Much is being made of rumors that the Vatican will soon issue a decree mandating that the priest celebrate the Mass ad orientem (“toward the East” and, presumably, with his back to the people). I would like to support that, but only if we take the spirit of the proposal seriously and follow through completely with what the supporting arguments actually require.

There are two basic arguments in support of the priest praying ad orientem. The first is historical: there is considerable documentary evidence (nicely summarized in John Baldovin’s Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics) that this was the dominant, though not exclusive, orientation of the priest in the church’s ancient worship. The second argument is liturgical: this reorientation would help recover the eschatological focus of the worshiping community as all pray in anticipation of the final coming of Christ. Worship ad orientem would remind us that the act of worship is not a closed conversation (the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had complained of a “closed circle”) between presbyter and assembly; it is a shared conversation between the whole assembly, including the presbyter, and God. This change would also counteract the tendency in some worshiping communities for the presbyter to be the focus of attention.

But the general thrust of these arguments suggests that a...

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About the Author

Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. His books include: Keys to the Council:  Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II (co-authored with Catherine Clifford, Liturgical Press, 2012), When the Magisterium Intervenes (editor, Liturgical Press, 2012), Ecclesiology for a Global Church:  A People Called and Sent (Orbis, 2008) and The Church in the Making (Paulist, 2006).