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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) | Part 2 | Part 1

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 writes:
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. [19]
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. [20] 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 [21] 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. [22] It is in this topographical sense that the similar passages in Amalarius (ca. 830) [23] and Durandus (towards the end of the thirteenth century) [24] 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 church. [25]

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. [26]

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". [27] 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". [28]

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.

[1] J. A. Jungmann, 'Der neue Altar', Der Seelsorger 37 (1967): 375.

[2] 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.

[3] Translating Jungmann, 'Der neue Altar', 375.

[4] G. Lercaro, 'L'Heureux Développement', Not 2 (1966): 160; English translation: Documents on the Liturgy, 122, no. 428.

[5] 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 deforestation".

[6] L. Bouyer, Liturgy and Architecture (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967), 105-6.

[7] 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).

[8] Ibid., 474, no. 134.

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] Congregatio de Cultu Divino, "Editoriale: Pregare 'ad orientem versus'", Not 29 (1993): 247.

[12] Missale Romanum (2002), Institutio Generalis, no. 299.

[13] 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.

[14] 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).

[15] 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.

[16] J. Ratzinger, 'Catholicism after the Council', trans. P. Russell, The Furrow 18 (1967) 11-12.

[17] B. Fischer, 'Die Grundaussagen der Liturgie-Konstitution und ihre Rezeption in fünfundzwanzig Jahren', in Becker, Hilberath, and Willers, Gottesdienst-Kirche- Gesellschaft, 422-23.

[18] 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.

[19] 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).

[20] Congregatio de Cultu Divino, 'Editoriale', 249.

[21] 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.

[22] 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).

[23] 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).

[24] '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).

[25] 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.

[26] Congregatio de Cultu Divino, 'Editoriale', 249.

[27] J. Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 139-43.

[28] 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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