Orienting Liturgical Prayer

It’s no accident that the English word “orientation” includes the root for “east” in Latin. Orientation of liturgical prayer has resurfaced recently, and seems to be getting heavy promotion in reform2 circles. Msgr Marini, in his recent address to priests, also discusses it. He quotes the pope from a preface to a book containing some of his collected works:

The idea that the priest and people should stare at one another during prayer was born only in modern Christianity, and is completely alien to the ancient Church.

It’s also completely alien to the modern Church. The notion of shifting the priest to the other side of a free-standing altar was more likely a result of the Catholic curiosity for incarnate viewings of the Lord. Were elevations of the already consecreated elements about repeating a sacrificial offering, or were they for the faith-oriented edification of the masses? Why did priests move? I suspect it was because lay people wanted to see the goings-on: preparation rites, the epicletic gesture, the simple showing of the transformed bread and wine. It’s a convenience that churches have improved (but not perfect) sound systems that make needless the non-amplified projection of spoken prayers. Clergy could easily celebrate Mass in a chapel oriented east, and leave the people in the nave to hear every word as clear as day.

I’m not sure that I take exception to the pope’s theology so much as his faulty diagnosis. I have to wonder what those closeted up in the Vatican think happens out in the wide world. I’d say we do watch the clergy when they preach, because facial expression is part of the human communication process. The Eucharistic Prayer is obviously a different case: an oration addressed to God, not to the people. People who read the prayer texts of the Mass are generally educated enough to know what texts are addressed to them, and what words to God.

Additionally, watching the care a priest takes with the gestures of celebrating Mass is part of the expression of ars celebrandi. As a human being, the priest sets a good example for others. Or he’s supposed to. And besides, isn’t the priest a symbol of Christ? Granted the pedigree of praying to the East, what does it say that Christ prays to the Father seemingly oblivious to those he chooses to freely serve?

The exaggerated focus on orientation continues to call attention to the priest as a human being. If we didn’t have priests imitating talk-show hosts, their backs would be billboards for the sort of “sumptuous display” criticized in SC 124. Either approach is a loss. Instead, I think a better emphasis on the quality of liturgical celebration is needed not only in seminaries, but in clergy from the bishops on down. When I train liturgical ministers, I mention that their public ministry should be free of distractions for others. The image I suggest for Communion ministers especially is that they should strive for transparency. They are porters at an open door of grace offered by God. Gesture the people to the sacramental encounter with Christ. That’s what our clergy should be trained to do, not further the endless discussion on facing east or otherwise, or turning one’s back on one’s people.

I thought Msgr Marini’s second point in his address was pretty weak. There’s a case to be made for the external orientation of liturgical prayer, but it needs to appeal more strongly to tradition. Building a sound argument can’t include the caricature of an alternate view. I invite you to check the link. Maybe there’s something deeper in Msgr. Marini’s presentation. I just didn’t see it.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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19 Responses to Orienting Liturgical Prayer

  1. Silly me. I thought that Vatican II returned the priest to facing the people because in the early church they gathered around a table in someone’s home and the host/celebrant would never have sat facing away from the others!

    Still, it is actually more of an issue of Roman architecture. When the church moved to Roman basilicas, where there is a platform (i.e., stage) it changed the dynamic – and I suppose some of what the monsignor has to say is valid, but modern church architecture has sought to return to the dynamic of celebration of the Eucharist “in the round.”

    • Ferluq says:

      Pray, tell, in which document issued by the Conciliar Fathers was mandated that the priest has to face the people? Or for that matter, the fact that in all the liturgies of the Christian East (and prior to 1969 in the West as well) the prayer is oriented, has any bearing as a witness to the common tradition of the Church?

  2. Liam says:

    Well, the model for the Eucharistic was not only based on domestic (which, of course, was not a table around which people sat in the modern imagination) or basilican, but there was a theological development as well. The model not only partakes of the Last Supper or the Crucifixion, but also the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb (which is not pictured as simply a grander version of a home meal).

    Of the many things that the liturgical reform accomplished, the orientation of the celebrant, and of the congregation in “in the round” does not rank in the most important level. I am aware of the theoretical writings of liturgical thinkers in the 20th century that elevated “in the round” design to an all-encompassing concept (I had to read them to help critique the thesis of an architect friend of mine), I think more has been made of the concept than is warranted or necessary. I’ve seen too many people focus on in the round orientation as a shibboleth in the way that other people focus on reviving shelf altars.

  3. Fred says:

    The orientation of prayer in the primitive Church was to the east. The priest never faced the congregation during the anaphora; rather, all turned to the Lord – adversus ad Dominum. We live in a time where all must be focused on ourselves, This is an aberration from true worship. It will be very difficult to return to worship towards the East. We in America are so focused on ourselves. This demands a conversion on the part of all of us. We must turn back to the Lord.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Todd,

    I agree with you that parts of Msgr Marini’s speech are weak. His claims about the existence of liturgies in which the priest and people “stare at one another” and in which “the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is the community” really need empirical support. Which liturgies? Where? How does he know? Why has this come to be?

    But I do think that there are good arguments for the priest “facing the East” during the Eucharistic prayer:

    1. It emphasizes that the priest prays with us as a member of the laos, the people of God.

    2. Because it focuses us on the rising Sun as a symbol of Christ the rising light, this orientation restores a “cosmic” dimension to the Eucharist. (As John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, “[The Eucharist] unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing.”) It might be useful for us to recall this cosmic dimension in a time of environmental catastrophe.

    Furthermore, you write that a main motivation for praying versus populum was that “lay people wanted to see the goings-on.” But ritual is not about transparency and Christian liturgy is not about everything being immediately visible. Indeed, one can argue that the liturgy is about the interplay between disclosure and concealment in a way that mirrors the apophatic and cataphatic in religious language.

    Finally, some of our Lutheran and Anglican brothers and sisters pray ad orientem, and, in my experience, their liturgies don’t manifest clericalism.



  5. Justin in Ohio says:


    Those are some excellent points. I don’t think we’ll ever see a complete return to the entire mass (or 90% of it) being celebrated ad orientem.

    However, I do think there is a strong possibility that at least the Eucharistic prayer could become ad orientem.

    This is especially true if future popes continue to be traditional/conservative in their liturgical views (which is highly likely) and Rome continues to name traditional/orthodox bishops around the world (also very likely to continue).

    I’ve witnessed several younger priests here in Ohio already using that orientation during the Holy Mass, and I imagine that will only continue as more and more conservative young men become priests. Of course, it helps when they explain the history of the posture and why they are implementing it. Most Catholics don’t know the true reason why…and when they find out or when it’s explained to them, most have no problem with it.

  6. Annika says:

    As one who was raised in an Eastern Rite Catholic tradition, I have no issues with
    “ad orientem” prayer at liturgy. But, what to do in a Roman Rite building that faces west? ISTM that at least the priest is presently praying ad orientem at the NO Mass when he ‘faces the people’. It may seem to be a quibble, but I have often wondered why, if these buildings were built pre VII (most were) and the intention was truly for the entire body of the faithful and the priest to face the east, so many do NOT face east? Just wondering. :-)

    • Jono says:

      The West (and Rome in particular) has always had the mind of an engineer. This means that there is a right way to do things, which should always be done, except when it can’t be done (which seems to be almost always). Hence when, because of geography, a building cannot face East (or it would be more practical to have it face another direction) you make your own East (the so-called “liturgical East”).

      This view was held not only by Christian Rome, but also by pagan Rome. The Roman pagan temples similarly were supposed to face East, but do not always do so.

  7. Todd says:

    Many good points, and thanks for the comments here. Keep them coming.

    In appealing to tradition, it’s important to be mindful that while Eastern Christian traditions maintain a greater degree of facing East, in the most ancient Eucharistic traditions, it probably was not so.

    The root of the Christian Eucharist is the Jewish Pesach, a home ritual celebrated at table, not a Temple liturgy.

    That said, clearly the Christian Eucharist has evolved and will continue to do so. Personally, I have no problem with the Eucharistic Prayer addressed to the East. However, with the heat generated on this matter, I think a church architecture in which the orientation of the priest is irrelevant (antiphonal or in-the-round) avoids the pastoral difficulties. But again, not everybody builds churches this way.

    Lastly, I think the argument that the priest faces the people in most Roman liturgy needs to be exploded. Like most liturgists, I know that ad orientem worship is not about the priest turning his back on the people. Unfortunately, Pope Benedict’s argument is of the same caliber as this statement.

    Visibility is part of the Western yearning for God; otherwise why would Eucharistic adoration be such a strong spiritual current for Roman Catholics. Seeing is important.

    • Neil says:

      Dear Todd,

      You write:

      Visibility is part of the Western yearning for God; otherwise why would Eucharistic adoration be such a strong spiritual current for Roman Catholics. Seeing is important.

      I’m not sure if I can agree with this, at least not without qualification. The desire to “see” God is not to see him as some sort of fascinating object. Thus, Denys paradoxically prays to be led into a “brilliant darkness.” Later, Henry Vaughan will write that in God there is “A deep but dazzling darkness.”

      Just like religious language has to include affirmation and denial (because we cannot simply describe God as an object), when we speak of “seeing” God we must speak of the interplay of seeing and not seeing, disclosure and hiddeness.

      I think that this interplay is evident in the ritual of Eucharistic adoration – Benediction. In Benediction, adoration is not simply about seeing. The Eucharist is dramatically brought forth from regular concealment in the tabernacle, but then placed in a windowed liturgical vessel (the monstrance) upon the altar. We sing hymns to Christ in the Eucharist, but the hymns usually express our inability to see the Eucharist for what it is, at least with our normal senses: “Let faith provide a supplement /
      For the failure of the senses” (Tantum Ergo, literal translation). And, then, in the “reposition,” the Eucharist is placed back in the tabernacle.

      So, yes, in Benediction “seeing is important.” But “not seeing” is also important, lest we come to think that the presence of God is a fascinating object. Thus, we see the importance of both disclosure and concealment and the testimony to the inevitable “failure of the senses.”

      So, in general and put bluntly, part of liturgy must involve “not seeing.”


  8. Thanks for affirming the origins of the table rite, Todd – I wonder if this whole thing does not beg the question of when “Tradition” begins – and whose tradition. Are we looking back to the days of the Didache (table gatherings in house churches), or merely to the era of the Council of Nicea, when the basilica became the official building for liturgical celebration? If, after Vatican II, we looked back to the Didache era for the origins of the Catechumenate and for many other liturgical practices, would it not make sense that the liturgical reforms went back to that era for practices for celebration of the Mass such as whether the celebrant faces the people? As we watch the “reform of the reforms” it seems somehow counterproductive to pick and choose what we regard as eras of “best practice.”

    • Jono says:

      The one example of an early house church of which I am aware is that found in Dura-Europos. Here, there was a distinct altar against the wall, preventing the priest from facing the people. While we may not be able to generalize from the only known case of a discovered house church to the whole of orthdox Christianity, there is nevertheless more evidence for early eastward orientation and a cultic meal than there is for “sitting around a table”. For instance, there is no indication of the orientation of prayer found in the Didache.

      I am very much in favor of ressourcement. The recovery of clearly documented practices, such as the sign of peace, the prayer of the faithful, and communication with both species, and especially greater use of Scripture, is praiseworthy. However, in this case, the universal tradition of facing toward the east (or at least the liturgical east) favors retaining this form of orientation, even if allowance is made for the possibility to celebrate with the priest and people facing each other (as is granted in the GIRM).

  9. Liam says:

    Actually, it also should be remembered that Pesach seder ritual as we know it reflects important post-Temple developments in rabbinical Judaism – and, in Jesus’ time, Pesach still very much had roots in Temple sacrifice; the daytime hours before the nightime meal at home was a very bloody day in the Temple precincts, with men carrying bloodied corpses of sacrificial lambs back to their pilgrim groups for the evening meal. It’s so easy to forget this. And the Christian Eucharist was not merely a re-presentation of a Pesach meal (any more than it is merely a re-presentation of Calvary). Christians rather eagerly built grander public spaces for their Eucharists when toleration of their public worship was granted, even without oft-noted patronage of Roman rulers. Idealizing pre-Constantinian 3rd century worship is not very different from idealizing post-Tridentine 17th century worship: both are more ideological than true to the nature of Roman liturgy.

  10. Todd says:

    Thanks, Liam,

    Good points on the historical development of the Pesach. As a liturgist, I’m more attuned to the Exodus 12 narrative, which does describe a public slaughter (and I’m assuming would be pre-Temple) but the meal portion would be definitely a home ritual.

    And sure, I don’t see the Christian Eucharist as a re-presentation of the Jewish ritual. It’s certainly not intended to be the re-presentation of Christian history from the 17th, 3rd, or whatever century.

    I’m not sure what a universal mandate for any single way of priest-presidency would accomplish in Catholicism today, except to exacerbate tensions and fracture the unity the Holy Father is supposed to serve.

    Like it or not, I’d say we’re still in a period of experimentation, and uniformity of orientation is unrealistic, even assuming all church architecture was able to cooperate.

  11. Liam says:


    I agree. As I’ve noted before, I would encourage presiders to use both orientations, not so much to reflect on how it affects them spiritually and in ars celebranda (while that’s not trivial, we’ve had a surfeit of such reflections in traditionalist-oriented blogs), but also for the assembly’s own experience, reflection and consideration.

    I would not design a new church with a shelf altar – I would favor a large freestanding square altar mensa of substantial and artfully designed material, ideally (it might take future generations to supply) with a corona or ciborio of some sort – but I also would approve (in the name of good stewardship, among other things) the continued use of shelf altars of historical significance or of enduring artistic merit.

    I worshipped in a community where the shelf altar (I cannot say much for the 19th century sculpture – it wasn’t catalog art, but as an attempt to imitate ancient and medieval bas relief it left something to be desired in execution) was placed such that light (a figure of God the Father) from the oculus (glazed with stained glass of the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove) above it would around the weeks of the summer solstice (the time of Corpus Christi and Sacred Heart, once feasts very much celebrated in that place) hit the mark of the old tabernacle and altar area, and making sense of the design of the space in a way no other way did. I wished that at Corpus Christi and Sacred Heart, someone had the imagination to use the old altar location. I don’t think was an abuse not to do this, but I regretted the rigidity of those who thought to do this would in some way conflict with or even betray the conciliar liturgical reforms.

  12. Rob F. says:

    If you believe that all eucharistic rites ultimately share a common liturgical ancestry, then it becomes difficult to believe that the eucharist was ever celebrated by a priest facing a congregation, except as an abberation or historical quirk. From Ethiopia to China, from Ireland to Iran, all eucharists known to history (excepting a minority of Roman rite masses) have faced the liturgical east. If there was ever a time when priests faced the congregation, it ended while Christianity was still in its cradle.

  13. Rob F. says:

    Arrgh! Should have said, “aberration”.

  14. Todd says:

    I don’t believe priests should face the assembly. But there’s no point in hiding the Eucharistic elements from them either.

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