Catholic · Liturgy

Much Ado About Ad Orientem


Dear Susan,

If I were giving you a presentation, would you be offended if I turned my back on you or would it make you pay more attention to my PowerPoint? That kind of sums up the arguments of those for and against having Mass ad orientem, with the priest facing away from the people.

My brother recently visited our childhood church that was built in the brief cool and groovy time right after Vatican II. It is a church in the round, which was in vogue then.  Everyone was focused on the altar because they looked down towards it. However, should your attention wander, you could glance around and see the faces of your classmates with their families, your mom’s friends, and your neighbors, all worshiping together. It was nice.  But the times they are a changin’ and the church in the round has gone the way of the Folk Mass.  The current pastor has gone to great lengths to sort of wall off the altar, so that he and the congregation can say Mass ad orientem, where the priest and the congregation face the wall behind the altar, looking in the same direction. Traditionally, this would have been East the way most churches were constructed. My brother reported that a significant minority of the congregation now purposely sit on the other side of the wall so that the priest has to face them. That is the karma of the church in the round; no matter which way you turn, you will be facing someone.

Mass Ad Orientem
The mass is a beautiful ritual that has survived for over 2000 years. Church leaders have written reams on the proper way to conduct Mass, tweaked responses, and issued directives about when we sit, stand and kneel. Yet, we still managed to find something else to argue about: whether or not the priest should face the congregation (versus populum) or the altar. There was even a little skirmish about this issue in July when Cardinal Sarah, the Vatican’s liturgy chief, urged all churches to return to saying Mass ad orientem by Advent. He was speaking on behalf of the Pope, purportedly. Traditionalists rejoiced, citing all sorts of reasons this was a good thing: We would be putting God at the center of worship, the priest would be facing East, which is the direction Jesus will return to us from according to the gospel of Mark and the direction the rising sun; it would help us focus our attention at Mass; the priest would be facing Jesus in the form of the crucifix. There were even cartoons, like the one here:

from – Oh, wait, again…this was a little premature
But, not so fast. A week later, the Pope corrected Sarah’s statement , saying that the Vatican was not, in fact, issuing instructions for priests to say Mass ad orientem as the norm.

I wonder why we are even arguing about this. Both forms of worship appear to be valid, so why mandate one over the other? According to my favorite religious history source, Wikipedia, ad orientem Masses did not even make it to churches in Rome until the 8th or 9th century. It was not something universally done at the inception of the church. The first time I encountered an ad orientem service, it was in an Anglican church not a Catholic one. The fact is some people really get a spiritual benefit from an ad orientem Mass and some really don’t.  Forms of worship are not one size fits all.  The essentials of the rite and, most importantly, the Eucharist are still the same.

Mass Versus Populum
Personally, I am in favor of changes that enhance our ability to come together in community. Jesus is active and alive in each of us and we need reminders that encourage us to act on this belief.  At Mass last weekend, a visiting priest (facing us), instructed the two sides of our main aisle to face each other when we said the Penitential Rite. Saying “I have sinned against you my brothers and sisters,” while actually facing your brothers and sisters was a simple change, but incredibly powerful. OK, so there was less eye contact than on the NYC subway at rush hour but, it was a start. I wonder if Cardinal Sarah would approve?


I think one of the most important, yet hardest things to learn in this life is seeing Jesus in others. Yes, the altar should have our attention during Mass but, let’s be real. It is NOT the only place where Jesus is present. His presence is everywhere – don’t forget the Tabernacle!  In my view, taking the time to see Jesus in the people you worship with as the Body of Christ is a valuable part of worship as well. That includes both the nice person next to you who decides to color with your daughter and the grumpasaurus who is going to cut you off in the parking lot after Mass. Because you KNOW that’s going to happen. Jesus loves that person as much as he loves you.


Hope things are going well back East! Prayers for us, the Pope and Cardinal Sarah.





Hey, readers! What are your experiences with ad orientem Mass? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section.

One thought on “Much Ado About Ad Orientem

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