Ad Orientem: Let’s Face It

Reading Time: 8 minutes

By Leo Pio, The Catholic University of America

The following article represents a theological viewpoint that is not necessarily shared by the entirety of the Clarifying Catholicism writing staff. We encourage respectful dialogue in the comments.

JMJFDC (Ss. Dominic, Francis, and Catherine of Siena)

Image result for Vatican Media Pope Francis Ad Orientem

Pope Francis celebrates Holy Mass Ad Orientem on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 2019 Anno Domini, from the Holy House in the Basilica of the Santa Casa, Loreto, Italy.

Since 2008, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina, has celebrated most Masses with the priest and people together praying ad orientem or “to the east” (Newman). In most ordinary forms of the Mass, the priest and the congregation face each other. Although both ways of offering Mass are equally legitimate, ad orientem should be the preferred position of the priest at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because of its basis in tradition, liturgical fittingness, Scripture, and the Church Fathers.

The ancient custom of facing in a single, holy direction is seen in two other major religions. Muslims pray towards Mecca, and Jews pray towards Jerusalem. An Old Testament tradition is to sacrifice a lamb facing God. Analogously, Catholic priests can offer the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary facing God. Both the continuation of God’s covenant with His children and how this continuation is represented are significant in the liturgy. Therefore, ad orientem should be the preferred position of the priest during the Celebration of the Eucharist.

There are a few possible objections to the pro-ad orientem position. First, the people cannot see the motions of the priest easily. The purpose of seeing the priest’s actions is to understand everything that is happening in the Mass. In reply, a person can see what the ad orientem priest is doing if looking from an angle. Also, seeing everything the priest is doing is unnecessary in order to follow along in the Mass. Not being able to see everything the priest is doing and still follow along is rather more salutatory. Our Risen Lord said, “Blessed are you who believe yet have not seen” (paraphrase, John 20:29). St. Paul states, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

A second objection is the priest’s back, and not his face, is shown to the people. It is easy to sympathize with this objection. It is much more pleasant to see people’s faces as opposed to their backs. However, after further consideration, this objection fails to take into account the primary purpose of the Mass. The priest is offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass primarily to God on behalf of the people. The priest is not neglecting his flock; rather, he is turning with his people to God and offering prayer to God together.

Another objection to ad orientem is that the priest would have to turn from the altar to the people and back to the altar numerous times during the liturgy. This turning back and forth is unimportant and unnecessary. It is inconvenient and prolongs the Mass. This turning distracts the children of God from prayer. In response, there are a couple of ways to address this issue. With licit, episcopal permission, a priest could dialogue without facing the people. He could face ad orientem throughout the entire Eucharistic celebration. This method, however, would lose a special opportunity to offer up the inconvenience of turning back and forth– to God. The priest is called to be Christ the Priest and Christ the Victim. Sometimes he may have to be more like the victim. Patiently enduring this turning back and forth is a way in which the children of God can grow in prayer and holiness.

A fourth objection is that the Mass becomes less horizontal when the priest faces ad orientem. A reason for a horizontal Mass is that the children of God can become more involved with the liturgy. A horizontal Mass allows for the responses between the priest and people to be natural, like a dinner conversation with the guests facing each other. In this manner, the children of God are welcomed to express their love for Christ in a personal manner. They may dialogue with the priest, who acts in persona Christi, like their best friend. However, facing ad orientem helps facilitate the reverence which is due to God, who is the children of God’s personal, loving, and best Friend. Ad orientem does not take away from this personal, involved relationship with God. Rather, ad orientem magnifies it. It magnifies God. Ad orientem directs the attention of the liturgy towards God, who is the principal reason for why the children of God are involved in the liturgy. The point of ad orientem is to emphasize the vertical aspect of the relationship between God and man. The liturgy is offered to God the Father, through God the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. The psalms tell us to approach the Lord with “fear and trembling” and a “humble and contrite heart He will not spurn.” This approach is what ad orientem emphasizes.

Scripture suggests Christ’s Last Supper before his crucifixion may have been on one side of the table. According to the Gospel of Luke, the apostles celebrated the Last Supper “in a large upper room furnished” (22:12). If the room was furnished to accommodate a waitress, the seating was such that a waitress could serve food to the apostles. According to Jewish tradition, a woman must not touch a man if she is unclean (Leviticus 15:19). To avoid her touching a man, she would not serve food to him over his shoulder (Rabil). Therefore, if the room was arranged to accommodate a waitress, it is likely the seating was on one side of the table.

Early Christian art depicts the Eucharistic celebration on one side of the table. The third-century catacomb of St. Callixtus shows a Celebratory Meal in Memory of the Dead. (Figure 1) (Ladwein 22). 

(Figure 1; Ladwein 22)

A sixth-century mosaic at St. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Figure 2) shows Christ and his apostles on one side of the table at the Last Supper (Ladwein 23).

(Figure 2; Ladwein 23)

Anselmo da Campione’s Last Supper, (Figure 3) made in 1185, located at the Modena Cathedral displays Christ and his apostles facing a single direction (Ladwein 24).

(Figure 3; Ladwein 24)

A Shroud of Turin expert, Dr. William Rabil, M.D., also suggests that the Shroud of Turin, or the burial cloth of Christ, might have also been the table cloth on which Christ celebrated the Last Supper. Small food mark(s) from the dipping of food on one side of the Shroud of Turin suggest this possibility, as revealed in Figure 4

(Figure 4; From “Who was the First Saint”)

If the Shroud of Turin was also the tablecloth of the Last Supper, then there is possible scientific evidence that Christ and his apostles were on one side of the table at the Last Supper.

Facing ad orientem anticipates Christ’s Second Coming from the east. According to two angels, who spoke to the apostles at the time of the Ascension, Christ will come back the same way He went into Heaven: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 11:1). If Christ’s Second Coming were to occur during Mass, then the priest and people would be facing him, ready to greet Him.

Because the sun is symbolic of the light, and because the sun rises from the east, praying to God facing the east is fitting. As a person who cherishes their beloved would want some picture or souvenir to sense a closeness to him or her, so too analogously would a lover of God want an image to sense a closeness to God. Thankfully, the sun is such a symbolic image of Him because “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). There is certainly no darkness in that radiant star called the sun, or even in that shining star of Bethlehem which led the three wise men to Christ the Light. The wise men saw Christ’s star in the East, and they were not satisfied with merely seeing the light of a star. They wanted the Light Himself. When they found Him, they worshipped Him and gave Him gifts. More importantly, they gave Him the gifts of their hearts. And it pleases the Heart of Jesus when Catholics do the same at Holy Mass by worshipping Him and giving Him their hearts out of love of God. In this manner, they make the Lord Jesus their light and their salvation (cf. Psalm 27). And it is significant to let the Light of Christ shine by allowing the external gestures of reverence to God to reflect the internal devotion of one’s heart to Christ the Light. Christ is the Light which dawned upon those who once sat in darkness and in the shadow of death. To revere the moment of His dawning, His Incarnation, is to honor the tender mercy of God (cf. Luke 1:78-79). As the sun’s dawning is symbolic of the dawning of Christ the Light, it is fitting to pray facing east. This external gesture of reverence (i.e. praying facing east) reflects the internal devotion of one’s heart to the holy dawning of Christ’s Incarnation.

Additionally, praying facing east has a basis in the tradition of the early Church Fathers. Tertullian, born around 160, states, “We pray facing the east and make Sunday a day of joy” (Johnson 112, 116). Also, St. Clement of Alexandria, born around 150, says, 

“When we pray we face the morning sun. The most ancient temples faced the west, this teaching the people who are standing before the images to turn toward the east. ‘May my prayer rise like incense before you, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice,’ says the psalm” (Johnson 257, 263).

St. Clement of Alexandria states that the people face east to face the images of the temple which face west. Similarly, St. Basil the Great, born 329 or 330, declares:

“Among the doctrines and kerygmas preserved in the Church some come from written teaching; others, handed over in mystery, we have received from apostolic tradition….What writing taught us to face the east when we pray?” (Johnson 127, 129-130)

St. Basil the Great believes that facing the east during prayer is a tradition handed down by the apostles.

Facing the people or facing the orient are both valid forms of celebrating the Eucharist. On the basis of tradition, liturgical fittingness, Scripture, and Church Fathers, ad orientem should be the preferred position of the priest at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In order to make this preference a reality, strong catechesis on the Mass is necessary for all Catholics. By this method, every one of God’s children in the Catholic Church can understand the importance of showing due reverence to God through this liturgical orientation. Through an emphasis on the prayer of the congregation being united with the priest’s sacrifice of the Mass, Catholics can deepen their personal, loving relationship with God.

Works Cited

The Holy Bible. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1966. Print.

Johnson, J. Lawrence. Worship in the Early Church: Anthology of Historical Resources.
Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009. CD-ROM.

Ladwein, Michael. Leonardo Da Vinci, the Last Supper: A Cosmic Drama and an Act of
Redemption. Temple Lodge: Forest Row, RH. 2006. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

Newman, Fr. Jay Scott. “Turning Together towards the Lord.” N.d.
11.Nov.2015. Web.

Rabil, Dr. William E. Personal Interview. Aug. 2014/2015.

“Who Was the First Saint to Touch the Shroud?” Agnus Dei, 2003.
Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

Edited by Ariel Hobbs

8 Responses

  1. Very well written article. I just wish to add a clarification on the third point regarding the Priest having to turn around multiple times. In the rubrics, the Priest “turns to face the people” twice: He turns to offer the sign of peace to the faithful and during the third elevation, “Behold the Lamb of God.” For the opening of Mass (Greeting through the Collect), the Priest is to be at the chair and to remain their for the readings. Gospel and homily is from the Ambo. Prayers of the Faithful from the chair (intercessions by Lector or Deacon at Ambo). Prayer after Communion and Dismissal from the Chair.

    So the Priest only turns twice so there really isn’t much of a distraction. If a Deacon is assisting, then the Deacon would be the one offering the Sign of Peace.

    Again, very well written, researched, and balanced. This one I am saving in my liturgy file.

    1. Fr Dan, thank you for clarifying this point, that the priest turns toward the people only twice. That was one point I was going to make. I am also going to say that in the 40’s and 50’s when I grew up, we all had Missals, which we purchased, which allowed us to follow along with the priest. Regardless of the posture of the presider, no Mass should ever be considered as horizontal. It must be remembered that priests are not actors, on a stage, so it isn’t necessary for people to see his face and every gesture he makes. I did not like the comment “prolongs the Mass.” I say that because, as a society, we have all become to frantic and in a hurry. The Mass was never met to be said in a hurry. The Mass is not met as entertainment or merely a duty. As priests we have failed, in our duty, to catechize the people in the past years, since Vatican II. As a side note I really dislike how many articles I have been reading where people are so nit picking regardless if the celebration is the TLM or the NO form. Everyone needs to remember it was Christ who gave us the Eucharist, It was man who arranged the liturgy. Fr Michael (ret.)

  2. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18,20) “IN THEIR MIDST”

  3. At 74, I remember well Mass ad orientem. By the way using the Latin sounds so pretentious. But more than that I remember how seperated the congregation was from the priest. There was an isolation around him, looking away from the people. It made it very abstract and detached. I would never want that to return. The virus has yet to be realized in its effect on our Catholic people and our worship. Perhaps you should wait before harangueing about this. There may not be very many parishioners left to face or turn your back on when this is over. God save us.

    1. You must remember that the priest’s intention is not to forgo the people and turn his back; but rather, to offer the sacrifice to God alone, and not to the people. Now-a-days, during the epiclesis, who is the priest offering the sacrifice to? Because the tabernacle is behind them, and that is a great disgrace to turn your back to God, and it just simply makes no sense. “Using the Latin sounds so pretentious” is like saying that speaking another language is wrong. Tell me, is the Church’s official language the vernacular? No, and just like Pius XII said, that the day the Church abandons Her official language will be the day it returns to the catacombs, hardly any clergy and prelates know the official language. How frightening and sad! That would be like the president not knowing English, or whatever the official language of the leader’s country is. And regarding the virus, the prelates have handled it horribly and have conformed to secular governments. When this is over, they will see their grave sin, depriving thousands of the sacraments, and leaving them to die.

  4. The whole ethos of our society is homocentric. We are steeped in individualism and consumerism. As such, we are predisposed to interpret the presentation of the mass as homocentric. As consumers we are inclined to believe that we are at mass to get something. For the priest to face the people we are led to believe that the purpose of the mass is to offer Christ to the people. Framed this way, Jesus is at our service, not the other way around. While it is true that Christ died for us, His sacrifice is not to us. Herein lies the confusion. What is on offer at the mass is the opportunity to participate in Christ’s sacrifice to God the Father.
    When we place ourselves at the center of our existence apart from God, it is pretty easy to dismiss the mass as ” not satisfying my spiritual needs”. That is because the emphasis is on “satisfying my”. If the mass is understood as a consumer activity that serves the self, then it doesn’t seem to have much utility. However, the mass is about God, not about us. It is about giving not getting. Christ’s self-sacrifice is being offered to God the Father once again in ritual form for our salvation. The church is right to be Eucharist centered, but if we believe that we attend mass primarily to get the Eucharist, as a privileged way to get Jesus, then the mass is being misunderstood. Catholicism is being misunderstood. Versus populum is a cue that confirms this homocentric bias.
    A second homocentric inference follows from the first. It is that in the mass Jesus is coming to us. However, Jesus in His church is present, perpetual, and eternal. Jesus is not coming to us. Rather, we are coming to Him. With His invitation to celebrate the mass, ( do this in memory of Me ) we come to join Him in His sacrifice to the Father. His sacrifice is perpetual and it it is up to us to come to Him, and with God’s grace adjoin ourselves to it. By participating in the sacrifice of the mass, and in eating the body of Christ, we become part of His body ( John 6:56 ) that which is the ultimate gift to God the Father. This is how the Eucharist is transformative and redemptive.
    Meaning is inferred from action. I believe that unwittingly, by facing the congregation, versus populum suggests an inference that in the mass Jesus is coming to us and that we are there primarily for the purpose of receiving Him for ourselves. Contrary to versus populum, ad orientem is theocentric, presenting to God rather than presenting to the people, as it should be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Us!