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.