Today we make a big change in moving the 9 a.m. Mass 15 minutes earlier to 8:45. This may not sound like a big change, but when you start messing with liturgy, people tend to get upset. So I would like to address another possible liturgical change. You may have heard that earlier this month Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, urged priests and bishops at a liturgical conference in London to start celebrating Masses “ad orientem,” or facing away from the congregation, beginning the first Sunday of Advent this year. Those of us with long memories can remember as children the priest celebrating Mass with his back to the people. This is a call to return to that posture.Very quickly the Vatican distanced itself from this suggestion, and the appeal for priests to go back to the old way of celebrating Mass rather quickly died. So don’t look for Frs. Dick or Rich or myself to don fiddle-back vestments and turn our backs on you at Advent. Still, some liturgical purists were very happy to hear such an important Roman official make this suggestion. And I have come across an article by one of them (Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry) who makes his case for the priest celebrating with his back to the congregation in an article wittily titled, “The vast majority of Catholic priests are facing the wrong way.” If you would like to read it, you can find it online at: http://theweek.com/articles/635387/vast-majority-catholic-priests-are-facing-wrong-way
I probably am doing Mr. Gobry an injustice, but to me the crux of his argument for the priest to stand with his back to the congregation comes down to his assertion that the Mass is “not about you.” The Mass is about God. Mr. Gobry states that the priest facing the same way as the people “says, loudly and clearly, ‘This is not about you.’ The Mass is supposed to be about God — an act of worship of God. The priest does not have ‘his back to the people,’ traditionalists say. He faces in the same direction as the rest of the people: toward God, to worship Him.” In other words, we are all worshipping God together, and so we all face the same way.
I look at it differently. For me the Mass is a dialogue between the Father and the Son. The structure of the Mass is dialogic. This is why the responses of the congregation (priest included) are so important. Joined to Christ, we are entering into this holy dialogue. The priest faces the congregation to facilitate dialogue. We form the Body of Christ. This is why it is more correct to call the priest the “presider” rather than the celebrant, because we ALL are celebrating the Mass. We form the Body of Christ, and that is the objective of the Mass. In Thomistic theology the goal (the res et sacramentum) is for us to form the Body of Christ. As an aside, this is why I never understood the custom of people standing facing the tabernacle till after it was closed following Holy Communion. The objective is not the Sacrament reserved but the Sacrament in us, transforming us into the Body of Christ. At Holy Communion each of us becomes a tabernacle, and the emphasis should be on us forming the Body of Christ by receiving the Body of Christ, not on the Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle.
Because we as a community are called to become the Body of Christ and enter into the dialogue of the Father and the Son, I believe this is best facilitated by our gathering around the altar table, not all facing in the same direction.
Mr. Gobry is correct that the Mass is most certainly not about us. But it is about our being formed into the Body of Christ. And dialogue is important to that.