Ad Orientem


Altar of the Poor Clares, Cologne Cathedral

His Eminence Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has spoken in favor of the ad orientem becoming regularized once again in the Latin Church.  Many priests and bishops have already re-vitalized the ancient custom.He stated, “Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained, it is in full conformity with the conciliar Constitution—indeed, it is entirely fitting—for everyone, priest and congregation, to turn together to the East during the penitential rite, the singing of the Gloria, the orations, and the Eucharistic prayer”.

This is an ancient custom of the priest facing the same direction as the congregation to the east (“ad orientem”) since theologically speaking Christ is the morning star (rf. Revelation 22:16).  It is “[f]rom the rising of the sun to its setting” (cf. Malachi 1:11), that a pure sacrifice is offered to God with incense.  This is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  It should be noted that the Church has never taught Christ is the Sun, but this is merely a title.  Saint Augustine said, “When we rise to pray, we turn East, where heaven begins. And we do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from the other directions on earth…, but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God.”  On Holy Saturday we pray, “May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star: the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son”.

Somewhere along the road it changed to the priest and the congregation facing the tabernacle where Christ’s Flesh always dwells.  For most of the Mass the priest faced the same direction as the congregation with few exceptions such as when the priest said, “Dominus vobiscum” (The Lord be with you) or when the priest preached the homily.  Many believe the General Instruction of the Roman Missal at least permitted the priest to face the congregation for most of the Mass, but some disagree; there is no universal consensus on this custom.  The one many of us have grown up with is the versus populumMany who claim the Latin Church changed from ad orientem to versus populum may quote the General Instruction saying the priest should say Mass “facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible” (n. 299).  Those who claim the ad orientem still remains may quote it on saying that at certain parts of the Mass the priest faces the altar and there are six times when he faces the congregation (nn. 124, 146, 154, 157, 165, 141).

The mere fact that the General Instruction mentions certain parts where the priest faces the altar and other parts where he faces the people implies the priest faces away from the people and towards the altar and the tabernacle.  Many priests celebrating Mass in the Ordinary Form have maintained the ancient custom of facing ad orientem.  I cannot say whether it only supports ad orientem but His Eminence Jorge Medina Cardinal Estevez, ex-Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote that the priest facing versus populum is “legitimate and often advisable” but also wrote that the General Instruction does not exclusively call for the versus populum [1].

Benedict XVI, former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote in his novel Spirit of the Liturgy that in defense of the versus populum, “The altar – as can be seen in the normative model of St. Peter’s – had to be positioned in such a way that priest and people looked at each other and formed together the circle of the celebrating community.”  Yet he also defended the ancient practice of ad orientem by saying that “a common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential” [2].

The Altar of the Poor Clares was taken by Lawrence OP and was found here:

You can find the article here:




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