Turn to the Lord or to ourselves?

Why did bishops, priests and laity not protest?
The custom of referring to the priest “with his back to the people” sounds like an anachronism originating in the Middle Ages. It had to wait until the Second Vatican Council to be rectified. However, anyone who takes the time to look into the liturgy document of the Council will not find any instruction for the turning of the altar and the priest towards the people. Many questions regarding this have arisen over the fifty or so years since the practice was initiated. Why did it happen and if it was not acceptable to the majority of people why did it persist? Why did bishops, priests and laity not protest?

Of course the answer is that it was acceptable to most. There are many reasons for this but possibly the strongest argument in favour of Mass being offered facing the congregation, was the claim that the new orientation would bring the Church into conformity with the action of Jesus at the Last Supper. Additional arguments proposed that the practice of priest facing the people replicated the way Mass was celebrated in the early Church. This was now Church law and a requirement authorised by the Second Vatican Council.

It comes as a surprise to discover that all of the above assertions are based on error or falsehood and on individual opinion.

New Theological Principles.
Unless we are prepared to look up everything ourselves, we will have to trust what the experts say in theological matters. Obviously we will refer to those with reputable theological scholarship but a more important consideration is to trust those theologians who work in conformity with the Church’s Magisterium. In an interview with Peter Seewald, the then Cardinal Ratzinger claimed that following the council, some prominent theologians began to understand the discipline of theology as being autonomous. This actually meant that what began to be called “new theological principles” could be freed from the control of the Magisterium. In other words, theology could stand alone. This of course was not openly stated, but unfortunately, many bishops, the shepherds of the people, came under the influence of these theologians. It was not long before an individual interpretation of theology filtered down through academic and pastoral programmes.

There were consequences graver than could have been anticipated. If theology could be subjected to individual interpretation, albeit learned interpretation, could scripture and even liturgy also be subjected to this? Furthermore, the increased use of the historical/critical method in scripture contributed to this new understanding. How this impacted on the sacred liturgy is something the Catholic people have had to endure for several decades.

The notion of sharing a meal has led to erroneous practices.
Surely it is obvious that to make decisions regarding how the Last Supper was celebrated was too important a consideration to be subjected to what some individual theologians believed, but amazingly this is where serious scholarship appears to be deficient. The belief that Jesus simply shared a meal with his friends on the evening before his death, has led to erroneous practices. These include “gathering round the table of the Lord” and the regrettable custom of the priest sharing the “bread and wine” with lay ministers before he consumes the holy sacrifice.

Historical research undertaken by eminent scholars like Mgr. Klaus Gamber, Fr. Louis Bouyer and Fr. Josef Jungmann, the latter one of the architects of the liturgy document, provides information regarding the way Jesus celebrated the Last Supper. The Gospel accounts show that the upper room where Jesus instructed the apostles to prepare the feast was already furnished. Tables were normally low and curved in a horseshoe pattern where all guests sat on the same side, leaving the open space in front for the servers. It is apparent that the pattern of solemn Jewish feasts such as the Passover would have been followed. In respect to orientation, the main concern was to make sure everyone was facing towards the Temple in Jerusalem. All evidence from scholarly research shows little doubt that in this way Jesus celebrated the first Mass when he instituted the Eucharist.

The second argument advanced is that in the early Church the priest always faced the people. We know that up until the early fourth century the Church was under-going persecution in the Roman Empire and Mass was celebrated in homes and in safe places like the catacombs of Rome. Therefore it is only when Christians started to build their own churches that we can see evidence of their orientation. Here we find that Christians chose to face the east in recognition of the coming of Jesus Christ in glory.

There is no basis for the belief that Church law commanded that altars had to be constructed so that the priest was obliged to say Mass facing the people. This was an erroneous interpretation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

While a degree of unanimity might have existed among scholars of the 60s and 70s, recent research reveals more. In Turning Towards the Lord, a book endorsed by Pope Benedict, Fr. Uwe Michael Lang presents a historical and theological study of liturgical orientation. His research shows that from the earliest times priest and people all faced the east. This frequently meant a turning towards the open door and to the sky. The rising of the sun was and still is the symbol of the Parousia, the return of Jesus Christ in glory.

This is also the conclusion of Mgr. Klaus Gamber, considered one of the greatest liturgical scholars of the last century and of Fr. Louis Bouyer who proves conclusively that there is no evidence from ancient times that Mass was ever celebrated with priest facing people.

The object of worship should always be the Lord.
Since the vernacular has become the norm, it does appear logical that the scripture readings, the homily and Prayer of the People should be addressed to the people. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist on the other hand, the priest turns to the Lord and away from the congregation. He then leads the people in prayer as he celebrates the Eucharist so that a common direction is assumed by priest and people.

When he celebrates Mass facing the congregation, the priest himself becomes the focus of interest. It can look as if he feels obliged to make the Mass interesting and it must surely be a trial for some priests to have to act like the master of ceremonies. Unless the priest is careful to practically obliterate his own personality, the celebration easily takes on the character of a communal meal rather than a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary. Referring to the priest as chief celebrant or presider, obscures the reality that he is a priest whose role is to offer sacrifice. No-one but a priest can do this. Any other function of his is of less importance.

The object of worship should always be the Lord and ultimately orientation is spiritual. If the priest’s concern is on the Lord and not on himself or his congregation, the people cannot but notice this even when he faces them. This is easier to see when the crucifix is placed in the centre of the altar. The celebration of the Eucharist is an act of worship, and no sign, symbol or word can exhaust the inner reality of the mystery of salvation, carried out in fidelity to the mind of the Church, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of the Lord in all his power and glory.

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