29 February 2012

Should the priest "turn his back to the people" or to the Lord?

A Minor Friar recently noticed what others haven't quite yet picked up on:
Like many of the churches and chapels where I say Mass these days, a free-standing altar is set up in front of a tabernacle set centrally in the sanctuary. Thus, in order to offer the Mass versus populum, the priest must place himself in between the altar and the tabernacle. All of a sudden, even though I have offered Mass this way hundreds of times, from the Mass of my priestly ordination on Our Lady's birthday in 2007 down to today, I felt uncomfortable to find myself with my back to the Blessed Sacrament.
When the Mass is celebrated ad orientem, that is, to the East (even if only liturgically speaking), the priest and the people all face the same direction.  It is a profound sign of unity.  Some, though, do not like this and are offended that the priest would "turn his back to the people," as they incorrectly say.

A Minor Friar asks:
But isn't it more troubling for the priest to turn his back on the Presence of Christ in the tabernacle?


  1. Anonymous2:56 PM

    Yes you could say that the priest is turning his back on Christ in the tabernacle, but isn't the major focus of the mass being celebrated suppose to be the sacrifice that is taking place on the altar?
    And isn't the priest acting as Christ when he says "this is my body...."?
    All present should be able to see the sacrifice taking place and should be able to see Jesus. I think Jesus would face the people.

  2. What evidence do you have that Jesus would face the people? That's purely subjective.

    That would aslo seem to say that every priest who celebrated the Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council did so improperly.

    The priest does act in persona Christi when he says "This is my Body," but that doesn't have much to do with the direction the priest faces.

    In terms of "seeing what happens at the altar," there isn't much to see.

    The primary focus is upon the Eucharist being celebrated, but that is in no way lessened if the priest and people face the same direction; a good argument could easily be made that it enhances the Eucharist being celebrated.

    At the same time, it should be remembered that we cannot simply ignore the presence of the Lord in the tabernacle.

  3. Father, you've just said that "there isn't much to see" during the celebration of the Eucharist at the altar. Um...you'll forgive me if I don't pass that message along to my eleven-year-old son. We kind of want him to pay attention--with his ears and eyes--as much as an eleven-year-old can.

    Yes, I get the idea that Christ is present in the Tabernacle, but he's also in front of you at the altar: the Real Presence of Christ is there, as well. (Obviously, I'm not telling you anything you, of all people, don't already know.) Christ is in front of you -- and Christ is in front of the people -- and I am so very glad that we all all able to see the Eucharist, in the form of the Body and the Blood in the chalice, and worship God with our senses as well as our minds and souls. I really, really hope we don't end up going back to ad orientem.

    (Different subject: Would you be willing to maybe post sometime on how adults can encourage a real prayer life in children? My wife and I say bedtime prayers with our son, and other formal/semi-informal prayers on occasion as well, but what can we do to lay more of a groundwork for something "organic" taking root there in his tweens/early teen years? In other words, so that it's not just something initiated always by us? Any ideas would be much appreciated.)

  4. Even in the 1970 Sacramentary, the priest was instructed at certain points of the Eucharistic Prayer: "And turning to the people, he says..." This implies, of course, that the priest was not already facing the people. So, technically, we never should have moved away from Mass celebrated ad orientem. Even the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy said that new altars should be constructed free standing so that Mass _may_ be celebrated facing the people.

    I will be glad to offer a few thoughts on teaching children to pray. Let me give it some thought, though, before putting up a few things.

    Thanks for the suggestion!

  5. Anonymous11:25 AM

    I've been out of town and just now have computer use again.
    Father, back to the priest facing the people or the tabernacle. I respectfully submit that the only "evidence" I have that Jesus would face the people is the assumption that He faced the apostles as He sat with them at the last supper,although in most art renditions of the last supper they all faced the same direction. And the Eucharist is a meal so it seems natural that all involved in the meal would form around the Food.
    In no way at all am I thinking that the mass was "improperly" done pre Vatican II when the priest's back was to the people. It was just different. But I find much to "see" happening on the altar during the Eucharistic sacrifice and celebration. I believe that the turn of the priest to the people which allows us to "see" also allows us to feel as if we are more a part of everything taking place. I sit up front in church specifically in order to see.
    In summation I add that the tabernacle home of the Body of Christ has intense meaning to me and I have unquestionable respect for its most holy place in every Catholic church. I seek it out in every Catholic church I visit and I am deeply saddened when Christ's Body in the tabernacle is not centered behind the altar or at least some place in the sanctuary. I am personally offended when choir members are allowed to stand near the tabernacle during mass because they distract me from keeping a steadfast eye on it. Still, during the sacrifice of the mass my thoughts and my attention turn to Christ's sacrifice on the altar. I look to "see" Him there and in the face of the celebrant.
    I have seen your face, Father Daren, during the sacrifice of the Eucharist, and that has brought me closer, so much more closer, to Christ in His Body and Blood. I am forever grateful.
    With love in Christ,

  6. Anonymous8:55 PM

    Faren Daren, here I am again after having looked online for several hours reading various opinions and historical facts regarding which way the priest should face during mass.
    Well, I have an interesting article by Damian Thompson of THE TELEGRAPH which does not seem to want to copy here, but which has somewhat swayed my opinion. Since I am a follower of Christ and I am a follower of the Pope, I seek and pray to find always the right way in everything. The Pope appears, from what I have read so far, to favor the priest facing East, ad orientem. So be it if the time comes for the change back to ad orientem at all times.
    If you want to read the article which had the most impact on my change of opinion, which will not paste below, perhaps you can find it by searching for Damian Thompson The Telegraph January 9, 2010 as that was the date of the article.
    I found it especially interesting that the Pope has asked that if the priest is celebrating mass populum, there should be a crusifix centered on the altar so that the priest and the people together face Our Lord God. Why don't all churches do this if it is what the Pope has asked? These are the types of things that trouble me sometimes.
    Thank you Father, for taking the time to read all of this.
    With love in Christ,


  7. It's a good question, Belle, and one to which there many be several answers.

    Some churches simply don't have a crucifix to place on the altar and some priests are unaware of the Pope's suggestion. Others may simply be opposed to the idea.