An “ad orientem” Church in the age of horizontality – Catholic World Report

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Editor’s note: This essay marks the start of a regular CWR column by Dr. Larry Chapp. Entitled ‘Chapp’s Schtick’, it will feature Dr. Chapp’s commentary on a range of current issues, with particular emphasis on theological controversies, cultural conflicts and church debates.


I was recently reading an article on a traditionalist site, posted by a friend of mine on his Facebook page. I don’t normally read articles from such sources because I generally consider them to be devoted to a retrograde form of “angry Catholicism”. However, the subject was ad orientem cult, which piqued my curiosity. Amidst an otherwise decent analysis, the author casually stated that only “ad orientem” worship was appropriate because it is entirely appropriate that the priest should “face God” in the tabernacle rather than turn your back on him. I certainly don’t believe that all traditionalists think so; however, this seems to be a misconception shared by many.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his 1986 book The Feast of Faith: Approaches to the Theology of Liturgy addressed this exact topic, stating:

The east-facing position of the celebrant in the old Mass was never intended as a celebration towards the holy of holies, nor can it be described as “facing the altar”. In fact it would be contrary to all theological reason, since the Lord is present in the Eucharistic gifts during the mass in the same way as he is in the gifts of the tabernacle which come from the mass. Thus, the Eucharist would be celebrated” from “Host” to “Host”, which makes no sense. There is only one interior direction of the Eucharist, namely from Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father. The only question is how this can best be expressed in liturgical form.

Ratzinger goes on to point out that the tradition of facing east was grounded in the iconic symbolism of the rising sun (Son). It was completely eschatological in tone and tenor since the symbolism involved focused on the Resurrection as a proleptic “expectation” towards the Parousia and the consummation of the Kingdom at the end of earth times. The emphasis was on the full cosmic nature of our redemption. This necessarily included a Trinitarian emphasis not only on the work of the Son, but also on the “power” of the Father over all creation and the transforming role of the Holy Spirit in mediating how Christ makes “all things new”. .

Thus was born the tradition of placing a cross on the east wall of the church, which became the eschatological center of all Eucharistic worship for the priest and the congregation. Unfortunately, over time this eschatological/Trinitarian/cosmic dimension has been eclipsed and then lost as the focus has become almost exclusively the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The sacrificial aspects of the Mass, certainly important, have ousted the eschatological horizon of the liturgical action. So, as Ratzinger notes, with this loss of eschatological orientation,

…the old eastward orientation of the celebration lost all meaning, and people might start talking about the priest celebrating “facing the wall” or imagining that he was celebrating towards the tabernacle.

This loss of the eschatological horizon, already operating in the preconciliar liturgy, is the reason why versus population worship was also immediately misunderstood as a “dialogue” between priest and people. After all, once the eschatological horizon is lost, it seems that it is preferable for the priest to face the people rather than the “wall” or the tabernacle. As Ratzinger says:

This misunderstanding alone can explain the dazzling triumph of the new celebration in the face of the people. … All this would be inconceivable if it had not been preceded by a prior loss of sense from within.

Ratzinger clearly prefers a return to the earlier form of priest and people facing together the eschatological East. But he thinks instituting such a reversal now would only further confuse people who have already endured enough liturgical tinkering. Better for now, at least as a temporary measure, to place a large crucifix on the altar where it is clearly visible and which becomes the focus of the priest and the congregation. This also has the advantage of emphasizing that what makes the liturgy “ad orientem” is not the posture or the position of the priest vis-à-vis the people as such, but the eschatological horizon which is the heart and the very soul of what ad orientem meant in the first place.

In other words, the whole congregation might be on their backs staring at the ceiling during worship, but if it contains a strong eschatological focus on the cosmic Christ, then somehow (and as weird as my example), worship is “ad orientem”.

However, I think even Ratzinger understands that his “crucifix on the altar” solution is, at best, a partial and ultimately unsatisfactory answer. It does not address the deeper problem of a Church that has become too horizontalist and has lost its eschatological edge – a fact that the “new mass” perhaps exacerbates. But, moreover, in the absence of such an invigorated eschatological sense, a mere return to the people-oriented priesthood will not solve matters either. For, as we have seen, this too is confusing when the original meaning of ad orientem the cult was lost.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, in a lecture given to various Catholics gathered at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, asserted that this is precisely the broader crisis of the Church today as a whole. The early Christians, he states, had a world of thought entirely dominated by the eschatological sense of “messianic time”, which for Agamben means that the early Christians saw themselves as “residents”. It was a people “on the move” from Christ and for Christ; the Church, according to Agamben, has lost this eschatological side. We are now “sedentary citizens” satisfied with the ambient cultures that surround us and with the stasis of a “time” devoid of eschatological orientation.

I agree with that, and what it tells me is that there is no way our current “liturgical wars” can be resolved until we return to being a Church that lives wholeness of its life as a Church “ad orientem”. Only such a Church will have the inner resources to “turn eastward again” with an expectant faith directed toward the cosmic Glory to come.

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Martha J. Finley