|The Bishop prepares to enter the|
altar through the HolyDoors in
the Russian Rite.
Let me begin by saying that I don’t have a problem with the ad orientem (or even ad absidem) position of celebrating the Liturgy where it comprises an authentic liturgical tradition. From an aesthetic point of view (as opposed to a theological/ecclesiological perspective), I even prefer it. I often attend or even concelebrate Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite in which the liturgy is invariably celebrated with the celebrant’s back to the people—but for legitimate reasons.
First of all let’s distinguish between ad orientem and ad absidem. All ad orientem liturgies are ad ad absidem but not all ad absidem liturgies are ad orientem. Ad orientem refers to the worship space itself faced eastwards towards the rising Sun. This was an ancient custom prevalent through the east from at least the fourth century and through the west—excepting Rome and a few other places south of the Alps that never adopted the practice. The idea of ad orientem is for the worshippers to face the rising Sun, symbol of the Resurrected Christ, as the Eucharist was celebrated at Sunday Dawn. Curiously in some places, again particularly in Italy and notably in Ravenna and Lucca, while the churches were usually oriented, the older custom, drawn from Rome, with the priest facing the people over the altar (Mass versus populum) was retained as we can see at San Vitale and at San Apollinaire in Classe. Indeed even when one examines the remaining pre-Vatican II altars in the Cathedral of Florence, Siena, Orvieto, one notices that they were all constructed after the liturgical Reforms of the Council of Trent to replace older free-standing altars. This is no proof that ad orientem celebration was only introduced to much of Italy in the late 16th century, but it is a significant indication that the question should be studied in more depth.
If the purpose of the ad orientem position being for priest and faithful alike to face the rising sun, where the worship space itself is not oriented it makes absolutely no sense for the priest to face away from the congregation unless it is part of the tradition of the rite itself. Such a position is not ad orientem but ad apsidem (facing the rear wall of the church, the apse). As shown in earlier postings, the traditional position of the presider in the Roman Rite is to face the people over the altar. Since the sun rises in the east, the concept of some mythical “liturgical east” is patently ridiculous. East is east—where the sun rises, any other point on the compass is either North, West, or South.
As I have pointed out in previous posts the practice of ad orientem has been of very ancient origins in the East. We need remember that Sicily and much of Southern Italy (as far north as Naples) and the area around Ravenna was under Byzantine Rule until the 12th century. The Greek Rite was used in the churches of this area. In northern Europe ties between the Court of Charlemagne and the Emperor at Constantinople introduced much Greek ceremonial into both the royal court as well as into the Church. Liturgy developed far more elaborately in Northern Europe, particularly in France than it did in Rome which kept to its simple, almost Spartan, liturgical tradition. The various dioceses of France, Britain, the Rhineland, the Low Countries all developed their own particular customs over the 8th through the 14th centuries. These rites are collectively known as “Gallican Rites.” The Spanish church as well developed its own unique and elaborate rites. Most of these rites were renounced in favor of the 1570 Missal of Pius V after the Council of Trent, however many customs—the number of candles on the altar, the use of specific liturgical colors—were not only retained but found their way into the Missal of Pius V replacing older Roman practices. Before the revisions of Pius V, missals for the various rites concentrated mostly on the liturgical texts and often did not include detailed rubrics; at the time of the Council of Trent, however, rubrical conformity became a real priority and the lack of detailed rubrics in the Roman books was supplemented by rubrics borrowed from the various medieval rites. Also Pius V himself was a Dominican and the Dominicans had a very elaborate and detailed rite, predisposing the pontiff towards abandoning Roman simplicity in favor of a more baroque approach to worship that matched the architecture of the churches being built—or renovated—in Rome at the time.
When May 24, 2003 Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos celebrated the Tridentine Mass in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, the first celebration according to the Missal of Pius V since its being superseded by the Missal of Paul VI in 1970,many of the pilgrims who had come were outraged because the Mass was celebrated versus populum and not ad apsidem (remember, Saint Mary Major’s faces north, not east, thus not ad orientem). What they totally ignored is that it is not possible to celebrate ad apsidem at Saint Mary Major’s as the altar stands over the open confessio that leads down to a niche containing the presumed manger in which the Christ child was placed after this birth and upon which the altar is built to enshrine. Consequently the high altar is approachable from only three sides. Indeed the papal altars in all four major basilicas are all designed for versus populum celebration and even before Vatican II, the popes celebrated facing the congregation over the altar.I am not opposed to ad orientem or even ad apsidem celebrations in general. Certainly in those rites to which they an inherent part of the tradition they make sense. Indeed in some Eastern Rites that have latinized to the point of versus populum celebrations, ad orientem should be restored. When permission is granted for one or another of the north-European rites: Sarum, York, Rite of Paris, for example, it makes sense to used the ad apsidem position. The same would go for the medieval rites of the religious orders—the Dominicans, the Carmelites, the Carthusians. On the other hand these rites are meant not for pastoral care of the faithful but are used out of historical or antiquarian curiosity and should be fairly limited. But where the Roman Rite should be used, it should be used in its integrity which includes versus populum celebration.