Toward the East

What you're witnessing in the video above is Pope Francis celebrating the regular Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo) mass, ad orientem (facing east). Yes, that is Pope Francis, and yes, he is celebrating a regular mass, and yes, he is facing liturgical east, with his "back to the people." Gasp! Oh, the horror! Oh, the humanity! In all seriousness though, this is legit, and Pope Francis has a lot more planned. Just listen to the man he appointed as the liturgical chief for the entire Catholic Church. Cardinal Robert Sarah, from the West African Republic of Guinea, had the following to say...
Cardinal Robert Sarah
I want to make an appeal to all priests. You may have read my article in L’Osservatore Romano one year ago (12 June 2015) or my interview with the journal Famille Chr├ętienne in May of this year. On both occasions I said that I believe that it is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction—Eastwards or at least towards the apse—to the Lord who comes, in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God. This practice is permitted by current liturgical legislation. It is perfectly legitimate in the modern rite. Indeed, I think it is a very important step in ensuring that in our celebrations the Lord is truly at the centre... 
And so, dear Fathers, I ask you to implement this practice wherever possible, with prudence and with the necessary catechesis, certainly, but also with a pastor’s confidence that this is something good for the Church, something good for our people. Your own pastoral judgement will determine how and when this is possible, but perhaps beginning this on the first Sunday of Advent this year, when we attend ‘the Lord who will come’ and ‘who will not delay’ (see: Introit, Mass of Wednesday of the first week of Advent) may be a very good time to do this. Dear Fathers, we should listen again to the lament of God proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah: “they have turned their back to me” (2:27). Let us turn again towards the Lord!... 
I would like to appeal also to my brother bishops: please lead your priests and people towards the Lord in this way, particularly at large celebrations in your dioceses and in your cathedral. Please form your seminarians in the reality that we are not called to the priesthood to be at the centre of liturgical worship ourselves, but to lead Christ’s faithful to him as fellow worshippers. Please facilitate this simple but profound reform in your dioceses, your cathedrals, your parishes and your seminaries. 
-- Cardinal Robert Sarah, Sacra Liturgia Conference in London, July 5, 2016, source
So there it is, Pope Francis' own liturgical chief has spelled it out in no uncertain terms. While he stops short of requiring it of all clergy, he explicitly states that it absolutely SHOULD BE DONE, and there is no legitimate excuse for it not to be done. Now obviously we need to do a little explaining here. What is meant by "facing east" or ad orientem worship? First things first, we are not Muslims. Nor are we copying the Muslims. That's ridiculous. The Muslims copied us, not vice versa. Christians have been worshipping God facing liturgical east for centuries prior to the invention of Islam. Mohammed was imitating Christians when he mandated that Muslims face Mecca while worshipping Allah. So lets be clear about that up front. Second, once again, we are not Muslims. When Christians talk about facing east, we don't always mean literal east. We're not Muslims here. Granted, in an ideal world all of our chapels would be facing east, but we don't live in an ideal world, now do we. Some chapels face north, others face west, and some even face south. That's really no bother to us, because when Christians talk about "facing east," what we mean by that is liturgical east, not literal east. When we say liturgical east, what we're saying is the priest and congregation face the Lord together, all turned in the same direction, whatever literal direction that may be. They may all be facing north, or south, or west, or east. It doesn't matter, so long as the priest and congregation are facing the same direction together. That is what is meant by facing "toward the east," or ad orientem. Sometimes the Latin term versus dominum is used instead, which means "facing the Lord." This is the posture all Catholic priests used up until the introduction of the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo) liturgy in 1970, and a good number of them continued to do so for a while thereafter.

Some of course will scoff at all of this, implying that the pope's liturgical chief has "gone off the rails" and doesn't reflect the mind of the pope in this. Of course, we have that video above of Pope Francis celebrating mass ad orientem himself, but if that's not good enough, let's see what Cardinal Sarah has to say about the authority he's been given on these matters...
Indeed, I can say that when I was received in audience by the Holy Father last April, Pope Francis asked me to study the question of a reform of a reform and of how to enrich the two forms of the Roman rite. This will be a delicate work and I ask for your patience and prayers. But if we are to implement Sacrosanctum Concilium more faithfully, if we are to achieve what the Council desired, this is a serious question which must be carefully studied and acted on with the necessary clarity and prudence... 
At this point I repeat what I have said elsewhere, that Pope Francis has asked me to continue the liturgical work Pope Benedict began (see: Message to Sacra Liturgia USA 2015, New York City). Just because we have a new pope does not mean that his predecessor’s vision is now invalid. On the contrary, as we know, our Holy Father Pope Francis has the greatest respect for the liturgical vision and measures Pope Benedict implemented in utter fidelity to the intentions and aims of the Council Fathers... 
Before I conclude, please permit me to mention some other small ways which can also contribute to a more faithful implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium. One is that we must sing the liturgy, we must sing the liturgical texts, respecting the liturgical traditions of the Church and rejoicing in the treasury of sacred music that is ours, most especially that music proper to the Roman rite, Gregorian chant. We must sing sacred liturgical music not merely religious music, or worse, profane songs.  
We must get the right balance between the vernacular languages and the use of Latin in the liturgy. The Council never intended that the Roman rite be exclusively celebrated in the vernacular. But it did intend to allow its increased use, particularly for the readings. Today it should be possible, especially with modern means of printing, to facilitate comprehension by all when Latin is used, perhaps for the liturgy of the Eucharist, and of course this is particularly appropriate at international gatherings where the local vernacular is not understood by many. And naturally, when the vernacular is used, it must be a faithful translation of the original Latin, as Pope Francis recently affirmed to me. 
-- Cardinal Robert Sarah, Sacra Liturgia Conference in London, July 5, 2016, source
So according to Cardinal Sarah, the source of his authority on this matter is Pope Francis himself, who specifically asked him to do this. It doesn't get much more official than that folks! The only way it can become more official is if the pope mandates it as a matter of canon law in some kind of motu proprio, which could eventually happen of course, but no guarantee. Based on what Cardinal Sarah has relayed to us now, it wouldn't be far fetched to say it may happen someday. For now, however, it is just strongly suggested by the pope's number one liturgy czar. In other words, the proverbial "writing is on the wall." Some form of a mandate may come, eventually, but who knows when, or what it will be. It might be in a year, two years, or ten years. Who knows? For now the directive has just been given with a strong push, or a very persuading nudge, or whatever you want to call it. There it is. The smartest thing our bishops and priests can do at this time is recognise that the nudge has been given, and act to get out in front of this movement.

Cardinal Sarah is not calling us to return to a time before the Second Vatican Council. Rather, he is calling upon bishops to actually implement the Second Vatican Council, as it was written. Vatican II never called for the style of liturgy we commonly see celebrated in most Catholic parishes and cathedrals today. What we have today is a sort of ad hoc reinterpretation of Vatican II, based almost entirely on Western cultural bias. For example...
  • the removal of Latin and Gregorian chant,
  • the removal of altar rails,
  • the removal of high altars,
  • the removal of kneelers from the pews (common on the West Coast, USA),
  • the introduction of altar girls,
  • the introduction of the priest facing the people,
  • the introduction of extraordinary ministers of holy communion,
  • the introduction of communion in the hand,
  • the introduction of contemporary praise and worship music,
  • the introduction of extra-liturgical "traditions" into the liturgy.
Vatican II never called for a single one of these things. They are Western inventions, created by a Western cultural bias, and have nothing to do with what Vatican II actually said. This is why I wrote in a previous essay that Vatican II Actually Saved Catholicism, because you see it has and it will. This is because Vatican II has never been properly implemented yet. In fact, its never really been implemented at all, at least, certainly not as the conciliar fathers envisioned it. It has saved Catholicism in some ways, as I pointed out in my previous essay, and it will save it in other ways, when it is properly implemented. Because you see, when it is finally implemented, the way the conciliar fathers intended, it will present to us a very different Church than what we see today. Cardinal Sarah is leading the way on this, and he is doing so at the direction of Pope Francis. To resist Cardinal Sarah on this issue, is to resist the will of Pope Francis. We should all keep that in mind.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of '' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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