Our diocese recently entered into a controversy dealing with the posture of the priest offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass. There are two allowed postures for the priest at Mass during the Eucharistic Prayer, especially at the time of consecration when the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus the Lord our God. The priest can be versus populum (facing the people) or ad orientem (facing east, or the direction from which our Lord will return at the parousia).
I thought it was a local controversy, and a quiet one at that, that came about when our bishop issued a letter on his implementation of the requirements for the offering of the Mass using the Missal of 1962 laid out in Pope Francis’ Traditiones Custodes. Our bishop moved the one pre-Vatican II Mass in our diocese from a parish church to the Newman chapel in Springfield, MO. At the end of his letter the bishop, after stating his authority to do so, wrote, “I request at this time that all priests celebrate the liturgy facing the people.”
Though not recently, I have offered the sacrifice ad orientem, after asking the bishop’s permission, so I wondered if a request is the same as a mandate ordering me not to do so in the future. I hadn’t planned to so offer the Mass, so for me it was not much of an issue. Then I read a couple of articles on “The Rubric,” a local Substack blog, and I watched a video on YouTube (Breaking in The Habit, “Some priests are going . . . Backwards?”, August 30, 2023) in which a young friar begins the video, “. . . Of all the liturgical debates in the Church today, none seems more divisive, and growing in popularity, that the return to the ad orientem posture.” Well, I be, it is a controversy.
The key issue in the debate is reverence. The perceived need for a return to what had been a loss of reverence after the liturgical reforms of the Mass after Vatican II comes from those who want to use the ad orientem posture for the Ordinary Form of the Mass, or for those who want to use the Missal of 1962. I can’t recall any emphasis on reverence from those who assume that versus populum is the best, and even required, posture for the priest.
Any priest should know by now that versus populum was never mandated by any Church legislation and that the option of ad orientem is and has been available for the priest to use according to the Missal of Pope St. Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II.
What about reverence? It isn’t mandated in the rubrics of the Missal either. Taking the consecration for the bread as the example, the rubrics read (I’m using Eucharistic Prayer I), “In the formulas that follow, the words of the Lord should be pronounced clearly and distinctly, as the nature of these words requires... He [the priest] takes the bread and, holding it slightly raised above the altar continues: . . .”
No mention of his interior disposition as he takes the bread, although, most, though not all, do assume that his action as an instrument of the Holy Spirit in persona Christi demands the utmost reverence possible in a human soul. Some of us think that the versus populum posture militates against the demands of reverence because some priests don’t follow the rubric and make a gesture of offering the host to the people while they say His words. Do they believe that the sacrifice—the one sacrifice that put an end to all other religious sacrifices—is offered to the people watching him rather than to God the Father for us?
Is the gesture of offering the consecrated host to the people (a word that means not a piece of bread but a victim—hostia) irreverent? Of course not? Didn’t Jesus make such a gesture at the Last Supper? Who knows? Is it adequate to the demands of the reality actualized on the altar? I don’t think so. Is the gesture of offering it to the people part of the rubrics? No. The rubrics read (Eucharistic Prayer II), “He takes the bread and, holding it slightly raised above the altar, continues . . . He bows slightly . . . He shows the consecrated host to the people, places it again on the paten, and genuflects in adoration.”
There we do get a direction as to our interior state at the time of consecration—we are to adore him, and that does indicate the most profound type of reverence.
What is reverence anyway? The Merriam-Webster definition is that reverence is honor or respect felt or shown. At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, however, it’s more than that. The definition that comes to my mind is that reverence is an interior orientation, with an emotional component, that we physically express by a prescribed set of actions and words. Being prescribed doesn’t mean that they are always written in a book, but they are always adequate to the mystery, the reality of the intersection of time and eternity, that we consciously enter. The reverence shown is an awareness of what can’t be fully put into words, nor fully contained in gesture.
Lines from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding come to mind. Eliot, as an artist, attempts to express the ineffable, or he wouldn’t be an artist, and to provide a container, the poem, for that which is within everything, and which encompasses everything. In Little Gidding, he reports on his visit to a chapel in a small English village:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report.
You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
That gets at it. The coming to Mass, more so than any other religious ritual of any time or any place, among any people anywhere, asks for the most profound interior bowing down in adoration possible to a human soul. So, we bend the knee in a way we would not do for any other man because it is the one, the only, God to whom we bow for he loves us in the sins done in time, redeeming us by His sacrifice done at one time, which is always our time: we are redeemed from time by time.
What are the rubrics for Mass? They are a container for the interior orientation toward God by His creatures redeemed by the sacrifice of His Son. Whether versus populum or ad orientem, the offering need to be towards the One Jesus offered himself to by the ones He offered himself for.
What is reverence? I’ll turn to another poet, Robert Frost. During a news conference on the eve of his 80thbirthday, upon being asked his definition of freedom, said, “It’s being easy in your harness.”
The longing of the human heart, always before, and usually still, frustrated, is for freedom from strife and death. Frost brought reverence to his craft in his explorations of that longing. When a poet has finally learned his craft, he transcends his feelings and his theories, and that transcendence only comes from his reverence for his art.
The rubrics are the harness for a priest so that his reverence can be seen even if he doesn’t feel it. The Mass isn’t for the expression of his feelings, nor his liturgical theories, nor his desire that the faithful people feel included as participants in the liturgy. In the sacraments it is God who acts, and it is God who uses us as his instruments. In the Mass, it is Jesus, God the Father’s only begotten, who draws us to himself, and in him offers us to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
The ritual gestures of Mass were instilled in us as children or given to us usually after a conversion—in both cases they meet the requirements of our nature. There is in us something as ineluctable as entropy. Without being harnessed, we fall back into a wild state that some romanticize as the state of nature, and they call that freedom. The zeitgeist of our age is for us to set loose the goodness of our free human nature. The truth is other than that. We aren’t good. We are always at the point of falling back into an anarchy into which we have fallen again and again and have managed to pull ourselves out of for brief periods until we were at each other’s throat again. The only force able to keep us out of the “state of nature” has been and is religion.
Why is it the, usually, younger clergy who are drawn into what is seen as an older (antique?) reverence? It is because the ruling narrative sprung on us at the same time the Church reformed her liturgy has itself become a religion. Things like transgenderism, critical race theory, equity, diversity, tolerance, and inclusion are the components of our civil religion. Older clergy often don’t see the zeal of its acolytes. They also seem more flummoxed at how badly society has fallen apart as a result of such zeal.
It is the young who sense that such a religious zeal must be resisted. All can be forgiven, but forgiveness is being pulled out of the entropy that ends in totalized disorder. The best posture of welcome is not really arms wide open but, rather, “palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, scene 5)
Our Father makes us new creatures in Christ Jesus, the New Adam. The old Adam remains a part of us, and the chief means of keeping him old and decrepit is the observance of the rubrics of the Mass and the other sacraments. The best a priest can do is learn them, review them again and again, and love them.