In 2014, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea to be Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, with instructions to continue a “reform of the reform.”
After the Second Vatican Council, many changes in the liturgy were done virtually overnight, with no mandate from the Council, but motivated by what Pope Pius XII would have called a romantic “historicism” based on a mistaken understanding of the early Church’s liturgy. Even some well-intentioned but misinformed Catholics have thought that inferior contemporary music and completely vernacular texts were the aim of Vatican II. A growing number of young Catholics understand better what the popes want for the liturgy than some aging people who have not outgrown the confusion of the 1960s and 1970s.
One change, never mentioned by Vatican II, was having the priest as a “presider” face the people all through the Mass. It came at a time when people were increasingly preoccupied with themselves, and it encouraged a psychology of self-absorption. The venerable “ad orientem” posture of the priest, always kept in the Eastern rites, is not a matter of turning his back to the people. Rather, the priest faces East to direct the faithful’s attention away from himself and toward the horizon symbolizing the Resurrection.
The readings and preaching (the “synaxis” or synagogue part) are done facing the people for they are instructive, but the Holy Sacrifice (the “anaphora” or temple part) is offered with everyone facing in the same direction, rather than in what Pope Benedict XVI called an “enclosed circle.” Pope Francis celebrates ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel. It has nothing to do with the placement of the altar, for the venerable manner—as in ancient basilicas—is a free-standing altar. In our own parish church, the ad orientem use is suitable for the altar in the nave as easily as at the older altar.
As Cardinal Sarah points out, liturgical innovations were supposed to invigorate Mass attendance, but they had the opposite effect, not to mention the countless millions of dollars spent on church renovations which in too many cases ruined fine art. His Eminence has asked that parishes institute the ad orientem in the Ordinary Form by Advent, as a thing “good for the Church, good for our people.” Actually, no permission is needed for that, since the original General Instruction of the Roman Missal left the position as a legitimate option, so it may be instituted at any time. The ad orientem use will be a modest change, different from the way innovations were made in the 1960s with tactless abruptness.
Cardinal Sarah said, “The liturgy is not about you and me. It is not where we celebrate our own identity or achievements or exalt or promote our own culture and local religious customs. The liturgy is first and foremost about God and what he has done for us.”
by Fr. George W. Rutler