Recently, the Bishop of Birmingham,
Alabama, the Most Reverend David E. Foley, decreed a new law for his diocese, which was
published in the diocesan newspaper on November 26, 1999. The law reads:
|Ad Orientem Prayer
By Charles M. Wilson
In churches and shrines, as well as
oratories where Mass is open to the public, the priest celebrating the Eucharist at a
free-standing altar is to face the people.
At any Mass that is or will be televised
for broadcast or videotaped for public dissemination, the priest is to use a free-standing
altar and face the people.
It is the opinion of the Saint Joseph
Foundation that Bishop Foleys decree is invalid.
In response to many inquiries concerning
Bishop Foleys decree, the following commentary was prepared by the staff of the
Saint Joseph Foundation and is the property of the Foundation. Permission is hereby
granted to use, reproduce or distribute this document in whole or in part provided that
due credit to the Foundation is given.
Ad Orientem Prayer
The reform of the liturgical books after the Second
Vatican Council conceded to the celebrant of the Liturgy a wider application of the
practice of the versus populum posture. While the Missale Romanum of Pope Paul VI
continued to embrace the immemorial tradition of the ad orientem posture the
alternative posture received a strong endorsement as well. Indeed, it became popular to
such an extent that some observers have concluded that the ad orientem position of
the priest has been discarded. Sadly, undue criticism has sometimes emerged in regard to
two lawful practices. Although the universal law foresees little conflict some local
authorities have attempted to abnegate some of these provisions. Wherein lies the
authority to regulate the Sacred Liturgy?
Codex Iuris Canonici
Canon 838 - §1. The supervision of the
sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, which resides in the
Apostolic See and, in accord with the law, the diocesan bishop.
§2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred
liturgy of the universal Church, to publish the liturgical books, to review their
translations into the vernacular languages and to see that liturgical ordinances are
faithfully observed everywhere.
§3. It pertains to the conferences of bishops to prepare
translations of the liturgical books into the vernacular languages, with the appropriate
adaptations within the limits defined in the liturgical books themselves, and to publish
them with the prior review by the Holy See.
§4. It pertains to the diocesan bishop in the church
entrusted to him, within the limits of his competence, to issue liturgical norms by which
all are bound.
Canon 839 - §2. Local ordinaries are to see to it that
the prayers and other pious and sacred exercises of the Christian people are fully in
harmony with the norms of the Church.
Canon 135 - §2. Legislative power is to
be exercised in the manner prescribed by law ... a law which is contrary to a higher law
cannot be validly enacted by a lower level legislator.
The ad orientem posture of the celebrant during
Mass dates to the earliest centuries of liturgical development. It has enjoyed a
consistency throughout history enshrined both in immemorial custom and in law. Numerous
scholarly studies have been undertaken which confirm the validity of this practice not
only in the Latin Rite but in the Eastern Rites as well. The ad orientem posture is
sometime referred to as the ad altare posture. The terms are nuanced and the reader
is referred to other studies, which examine the underlying meanings. A fallacy exists
among many observers who regard the versus populum posture as entirely new to the
Church and that it was first introduced in the reform of Vatican II. On the contrary, the
historical proof for its prior existence is substantial although the interpretation of the
data is somewhat controverted. The Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae that
compiles the rubrical directives for the 1570 Missal of Pius V countenanced the
possibility of Mass versus populum. Conversely, the Institutio generalis
Missalis Romani (IGMR) which compiles the rubrical directives for the 1970
Missal of Paul VI presume the time honored discipline of Mass ad orientem or ad
altare. Consistent with the provisions of the Ritus servandus the Institutio
generalis continues to countenance and, indeed, to expand usage of the versus
populum orientation of the celebrant.
The reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council have
allowed for a variance in the posture of the celebrant. Although the former tradition
continues and is in no way abrogated, the celebrant is now permitted to turn towards the
people for the entirety of the liturgy. Of this there can be no doubt and the optional
practice has been widely and warmly received. Still the ad altare posture remains
the forma typica and the versus populum posture exists as a lawful option.
Indeed the altar ideally is envisioned to be free standing for two reasons: so that the
celebrant may walk around it especially during incensation and to allow Mass versus
populum. Many churches, of course, have an altar that is designed otherwise and often
times this altar possesses such an extraordinary beauty that no one could rightfully
destroy this patrimony. And since it does not seem desirable to have two altars it is also
evident that the optional versus populum posture would be difficult to accommodate
in those churches with beautiful high altars at least during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The question of a diocesan bishops authority to
regulate the liturgy is not in doubt. Canon 838 §4 empowers the Bishop to enact norms;
however, these norms must accord with the universal law. Canon 135 §2 expressly declares
any attempt by a lower level legislator (e.g., plenary or provincial councils of bishops,
diocesan bishop) to establish a law contrary to a higher law (e.g., papal law) as invalid.
The legal sources that provide the foundation for canon
838 §4 are found in the following texts:
1917 Codex Iuris Canonici
Can. 1261 §2. Si loci Ordinarius leges pro suo territorio
hac in re tulerit, etiam religiosi omnes, exempti quoque, obligatione tenentur easdem
servandi; et Ordinarius potest eorundem ecclesias vel publica oratoria in hunc finem
Vatican Council II, Constitutio Sacrosanctum
concilium, 4 Dec 1963, AAS 56 (1964) 97-138.
22. (1) Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on
the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See, and, as laws may determine, on
(3) Therefore no other person, not even a priest, may add,
remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.
SC Rites (Consilium), Instructio (prima) ad
exsecutionem constitutionis de Sacra Liturgia recte ordinandam Inter Oecumenici, 26
September 1964, AAS 56 (1964) 877-900.
22. It is for the bishop to regulate the liturgy in his
own diocese, in accordance with the norms and the spirit of the Constitution on Sacred
Liturgy, the decrees of the Holy See and of the competent territorial authority.
Vatican Council II, Constitutio dogmatica Lumen
gentium, 21 Nov 1964, AAS 57 (1965) 5-71.
26. Moreover, every legitimate celebration
of the Eucharist is regulated by the bishop, to whom is confided the duty of presenting to
the divine majesty the cult of the Christian religion and of ordering it in accordance
with the Lords injunctions and the Churchs regulations, as further defined for
the diocese by his particular decision.
Vatican Council II, Decretum Christus
Dominus, 28 Oct 1965, AAS 58 (1966) 673-701.
15. It is therefore bishops who are the principle
dispensers of the mysteries of God, and it is their function to control, promote and
protect the entire liturgical life of the Church entrusted to them.
35. (4) All religious, whether exempt or non-exempt, are
subject to the authority of the local ordinary in the following matters: public worship,
without prejudice, however, to the diversity of rites.
Whether a diocesan bishop, in the exercise of his
moderatorial responsibilities, may restrict the use of options for the sake of uniformity
throughout his diocese has been debated. One such doubt was proposed and given a response
by the Apostolic See.
Query: When the rubrics provide several
options, may the competent territorial authority for the whole region or the bishop for
his diocese direct all to observe a single way of doing things, for the sake of
Reply: Strictly speaking (per se) this is lawful. But
always to be kept in mind is the preservation of that freedom, envisioned by the new
rubrics, to adapt the celebration in an intelligent way to the particular church and
assembly of the faithful in such a way that the whole rite is a living reality for living
It must be remembered that this opinion which was given
almost 35 years ago in 1965 was applied directly to the interpretation of n. 22 of the
instruction Inter Oecumenici. At that time the revision of the liturgical books had
barely commenced. Since the principle of Sacrosanctum concilium 22 has been
reiterated in several conciliar documents and provides the language for canon 838 § 4 the
response to the aforementioned dubium remains relevant and bears somewhat on the present
discussion. However, it must be said again that the ad altare posture is the forma
typica of the Ordo Missae of 1970 as it was in the Ordo Missę of 1570.
In both ordines the priest is required to turn to face the congregation at certain
brief moments during the Mass. The notable difference lies in the expressly permitted
option in the Ordo Missę of 1970 to turn and face the congregation for the
entirety of the Mass. The only posture which is presented as an option is the versus
To further illustrate the point one might examine the
penitential rite of the Ordo Missę of 1970. Form A, the Confiteor, is the forma
typica while Form B, and Form C (with its 9 paradigmatic formulas in the NCCB
Sacramentary) are ad libitum, i. e., they are options.
An example of the way in which the dubium relative to n.
22 of Inter Oecumenici might be applied practically is found in the following
scenario. The competent territorial authority or a diocesan bishop, "strictly
speaking (per se)" could restrict the penitential rite to use of only Form B or Form
C since these are the optional texts. That same authority, however, could not disallow use
of Form A, the forma typica. The illustration applies similarly to the competent
authoritys moderation of the celebrants posture at Mass. The competent
ecclesiastical authority "strictly speaking (per se)" could restrict the
celebrants posture to one of the optional postures. Since, a sole option is
countenanced and a range of options is non-existent, in fact, the competent authority
mentioned in canon 838 § 4 could not place any restrictions. And he certainly could not
disallow the typical ad altare posture.
The discretion to celebrate ad orientem or versus
populum is exercised by the celebrant. Prudence and circumstances compel him to
consider those who are touched by his decision if he is going to depart from local usage.
Common sense will dictate whether the physical environment of the presbyterium and the
altar place any constraints. Respect for local de facto or de iure custom
demands sensitivity. Clearly, the rector of a church or the caretaker of the oratory or
chapel can grant or deny access to the sacred place to all the faithful or to specific
individuals based on the willingness of the persons to conform to established customs of
the place. Indeed, the rector or caretaker would be obligated to deny egress to a sacred
minister who bore certain ecclesiastical penalties.
In reference to the posture of the priest during Mass the
prescriptions differ for Masses with a congregation and for Masses without a congregation.
In a Mass with a congregation the rites and rubrics
provide that during the Liturgy of the Word the celebrant sit or stand at the
celebrants chair however it may be situated in the presbyterium. During the Liturgy
of the Eucharist, i.e., from the Preparation of the Gifts until the Dismissal is
pronounced, the priest faces the altar, turning to the congregation for specified brief
moments and then returning to face the altar. As an option the celebrant may turn towards
the congregation for the entire Liturgy of the Eucharist.
In a Mass without a congregation the rites and
rubrics require the priest to face the altar during the entire Mass, turning to the
minister or server only for specified brief moments and then returning to face the altar.
The celebrants chair plays no role.
The permissiveness for the priest to celebrate Mass versus
populum is mentioned in the 1964 decree Inter Oecumenici, the first instruction
on the orderly carrying out of the Constitution on the Liturgy. However, the concession is
found not in Chapter II which outlines the changes to the Ordo Missae rather it is
mentioned in Chapter V which relates certain principles on the design of churches and
91. The main altar should preferably be
freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people. Its location
in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole
congregation naturally focuses there.
The suitability of a free standing altar contained in Inter
Oecumenici 91 (and repeated in n. 95) is reiterated several times in subsequent
documents. While the aptness of an altar versus populum is certainly fostered the
Consilium also declared:
We wish to emphasize,
however, that the celebration of the whole Mass facing the people is not absolutely
indispensable for pastoral effectiveness. The entire liturgy of the Word, in which the
active participation of the faithful is amply achieved through dialogue and song, already
proceeds facing the people and is all the more intelligible now that it uses the
peoples own language
Above all because for a living and
participated liturgy, it is not indispensable that the altar should be versus populum:
in the Mass, the entire liturgy of the Word is celebrated at the chair, ambo or lectern,
and, therefore, facing the assembly.
Most recently the ad altare question was revisited
and the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments published the
3. The arrangement of the altar
"versus populum" is certainly something desirable in the current liturgical
legislation. Nonetheless, it is not an absolute value over every other one ... It is more
faithful to the liturgical sense in these cases to celebrate at the existing altar with
the backs turned to the people than to maintain two altars in the same sanctuary. The
principle of the oneness of the altar is theologically more important than the practice to
celebrate turned towards the people.
4. It is appropriate to explain clearly that the
expression "celebrate turned to the people" does not have a theological sense,
but only a topographic-positional sense. Every celebration of the Eucharist is "ad
laudem et gloriam nominis Dei, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque Ecclesiae suae
sanctae." Theologically, therefore, the Mass is always turned to God and turned to
the people. In the form of celebration it is necessary to be attentive not to reverse
theology and topography, especially when the priest is on the altar. Only in the dialogues
from the altar does the priest speak to the people. All the rest is prayer to the Father
mediated through Christ in the Holy Spirit. This theology must be able to be visible.