by the architectural layout of the
The guiding points of the Congregation for Divine Worship make clear that the expression
versus populum does not convey the theological dimension of the Eucharistic liturgy. Each Eucharist is offered
for the praise and glory of God's name, for the benefit of us and of the holy Church as a whole ("ad laudem et
gloriam nominis Dei, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque Ecclesiae suae sanctae").
Theologically, the Mass as a whole, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, is directed at the same
time towards God and towards the people. In the form of the celebration one must avoid a confusion of theology and
topography, especially when the priest stands at the altar. The priest speaks to the people only during the dialogues at
the altar. Everything else is prayer to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Evidently, it is most desirable
that this theology should be expressed in the visible shape of the liturgy. 
Cardinal Ratzinger is
equally emphatic that the celebration of the Eucharist, just as Christian prayer in general, has a trinitarian direction
and discusses the question of how this can be communicated most fittingly in liturgical gesture. When we speak to
someone, we obviously face that person. Accordingly, the whole liturgical assembly, priest and people, should face the
same way, turning towards God to whom prayers and offerings are addressed in this common act of trinitarian worship.
Ratzinger rightly protests against the mistaken idea that in this case the celebrating priest is facing "towards
the altar", "towards the tabernacle", or even "towards the wall".  The catchphrase often heard
nowadays that the priest is "turning his back on the people" is a classic example of confounding theology and
topography, for the crucial point is that the Mass is a common act of worship where priest and people together,
representing the pilgrim Church, reach out for the transcendent God.
Reinhard Meßner notes that what
is at issue is not the celebratio versus populum, but the direction of liturgical prayer that has been known in
the Christian tradition as "facing east". 
My claim is that the intrinsic sense of
facing east in the Eucharist is the common direction of priest and people oriented towards the triune God. The following
chapters on the historical and theological dimensions of this traditional liturgical practice are meant to show that its
recovery is indispensable for the welfare of the Church today.
 J. A. Jungmann, 'Der neue Altar', Der Seelsorger 37 (1967):
 Sacra Congregatio Rituum, Instructio ad exsecutionem Constitutionis de sacra Liturgia recte
ordinandam 'Inter Oecumenici', AAS 56 (1964): 898, no. 91. This translation is more literal than the one found in
Documents on the Liturgy, 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts (Collegeville, Minn.:
Liturgical Press, 1982), 108, no. 383.
 Translating Jungmann, 'Der neue Altar', 375.
 G. Lercaro, 'L'Heureux Développement', Not 2 (1966): 160; English translation: Documents on the
Liturgy, 122, no. 428.
 Translating Jungmann, 'Der neue Altar', 380; see also C. Napier, 'The Altar in
the Contemporary Church', CleR 57 (1972): 624. A. Lorenzer, '"Sacrosanctum Concilium": Der Anfang der
"Buchhalterei": Betrachtungen aus psychoanalytisch-kulturkritischer Sicht', in
Gottesdienst-Kirche-Gesellschaft: Interdisziplinäre und ökumenische Standortbestimmungen nach 25
Jahren Liturgiereform, ed. H. Becker, B. J. Hilberath, and U. Willers, PiLi 5 (St. Ottilien: EOSVerlag, 1991), 158,
argues that there is a significant difference between the conciliar documents and what came out of them. Whereas the
texts carefully present a number of options, their implementation became an exercise in "total
 L. Bouyer, Liturgy and Architecture (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame
Press, 1967), 105-6.
 Missale Romanum ex decreto Sacrosancti Oecumenici ConciliiVaticani II
instauratum auctoritate Pauli PP.VI promulgatum, editio typica (Vatican City: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1970),
Ordo Missae cum populo, 391, no. 25 (versus ad populum), 473, no. 128 (ad populum conversus), 474,
no. 133 (ad populum versus), and 475, no. 142 (versus ad populum).
 Ibid., 474, no. 134.
 Ibid., Institutio Generalis, nos. 107, 115, 116, 122, as well as 198 and 199 for concelebrated Masses.
Cf. O. Nußbaum, 'Die Zelebration versus populum und der Opfercharakter der Messe', ZKTh 93 (1971):
149-50, who points out how little the liturgical reform wished to make versus populum celebration into the
exclusive norm. This, he thinks, is clearly demonstrated by the fact that in the revision of the Ritus servandus in
celebratione Missae, and subsequently also in the 1965 and 1967 versions of the Ordo Missae, the celebrant
was still explicitly instructed to turn towards the people when addressing them directly, as for example in the
liturgical greeting. The Novus Ordo Missae also keeps to this practice within the eucharistic liturgy.
Nußbaum was certainly an advocate of versus populum celebration, and yet he concedes that, in the reform of
the liturgy, this was not the preferred option let alone the only legitimate way of celebrating Mass.
 Missale Romanum ex decreto Sacrosancti Oecumenici ConciliiVaticani II instauratum auctoritate Pauli PP. VI promulgatum
Ioannis Pauli PP. II cura recognitum, editio typica tertia (Vatican City: Typis Vaticanis, 2002), Ordo
Missae, 515, no. 28; 600, no. 127; 601, nos. 132-33; 603, no. 141.
 Congregatio de Cultu Divino,
"Editoriale: Pregare 'ad orientem versus'", Not 29 (1993): 247.
 Missale Romanum (2002),
Institutio Generalis, no. 299.
 The text is carefully scrutinized by C.M. Cullen and J.W. Koterski,
"The New IGMR and Mass versus Populum", Homiletic and Pastoral Review, June 2001, 51-54.
 Congregatio de Cultu Divino, 'Responsa ad quaestiones de nova Institutione Generali Missalis Romani',
CCCIC 32 (2000): 171-72. Surprisingly, it has been published, not in Notitiae, but in Communicationes,
the official publication of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts. The English translation is
taken from Adoremus Bulletin Online Edition, vol. 6, no. 9 (December 2000-January 2001), (www.
adoremus.org/12-0101cdw-adorient.html - accessed 5 January 2004).
 Cf. The comments of J. Nebel,
'Die editio typica tertia des Missale Romanum: Eine Untersuchung über die Veränderungen', Ecclesia
Orans 19 (2002): 278, n. 72.
 J. Ratzinger, 'Catholicism after the Council', trans. P. Russell, The
Furrow 18 (1967) 11-12.
 B. Fischer, 'Die Grundaussagen der Liturgie-Konstitution und ihre Rezeption in
fünfundzwanzig Jahren', in Becker, Hilberath, and Willers, Gottesdienst-Kirche- Gesellschaft,
 See, for instance, O. Nußbaum, Der Standort des Liturgen am christlichen Altar vor
dem Jahre 1000: Eine archäologische und liturgiegeschichtliche Untersuchung, Theoph 18 (Bonn: Hanstein, 1965),
1:22, and B. Neunheuser, 'Eucharistiefeier am Altare versus populum: Geschichte und Problematik', in Florentissima
proles Ecclesiae: Miscellanea hagiographica, historica et liturgica Reginaldo Grégoire O.S.B. XII lustra
complenti oblata, ed. D. Gobbi (Trento: Civis, 1996), 442-43.
 J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the
Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 174, cf. 171-77. See also the critical remarks of M. Kunzler, 'La
liturgia all'inizio del Terzo Millennio', in Il Concilio Vaticano II: Recezione e attualità alla luce del
Giubileo, ed. R. Fisichella (Milan: San Paolo, 2000), 217-24, and D. Torevell, Losing the Sacred: Ritual,
Modernity and Liturgical Reform (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 2000).
 Congregatio de Cultu Divino,
 Johannes Burckard, Ordo Missae Ioannis Burckardi, ed. J.W. Legg, Tracts on the
Mass, HBS 27 (London: Harrison, 1904), 142; cf. Nußbaum, 'Die Zelebration versus populum', 160-61.
 Missale Romanum ex decreto Sacrosancti Concilii Tridentini restitutum Pii V Pont. Max. iussu editum, Ritus
servandus in celebratione Missae, V, 3. The 1570 editio princeps of this Missal is now accessible in a study
edition: M. Sodi and A.M. Triacca, eds., Missale Romanum: Editio Princeps (1570), Monumenta Liturgica Concilii
Tridentini 2 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998).
 Amalarius uses the expressions ad
orientem and ad populum for explaining that the celebrant stands in front of the altar facing east and turns
around for the liturgical greeting: Liber officialis III, 9, ed. J.M. Hanssens, Studi e Testi, 139, 1:288-90.
On Amalarius, see now W. Steck, Der Liturgiker Amalarius: Eine quellenkritische Untersuchung zu Leben undWerk eines
Theologen der Karolingerzeit, MThS.H 35 (Munich: St. Ottilien: EOS-Verlag, 2000).
 'In ecclesiis vero
ostia ab oriente habentibus, ut Rome, nulla est in salutatione necessaria conversio, quia sacerdos in illis celebrans
semper ad populum stat conversus' (Durandus, Rationale divinorum officiorum V, II, 57:CChr.CM 140A, 42-43).
 Nußbaum, Der Standort des Liturgen, 1:418-19, and J. A. Jungmann, review of O. Nußbaum,
Der Standort des Liturgen am christlichen Altar vor dem Jahre 1000, ZKTh 88 (1966): 447.
de Cultu Divino, 'Editoriale', 249.
 J. Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the
Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 139-43.
 R. Meßner, 'Probleme des
eucharistischen Hochgebets', in Bewahren und Erneuern: Studien zur Meßliturgie: Festschrift für
Hans Bernhard Meyer SJ zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. R. Meßner, E. Nagel, and R. Pacik, IThS 42 (Innsbruck and
Vienna: Tyrolia, 1995), 201, n. 99; likewise M. Wallraff, Christus verus sol: Sonnenverehrung und Christentum in der
Spätantike, JAC.E 32 (Münster: Aschendorff, 2001), 72, n. 53.
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Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, a native of Germany, is a priest of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London. He holds a Mag. Theol. in Catholic theology from the University of
Vienna and a D.Phil. in theology from the University of Oxford. Fr. Lang is a staff member of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, a Consultor to the
Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff and Academic Coordinator of the Master program in "Architecture, Sacred Art and Liturgy" at the Universitą Europea di Roma. Turning
towards the Lord has been published in several languages, including German, Italian, French, and Spanish. Recently, Fr. Lang has edited the volume Die Anaphora von Addai und Mari: Studien zu
Eucharistie und Einsetzungsworten (2007).
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