Some days ago, Deacon Greg Kandra wrote a post directed to pastors with "5 things to do before you say Mass ad orientem," some which are helpful and some rather obvious. To these five, I suggest a sixth: Know your congregation.
During my first year as Parochial Vicar at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Effingham, Illinois, I was to celebrate the entire Triduum at our mission parish of the Annunciation (more commonly referred to simply as St. Mary's) in Shumway. To help prepare myself for these celebrations, I went out to the church early during Holy Week to have a look around with and through the Roman Missal. In doing so, I noted an oft overlooked rubric for Holy Saturday that says after the third singing of "The Light of Christ" and the response "Thanks be to God," "the Deacon places the paschal candle on a large candlestand prepared next to the ambo or in the middle of the sanctuary" (no. 17, emphasis mine).
The ambo was situated rather close to the wall of the sanctuary, so placing the paschal candle on the right of the ambo did not seem a good option. However, the ambo was also situated rather near the altar and placing the paschal candle on the left of the ambo might impede between the ambo and the altar. Pondering this little dilemma, I said to myself, "I wonder..."
|It's not the best picture, but you get the idea|
This church maintained (and still maintains) it's old "high altar," complete with candles and altar clothes as if the altar were simply waiting to be used. The newer, wooden altar in the middle of the sanctuary was on plastic pieces to help move furniture about. I wondered to myself if we should remove the free-standing altar, replace it with the paschal candle, and simply use the high altar for the Easter Vigil.
As I gave serious consideration to the pros and cons of this idea, some ladies of the parish came in to begin decorating for Holy Thursday. I shared this idea with them, women of different ages and backgrounds, and asked their opinions. One of them said, "Change is good, Father," and the rest agreed. And so it was done.
Prior to the lighting of the Easter Fire, the Book of the Gospels was placed on the high altar, so when the alleluia began, I ascended the steps of the high altar, took the Book of the Gospels, and went to ambo. Later, for the preparation of the altar and of the gifts, I again simply went ascended the steps to the high altar and offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass as if nothing at all were different; I made comment about celebrating ad orientem at all and, contrary Deacon Kandra's fifth step, no criticisms were voiced whatever. It was the most prayerful Mass I had yet celebrated. The servers remarked it was the best Mass they served. And the members of the congregation all seemed to have enjoyed it, as well. Together, we turned towards the Lord and it was lovely.
A few years later, I did the same at Sacred Heart Parish in Virden, Illinois, my first pastorate, again without commenting about it in any way. There, too, it was very well received.
However, I once celebrated the Mass ad orientem in a church at which I was a "visiting" priest, filling in one Sunday for the pastor who was away. One of the lights at the front of the pews was flickering incessantly and I had a very difficult time keeping concentration through the Liturgy of the Word because the light was so distracting; it was, frankly, obnoxious. In order to keep my concentration through the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I again offered the Mass ad orientem, this time at the free-standing altar and again without commenting about it in any way. In this particular parish it was not at all well received, though no one said anything to me about it (the pastor heard about it, apparently, upon his return).
These experiences have shown me that some parishes are quite open for ad orientem worship (even eager for it) while others are not at all open to it; some parishes will need little (if any) catechesis about ad orientem liturgies, while others will require lots of catechesis to prepare for ad orientem liturgies (if they are ever ready for them).