|The Iconostasis at the Russicum|
The Roman Rite has a very unique genius. The various Eastern Rites and the Rites of Northern Europe were highly influenced by the Court ceremonial of the Emperor or Kings, but Rome was ruled by the Pope and although the papal court developed its own ceremonial it was mainly liturgical and not imperial at least up to the Renaissance papacies. And while the papal liturgies were more elaborate than the liturgy in a parish or monastic church—due to the presence of the pope—the rite, as practiced in the local churches maintained the Spartan dignity of its ancient character. However, even the papal liturgies were more austere than the elaborate Gallican Rites practiced north of the Alps. The vestments in Rome remained the simple dignified vesture of roman magistrates—the alb, the chasuble, the maniple and the stole. The deacon wore a dalmatic in place of the chasuble, though there were rituals in which the deacon too wore a chasuble. The vestments were almost invariably of white wool—the wearing of white being a sign of one’s Roman citizenship. (Red came to be used, as it was in civil life, for the color of mourning. It also was used for commemoration of martyrs—perhaps originally due to its connection with death—and for the Passion of the Lord.) The basic structure of the liturgy: three processions (entrance, gifts, and communion) each followed by a collect remained clearly evident with the Readings placed between the first two and the Eucharistic prayer placed between the second and the third. The congregation stood through the entire liturgy, though there was seating for the clergy during the readings and homilies. (In the east there were frequent prostrations in imitation of the courtly etiquette.) A Byzantine priest who has taught liturgy in the seminary pointed out to me that the biblical model for the Roman liturgy is the gathering around the throne of the Lamb in the Book of Revelation singing the Thrice Holy Hymn while the liturgical model for the Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite is Christ the Priest entering into the heavenly sanctuary in the Letter to the Hebrews. This makes some sense when one familiarizes oneself with the appropriate scriptural texts and the very different geist of each of the two rites.
My chief objection to the ad apsidem position of the priest in the Roman Rite is that it bespeaks an ecclesiology in which the priest “says Mass” for the people rather than celebrating the Eucharist with them. The ad apsidem position privatizes the Mass as the action of the priest when in fact it is the action of the entire assembly, priest and people together. The East, with its very different geist, manages to include the faithful in the key actions of the liturgy despite the ad orientem position and even the presence of icon screens or sanctuary curtains.
The Byzantine—and other Eastern Rites—have developed a very different geist, one that is highly dialogical, than the Roman Rite. The Byzantine Rite is a series of litanies sung among the (con)celebrant(s) at the altar, the deacon(s) standing at the Holy Doors, and the faithful. There is a constant exchange of sung dialogue between the altar and the faithful. Even the Eucharistic Prayer contains one of these dialogical litanies. And don’t forget the priest is not only standing with his back to the people, but the iconostasis blocks most views of the altar entirely. (In fact, in the more strictly observant churches the Holy Doors are often closed, at least during penitential seasons, and the curtain behind them is drawn blocking any view whatsoever.) Yet the sung interchange keeps the faithful aware that they are an integral part of the celebration.
In the West, however the prayers are usually said by the priest alone. Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei are sung together in a high Mass, but usually by a choir, and high Masses were rare: perhaps one a Sunday in most parishes with the remaining five or six Sunday Masses being a simple low or “read Mass” with only the priest and altar servers responding.
So the issue for me really is this: is the Eucharist something the priest does on behalf of the people or is it something that the entire Body of Christ—the Church assembled—does together with the priest, as a sacramental presence of Christ in the assembly, does in unity. The Tradition of the Church, as found in the Fathers of the Church, make it clear that the Liturgy is the work of the entire People of God albeit in their different functions. The versus populum position of the priest at the altar, which is the authentic heritage of the Roman Rite, preserves this in the face of a rite that would otherwise reduce the People of God from exercising their baptismal royal and priestly dignity to mere recipients of grace through the mediatorship of the ordained priest. There is no way that I want to go back to that faulty ecclesiology, nor do I believe the vast majority of the faithful want to revert to being strangers at the Table of the Lord. My experience of those seminarians and clergy who wish to go back is that they have a need to dominate and control others that stems from an underdeveloped psycho-sexual self-identity and want to use the Liturgy for their own aggrandizement. They become, at least in their own minds, the indispensible mediators of grace through whom alone we can approach the Throne of Grace and without whom we would be bereft of the Love of God. Pray for them for the judgment will be severe.