Where Have They Hidden The Lord?

The easy answer is that they haven’t really hidden him, and we do have a major elevation–at least one–to prove it.

There is a reaction brewing against priests saying Mass with the Eucharistic elements in full view. Most often the discussion is framed by urging the people and the priest to face the same direction when praying the Mass. To that I usually reply if the altar is between the priest and people, they are facing in the same direction: toward the Lord. Toward Christ is the only direction that matters.

My sense of the change in altar practice after Vatican II was not so the presider could perform for the faithful, as is erroneously suggested. Vatican II argued for more intelligibility in the liturgy, more understanding of it. The problem with ad orientem worship is that the priest obscures the sightlines for the Eucharist. It contributes to a sense of secrecy, a kind of creeping magical gnosticism. The secrecy isn’t good for liturgy; in fact, it damages what the Church tries to accomplish in liturgical formation.

It may be a particular problem for the West today, as much as we associate visually more than experientially. But consider the multiplicity of elevations over time: the faithful wanted to see. “Seeing is believing” is overworked as a cliche, but it contains an important truth. Human beings most often receive God through the senses, sight being the foremost of them.

That said, I can accept that in communities with a deeply intentional spirituality: religious life, TLM parishes, for example, ad orientem worship may be a viable option for Mass. Speaking for myself, it wouldn’t matter that much to me were I to visit or join such a group.

I wish we could put to rest the false notion that non ad orientem facilitates performance. Any priest with poor presidential skills, awkwardness, or ego will draw attention to himself, no matter what the liturgy looks like. One only has to browse through the image sections of any traditionalist liturgy site and take a count. How many images of clergy, usually in very fine vestments? How many of the church architecture? How many of the people? How many full images of the whole Mass?

I can say that in almost forty years of Catholic worship, I don’t pay attention to the priest when I’m praying the Eucharistic Prayer. I focus on the Eucharistic elements, and I’m glad the clergy are behind the altar and out of the way. That’s how most Catholics see it.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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9 Responses to Where Have They Hidden The Lord?

  1. Gavin says:

    if the altar is between the priest and people, they are facing in the same direction: toward the Lord. Toward Christ is the only direction that matters.
    Correct me if I’m wrong here, but isn’t the bulk of a Eucharistic prayer addressed to the Father? More so with the ICEL replacement of just about any “Domine” with “Father”.

    I wish we could put to rest the false notion that non ad orientem facilitates performance.
    Maybe that notion comes about because it does? I’ve seen even a few “good” priests whose reverent celebrations of the Mass can be affected by facing the congregation. And let’s look at the psychological part of the equation: if you’re facing someone, isn’t it hard to keep from communicating with them? Most liturgical abuse comes about as an attempt to communicate to the congregation; “Oooh, I’ll put some part of my sermon into the offertory prayers for them! And I’ll get rid of masculine pronouns in the canon so they don’t think of God as male!” Ad orientem lessens (but not eliminates) the psychological need to communicate.

    Yes, a good priest should be able to overcome that. He should also work for free, never sleep, get a 50% or better vocations rate from the young men of his parish, and probably a thousand other superhuman tasks. He should be able to evangelize in a strip club without succumbing to sins of lust. Until we have the superpastor (or one could say, in Latin… Pastor Bonus) maybe we shouldn’t demand of our priests a physical orientation that encourages anti-liturgical behavior?

  2. Liam says:

    I am not sure the ad orientem is nearly as contributive to the magical secrecy component as the so-called silent canon that is the grail of many (not all) traditionalists.

    Why do I think that? Because it’s not as if we usually see the elements as such outside the elevations. The Host is not viewable, being atop a paten or ciborium on the altar, and the Precious Blood is in a chalice, none of which are (supposed to be) transparent.

    Other than perhaps some breast beatings by the priest, all the gestures of the priest are viewable from either direction, as it were.

    So I don’t think the issue of direction is as consequential as many have tended to make, I think, unnecessarily.

    While I agree that some priests will be egoistic regardless of direction, I do think that there are probably more who might feel their egos constrained by a shift in direction.

    That said, I don’t feel a shift in direction is going to be the great solution others do.

    * * *

    Now, if someone tries to re-impose the silent canon, then you’ll get a much deeper negative reaction from me….

  3. I used to be militantly pro-ad orientem… I have now toned it down, and and regularly attend weekday Masses offered versus populorum

    My concern is familiar enough (though with a slightly ecumenical dimension) – too much performance, a loss of the sense of a priest offering, standing on our side of the altar with us (and its attendent reflections of sacrifice), and too great a focus on “presidership”… It also steps outside of the common liturgical posture that we otherwise shared with the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Church of the East.

    All this being said, I can live with it, and it does not distract or annoy me like it may have a dozen+ years ago when I was going through a “militant phase”. For now I am happy to see the 6 candle & crucifix altar set-up favored by B16 gaining currency. It is, to my mind, a good start at refocusing a bit.

  4. Liam:

    When the infants in church are crying antiphonally during the Eucharistic prayer, as they were today, and Father has a frog in his throat to boot, the silent canon seems very appealing.

    FYI, I am not complaining about the little ones, it is a package deal. I’m just saying…

  5. Matthew Meloche says:

    That would be a great rubric:

    “The Priest continues audibly, unless he has a frog in his throat or there are children crying or both in which case he continues silently:”

  6. The cult of personality and “bad” performance is not limited to celebrants and the EP. Diva and Devo lectors abound. Mr. Caruso and Senora de los Angeles’s still use their modal registers at full throttle and wobble into condensor mics.

    “If my people, who are called by My Name, would humble themselves and pray.”

    One notion took lodging in my brain at last year’s CMAA in DC: if one chants “everything,” so to speak, one is blessed with an ironic outcome, specifically the diminution of any inclination to personally nuance, or put one’s own personality into the mix of the “performance.”
    We now have two of three priests who are completely capable of chanting everything, should they so choose. When one decides to cantillate the EP, his “personality factor” isn’t evident. When he orates, the inflections come back. Our other celebrant has a tendency to croon; so when he chants it’s sometimes a bit too much because his style is inclined away from simplicity. However when he orates, his manner is reserved and reverent. Go figure.
    I guess my two cents add up to: it’s not always about which side of the altar the priest is facing during the liturgy.

  7. Tony says:

    We are always admonished to remove ourselves from “near occasions to sin”.

    How about removing our priests from “near occasions to improvise”.

    Besides how many weeks in a row can you watch sour faced feminists cringe every time God is referred to as “Him”.

  8. Anne says:

    “Besides how many weeks in a row can you watch sour faced feminists cringe every time God is referred to as “Him””

    Tony,
    How do you know that they are feminists? Why are you watching them?
    Do you believe that all progressive women or anyone who believes in inclusive language (and there are many men btw) are sour faced? Your post seems pretty “sour” to me.

  9. Tony says:

    Anne, I was talking about priests who face the congregation, gauging the reactions to what he says.

    Does it tick you off when God is referred to as “He”?

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