This is old news (March 2009), but given that Cardinal Pell looks like a serious contender for the top spot at Congregation for Bishops, I thought I’d mention that in an interview last year, Pell was asked if he favored making ad orientem posture mandatory.
“Yes. Now there’s nothing like a consensus in favour of that at the moment. I think I would be in favour of it because it makes it patently clear that the priest is not the centre of the show, that this an act of worship of the one true God, and the people are joining with the priest for that.
If you’re not familiar, here’s what that means. Catholic churches were historically constructed, whenever possible, so that the altar is on the east end, since Christian tradition associates the rising sun as a symbol of the risen Christ and of the Second Coming. This is called “orienting” the church, which is where terms like “disoriented” come from. So with the high altar at the eastern end of the church, the priest (quite literally) lead the people, praying towards the altar.
In the post-Conciliar period, we’ve seen an unfortunate deviation from this trend. We’ve seen churches which no longer face east, and are now set up in a semi-circle so that frequently, when you kneel to worship, you’re kneeling towards the person directly across from you, instead of towards the altar. The priest no longer faces the same direction as the people, but against them: versus populum. The reason given is that people don’t want to feel like the priest “has his back turned to them.” But of course, the priest’s back is turned to you for the exact same reason the person in the pew in front of you has their back turned to you: because they’re not worshiping you, they’re worshiping God.
The net effect has been, all too often, that Mass goes from the priest leading the people towards the east, towards the risen Christ that it becomes a sort of dialogue where the priest just talks to the people, or prays at them. It also means that the beautiful and centuries-old high altars wouldn’t work: that is, an enormous altar at the back of the Church can’t be the altar used, if the priest has to be on the opposite side, facing the people. You need a small table which everyone can see over, instead. And that’s why the versus populum posture lead to the dismantling of some of the most beautiful Catholic churches, and the stripping of the altars.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the priest facing the people when he’s reading the Gospel or preaching the homily. But during the Eucharistic prayers, they’re the priest praying on behalf of the people to God, not preaching God’s Gospel to the people. So for the same reason it makes sense to face the people for preaching God’s Gospel to them, it makes sense to turn the other direction, and (symbolically, at first) face God while standing at the forefront of the people.
I know a lot of good priests who prefer (or at least regularly use) the versus populum posture. But when it comes to comparing the two, I’m with Pell on this one.