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Ad Orientem: Turning Things Around in the Church

In my 21 years in Japan, I have attended three funerals. The first, for my wife’s godmother, was a Catholic one, while the other two were not.

As my wife is Japanese and is the only Catholic in her family (she converted in her mid-twenties), whenever there is a death in her family, the funeral is invariably Buddhist. The latest such occasion was just last month, when her 79-year-old uncle died after a lengthy battle with lung cancer.

While the funeral rites were not of the One True Faith, it was impossible not to notice that there’s one thing the Buddhists do get right: their priests do not face the people in attendance.

During my uncle-in-law’s otsuya (wake) and the next day’s kokubetsu-shiki (the funeral proper), as the Buddhist priest offered his prayers, his back was turned to the people. During each ceremony, he turned toward the attendees only once to say a few brief personal words – but the rest of the time, during the “religious stuff,” he faced the altar. He didn’t make the occasion about himself, or even inadvertently give that impression with the way he positioned himself.

A similar scene is seen in Buddhist ceremonies marking periodic anniversaries of someone’s death. During my first year in Japan, before my reversion to the Catholic faith, I was invited to attend a ju-san-kai-ki, a 13th-anniversary-of-death ritual held in a family’s home. The Buddhist priest faced the home altar, with his back to the six of us seated behind him, the whole time.

While the religion involved is definitely “off,” at least the priest didn’t place himself in a way that risked making the ceremony all about him.

I have been to only two ad orientem Masses in my life. The first was a weekday Mass around 15 years ago in Japan, after I’d been in the country for a few years. Our pastor, a Franciscan missionary from Germany, celebrated the Mass in Japanese rather than Latin, but he did face the altar throughout.

My reversion to the Faith had not yet come full circle, so I don’t remember thinking much of it at the time – but now, looking back, I can see that the Mass was centered on Christ, not on the priest.

This past October, I spent a wonderful week in Naperville, Illinois, where I was blessed to stand as my nephew’s Confirmation sponsor. While there, we attended a High Mass at Naperville’s beautiful Saints Peter and Paul Church. This was only my second ever ad orientem Mass and my first ever Latin Mass.

Simply put, I was amazed. It was spiritually inspiring and rewarding.

The most visually noticeable thing was that the priest, apart from the homily, the Pax Domini, and a few other addresses to the people, faced the same way we did. He faced the altar of God, standing between Him and us, the only physical position possible to take for one leading his flock to the Divine.

In so doing, he made it clear – not only in our minds and hearts but, going hand in hand with them as part of our total makeup as human beings, also in our eyes – that the Mass was not about him at all. It was about God.

I’ve recently come to the conclusion (in better-late-than-never fashion, admittedly) that versus populum – the practice of the priest facing the people during Mass – is one big reason for the excessive focus on priests, at God’s expense, in modern parish life. Quite possibly, it is the biggest reason.

“Priest-focused Catholicism” isn’t really Catholicism at all. It’s misplaced faith, one reason being that the priests are human beings who will eventually do something wrong – including commit sin, sometimes gravely. As such, it’s all too easy to be let down by them, which consequently threatens to turn us into ex-Catholics.

I recently received an email from a loved one back in the States, excerpted thus:

Our pastor has been removed from ministry because two women came forward with credible claims that they’d had consensual sex with him several years ago.

I am angry because it never stops here. This was a man I totally trusted. I also have a very tough time believing that no one knew about this at the time, or believing that it was the only time he had done something like this. 

I know priests are human, but the Church keeps shooting itself in the foot, and it hurts more when it’s so close to home. He’d been carrying this lie, and probably has more skeletons in the closet that someone else in the hierarchy knows about. How many more of these guys are out there being protected? 

It’s difficult staying faithful. You can tell the people at Mass are not very enthusiastic to be there after being hit with this. What do you tell kids or your Religious Ed class? There’s only so much “well, they’re human” you can accept. 

Yes, it is difficult staying faithful – it always has been. But Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist at every Mass is more than enough reason to be enthusiastic about being there. In fact, it is – or at least should be – the only reason. For those with a Christ-centered mindset at Mass, it would be the only reason.

As for what to tell the kids in Religious Ed, the answer would be simple in a Christ-centered (not priest-centered) parish. We tell them that regardless of the misbehavior of any individual Catholics – priests included – the doctrines and moral teachings of the Church established by God the Son are eternally true – just as the U.S. Constitution and system of government remained even after Watergate and every other major political scandal.

Unfortunately, in modern parishes and at modern Masses, that a Christ-centered atmosphere exists is questionable at best. The priests seem to be the “stars of the show,” so to speak.

Every Mass I’ve ever attended in my life, apart from the two exceptions I mentioned previously, has been of the versus populum variety. A great many of these Masses are celebrated with piety and reverence – but even there, a sense of “priest-centeredness” still exists.

Then there are the Masses – we’ve all experienced them – that have deteriorated into sappy performances with the priests as the main characters.

We’ve all undoubtedly seen and heard priests cracking jokes, delivering flimsy homilies full of personal anecdotes but precious little about the Faith or the themes of the Mass readings, putting their own “personal touches” on the liturgy instead of just sticking to the rubrics, and so on.

All of this invariably leads large numbers of the faithful, who probably don’t even consciously realize it, to see the priest as the main figure in their lives as Catholics – with God being given “honorable mention” in the prayers at Mass but little else.

And in turn, when those priests let us down – by not being friendly enough; by saying something we don’t like; by otherwise not jumping through our hoops; or, worst of all, by committing some gravely immoral act – it invariably leads at least some people to quit the Church.

As I wrote back in September, “our faith should rest not on the bishops and priests, but on Christ and His sacraments. Our bishop or parish priest might be the holiest man on Earth, which would be a great blessing – but even so, being Catholic isn’t about him. It’s about Him.”

The reverse is true, too. We might have a pastor who’s ornery, moody, unfriendly, confrontational, or a chronic complainer – but we shouldn’t quit going to Mass or practicing the Faith on account of his undesirable traits.

Our worship and indeed our entire Catholicity should be all about Christ – and when we receive His Body at Mass, the priest’s demeanor and personality should not matter. Only He Who is received from the priest’s hands should.

As such, it’s high time to get rid of priest-centered thinking along with anything that leads to that erroneous mindset – starting with the priest facing the people.

It’s time to start making Mass about Christ, and only Christ, once again.  Having priests turn around and face Him, to lead us in worship of Him not only in spirit and word, but also in physical posture, is a great and necessary first step. That would be the first place to set a tone that says, “This parish and its Masses are about worshipping God. Social events, floor shows, and charismatic priests are not our focus.”

Not a lot of priests speak Latin these days – but there’s nothing preventing them from at least offering the Mass ad orientem, even if it must be done in the local vernacular. The Latin Mass would be best, but if that language can’t be used, there should at least be a total focus on Christ spiritually and physically by having priests turning toward Him in worship. The union of our souls and our bodies, after all, is what make us fully human.

Nobody, at least not ideally, would ever abandon the Faith if it were emphasized that Catholicism, to the exclusion of all other religions and philosophies, contains the fullness of moral and religious truth – regardless of any Catholic’s sins. A priest-centered mindset, in contrast, greatly increases the odds of a person’s faith being damaged beyond repair when that priest morally strays – something Christ never does.

So let’s turn things around, literally. It’s time to bring ad orientem back into every Mass and to show versus populum the door – along with the “priest worship” into which it has dragged too many of us.

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