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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)

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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. [1] 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 paragraph:
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.] [2]
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 this:
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. [3]
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. [4]
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". [5]

Inter Oecumenici 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. [6] 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. [7] 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", [8] 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. [9] 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. [10]

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. [11]

The revised 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.] [12]
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. [13]

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 prohibited.

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 [1993] 245-49), without excluding, however, the other possibility.

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. [14]
Obviously, the relevant paragraph of the General Instruction must be read in light of this clarification. [15]

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 their relevance:
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'? [16]
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. [17]

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. [18]

The aim of this study will be to counter these arguments in a twofold way.

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 West.

Read Part Two of "The Reform of the Liturgy and the Position of the Celebrant at the Altar"


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