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Popular Misconceptions About the Catholic Mass, Part II: Ad Orientem / Versus Populum

“Many Catholics are unaware that priests are not required to celebrate Mass facing the assembly.”

Part I: Music Part II: Ad Orientem / Versus Populum Part III: Communion Reception

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in the Sistine Chapel ad orientem on January 12, 2014. Photo credit: CTV

In the second of a series on popular misconceptions about the Catholic Mass – particularly a few widespread changes in practice since the Second Vatican Council that many assume to be required – I would like to address the issue of liturgical orientation. Many Roman Catholics who recall the Mass prior to the Council or who have attended Mass in the Extraordinary Form (aka 'Traditional Latin' or 'Tridentine' Mass) have attended a liturgy celebrated ad orientem. This term indicates a priest celebrant united in his physical orientation with the entire assembly, facing the altar and the rear apse of the Church – symbolically understood as leading the people in facing God. Many today understand this practice rather negatively – perhaps as outdated or inappropriate in comparison to the ubiquitous versus populum, where a priest celebrant is directly facing the assembly from the opposite side of the altar. With versus populum as the practical norm for many Catholics (perhaps the only option of which most are aware), it may seem that the ad orientem arrangement requires a priest to face backwards or to ‘turn his back’ on the assembly. This may seem cold and disengaged compared to the comfortable and more interactive norm many are used to. In fact, to those who have been rightly taught that Vatican II in part sought to foster greater liturgical participation, entertaining the option of ad orientem today might indeed seem problematic. However, this ancient practice of the Church was never outlawed or changed by mandate. In fact, ad orientem celebration of liturgy has become more frequent on certain occasions, even for Pope Francis. With the recent increase in attention this practice has received, it is worth a brief look at the history and current teachings of the Church.


While the 1964 Vatican II document Inter Oecumenici directs that churches should be built to accommodate the option of a priest celebrating Mass from behind the altar opposite or facing the people, it does not directly require any change to the normative orientation. Practice of the now widespread versus populum orientation had been documented more than a decade prior to the Council and had gained popularity such that the required architectural changes yielded practical changes to the way the Mass was preferred to be celebrated by many priests. Some make the claim that even the previous Missal provided the option, which according to their claim, justified versus populum practice prior to the Council.

Even still, many Catholics are unaware that priest are not required to celebrate Mass facing the assembly. Ad orientem is still perfectly valid as an option for the celebration of the Novus Ordo (Ordinary Form of the Mass), provided the physical configuration of any new facilities allow the option of versus populum as well. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) on which these guidelines are based has historically allowed for a priest celebrant's physical and liturgical orientation to be chosen according to the configuration of the church, altar, tabernacle, and so on, including considerations for popular devotion as well as the celebration of special feasts and solemnities. However, GIRM 299 (as well as the USSCB Guidelines for church buildings Built of Living Stones which references this article) does state clearly that "[t]he altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible." Having the option is desirable, but a particular orientation is not mandated. When options are given, the liturgical documents almost always defer to the authority of the local Ordinary (bishop), who may have specific preferences in spite of leeway offered in the documents. In other words, pastors don't always necessarily have every listed option available to them if the bishop has voiced a preference.


Why does this matter? Many of the faithful have been poorly catechized on the Mass, and much of this current state is a result of efforts to strip the Mass of certain sacramentals, postures, and practices that have been deemed an obstacle to achieving the objective of increased liturgical participation among the faithful set out by the Council. The effects of this trend are apparent in many parishes: generations of Catholics are missing out on important elements that have catechized the Church for centuries. We often downplay or think too little of the learning that comes through practice and action. The bulk of our catechesis is often expected to take place in the classroom, where the liturgy is not experienced or prayed. The connections just don't take place. As a result, the Mass is seen primarily as a community gathering, the mystical, supernatural elements are often entirely unnoticed. Liturgy is misunderstood to be a mere ritualization of our collective human endeavors, as opposed to our participation in the action that God is doing – this being the essential understanding of all seven sacraments. In another article, I have addressed the concept of Liturgy as the work of God on behalf of the people. Physical arrangement and spacial orientation play a huge part in understanding why we do what we do in worship – not to mention the things that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Here music, art, and architecture have a immensely important roles to play in communicating the "signs and symbols of heavenly realities" that Sacrosanctum Concilium stressed in liturgy after Vatican II.

Arguably, accompanied by proper liturgical catechesis, one of the best ways to explain the Mass is demonstrated by a priest and assembly's liturgical orientation and is entirely non-verbal. Celebrating ad orientem, the priest and assembly are united in prayer as the mystical Body of Christ (most apparent in cruciform churches), oriented to God the Father. The priest acts as Christ the head to offers the sacrifice of his Body on our behalf to the Father for his glory and our sanctification. This idea is obscured visually in churches that are configured with the sanctuary as a stage around which spectators are gathered, with a priest acting as a presenter. In this case, it is harder to see that the common direction of worship is more appropriately up, and by default many assume that liturgy is entirely about the community. Even worse, it becomes indistinguishable from many other types of Christian worship services. By contrast, understanding the liturgy properly reveals a different picture of the priest leading all of us in communal prayer and sacrifice to God that is occasionally broken up by short dialogues with the assembly in the form of invitations to prayer, i.e. “lift up your hearts.” Is this a preferred approach? No one individual can answer that. Certainly pastoral concerns vary, but the option of re-introducing this practice may present the opportunity for better education and formation of the people in the pews.


Other complications have arisen in the arrangement of the physical space since the introduction of versus populum that pastors, architects, and consultants have gone to great lengths to solve liturgically – some more successfully than others. Many times it is difficult, if not impossible, to meet all guidelines or recommendations, so the built solutions are often less than ideal. Among these challenges are location of the tabernacle, accumulation of multiple crucifixes so as to be within sight of both priest and assembly, and so on. Many of these issues would potentially be simplified with a reconsideration of the universality of the practice of versus populum. In other words, in addition to providing valuable catechetical opportunities, celebrating Mass ad orientem could really help settle and unify several other discrepancies in environment and practice.


For some basic theology of the Mass and how it impacts architecture, see the two-part article Architecture and the Mind of the Church. For much more detailed and thorough examination of the specific topic of liturgical orientation from both liturgical and historical examinations, see Fr. Uwe Michael Lang's book Turning Towards the Lord (Ignatius). Please note that the goal of this series is to educate and promote dialogue, not to promote or lobby for a single favored solution where the Church, for good reason, provides legitimate options. We should be mindful of the dangerous and often destructive notion that simply returning wholesale to previous practices will solve all of the problems we have with liturgical participation and awareness, reverence, religious vocations, and general practice of the faith. We do well to consider the difficulty of balancing all aspects of liturgical life that Church has promoted before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council, and to prayerfully and charitably discern the areas where improvement might be possible. This post is the second in a series. See also Part I: Music, and Part III: Communion Reception.

written by Michael Raia.


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