I came across a quote recently that said something like this:
Versus populum is the clericalised, [human]-centred orientation. Ad orientem focuses on God & [God’s] gift.
What struck me about this sentiment is that it centers the agency, perspective, and experience of the priest. (Indeed, the very phrase versus populum, meaning facing the people, centers the priest.) This essay plays with broader perspectives, and centers the experience of the assembly.
The symbolism of ad orientem, literally meaning “towards the east” and in practice meaning “facing the altar” (due to the traditional construction of churches which placed the altar at the east wall of the church) has some pretty iconography. The priest is leading the people on their pilgrim journey towards God. Of course, as Pope Francis has pointed out, there are many ways for a shepherd to lead a flock. From the front is not the only, nor always the best, option.
It perhaps suggests Moses the mediator for the people of Israel, approaching the holy mountain where God was present, while the people looked on from a safe distance. Their participation in the theophany was explicitly representative: We don’t want to get that close to God, Moses! We’re afraid we might die. You go on our behalf. Of course, that’s a poor model for the worship of Christian people who are all baptized into Christ’s priestly ministry.
Furthermore, as our mediator and intercessor, Jesus came among us and faced the people to whom he was speaking. The Jesus of John’s gospel engages in lengthy monologues with God in the presence of his disciples, but does anybody think he turned away from his disciples to do so? No, he lifted his eyes towards heaven. Because that’s where God is. Not in the east.
To the extent that the Mass is a re-presentation of and participation in the Last Supper, it seems quite necessary that the priest should face the people.
Acting in persona Christi would seem to require facing the people while addressing us in Christ’s words: take this, all of you, and eat of it, drink from it, this is my body, my blood. The same iconographic reasoning that insists that priests must be men because they must act in persona Christi in this moment and that people will not be able to perceive Christ if the person speaking those words is a woman must surely extend to argue that the people will not be able to perceive Christ speaking those words to his disciples if the person speaking those words appears instead to be addressing God.
One of the traditional differences between Protestant and Catholic understandings of the eucharist is that Protestants understand it primarily or exclusively as a meal, as the Lord’s Supper, a representation or re-enactment or participation of the Last Supper, while Catholics traditionally understood it as a sacrifice, as the Sacrifice of the Mass, a representation or participation in the Lord’s death on Calvary. One of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council was to retrieve and re-emphasize the element of the meal in Catholic liturgy, so that these two liturgical themes could be held together as they were in the early church, just as closely as Christ’s death and resurrection are held together.
I have frequently observed that in the language of the eucharistic prayers, the priest speaks sometimes in persona Christi and sometimes in persona ecclesiae, in the person of the church. In most of the eucharistic prayers, there’s actually a pretty clear distinction: after the acclamation following the consecration, the prayer is worded such that the church is the primary acting subject. This makes me wonder whether it might make sense for the first part of the prayer to be pronounced versus populum, and the second part ad orientem.
From a mimetic perspective, the priest acts in persona Christi, who is our “right and just” mimetic model, the person from whom we receive our identity. If the priest is acting in the person of Christ, then what does that say about Christ’s relationship to us if the priest is turned away from us at the most solemn moments of the liturgy?? Infant humans do not fare well when their parents turn their backs to them. Can we even mimetically engage with someone whose face we cannot see?
From a purely pragmatic perspective: it’s hard to understand the words of someone who is facing away from us, even today when many churches have good PA systems. We can’t see what the priest is doing; we can’t see the elements at all, except for a few moments at the elevation (which is why bells were traditionally rung at that moment, so that people would know to look up from their rosaries and pay attention), and even then only if the priest is strong and flexible enough to lift the elements up high above his head and hold them there. Given today’s aging priest population, this is a bad assumption.
When I was preparing for confirmation, I had a light-bulb moment when the mass was described to me, not merely as a meal, but as a banquet. I had never understood why, if we were all supposed to be silently saying the prayers along with the priest (something I had been clearly taught when preparing for my first communion), we didn’t all recite the words together. The banquet metaphor made me understand, because at a banquet, I knew, there was typically a guest of honor, and there was typically one person who got up and made a speech honoring that person on behalf of all those who were at the dinner. This made sense to me: one person speaking, on behalf of all persons present, to a person who is being honored, thanked, and praised.
And, what happens in our culture at such banquets is that the speaker faces all who are present. Ad orientem is sometimes defended on the grounds that, in Jesus’ day, the host and all guests sat on the same side of the table; but inculturating the postures of the liturgy seems to me to be both an obvious and a necessary extension of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy.
Finally, there is a great risk of confusion if, when the priest faces the altar, he is also facing a crucifix on the front wall, which is usual in Catholic churches. It gives the incorrect impression that the eucharistic prayer is directed towards Jesus, there on the cross. But it is not! It is directed towards God the Father: throughout the eucharistic prayers, and most clearly in the final doxology immediately before the Great Amen, Jesus is always referred to as “he”, while the Father is referred to as “you.”
As it happens, I spent a number of years singing in the choir of a church which placed the choir behind the altar, completing the three-quarter round arrangement of the assembly. So for years, I experienced the mass while looking at the back of the priest. This wasn’t equivalent to mass ad orientem, because I was also facing the assembly, and could see their faces — and in their faces, in their prayerful responsiveness, a reflection of the actions of the priest. Nevertheless, I think it gives me a little taste of the experience. It wasn’t an insuperable obstacle, but it was by no means as conducive to my full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy as when I could see the altar, the bread, the wine, and the face of the priest throughout the eucharistic prayer.