Saturday, 10 June 2017

Joint Liturgical Studies no.83: Liturgical Orientation



Fr Neil Xavie O'Donoghue, Joint Liturgical Studies no.83, Liturgical Orientation: the Position of the President at the Eucharist, 2017 Alcuin Club/ Grow

This short book explores the question of which direction the priest should face during the mass. This is a timely topic given Cardinal Sarah's recent controversial call to return to celebrating ad orientem. It is written by a Catholic priest and focuses on the Roman Catholic tradition, though our author points out that the material is very relevant to other liturgical traditions. Fr O'Donoghue takes the view that the current practice of priests facing the people is not objectionable and should not be abandoned. He provides an history of liturgical orientation from the early church onwards. He suggests that for the early church, the question of the orientation of the president was possibly not a major concern. He acknowledges that the bulk of our tradition favours ad orientem celebration, but he does provide some examples of versus populum prior to Vatican II, such as the views and practice of St. Charles Borromeo.

Our author suggests that calls to return to the practice of ad orientem are misguided. He points out that it is easy to look back at the pre-Vatican II Church with rose-tinted spectacles, imagining it to be a perfect time of purity, while failing to see that it was far from perfect and that it had it's own examples of liturgical banality. While acknowledging that there were liturgical misteps after Vatican II, he argues that the change to versus populum revitalised the Church:

In general most people agreed that, when taken as a whole, the reform of the liturgy was a positive development in the spiritual lives of Catholics. In the wake of Vatican II, a more human form of worship became widespread.

In his view, the practice of versus populum reflects the more visible participatory approach to worship of the Vatican II reforms. He observes that there are some parishes which have seen fruit born by the revival of ad orientem or the complete performance of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, however, he identifies these as intentional communities that are different from your average Saint Bernadette's parish. That the Extraordinary Form works well in some parishes does not mean that it can be easily revived as a norm for all parishes, which have become accustomed to versus populum.

It has to be said that our author makes a much stronger negative case against an ad orientem revival than a positive case for the merits of versus populum. Nevertheless, I found his point of view refreshing having been more exposed to writers and bloggers who advocate the tradition orientation.

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