When Cardinal Robert Sarah spoke at a conference on liturgy in London last week, he encouraged the priests to offer Mass praying in the same direction as the people—otherwise termed ad orientem, or “towards the East.”
The internet was soon abuzz, and his advice to a group of traditionalist-minded clergy quickly became a rumor that a new directive was coming from the Vatican that within a few months’ time all priests everywhere would have to “turn their backs to the people.”
After all, Sarah is Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. It must be true!
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the UK soon issued a correction of the rumors, as did Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. Ordinary Catholics might well ask what all the fuss is about, and perhaps, “In a world on fire, don’t we have better things to be concerned about?”
“Spirit of Vatican 2” Catholics shook their heads in dismay at the idea that some people want to “turn back the clock” and dismantle all the progress that the priest facing the people represents, while “Reform of the Reform” Catholics indignantly insisted that saying Mass facing the people was never mandated by Vatican II and that ad orientem celebration is still the right and proper posture.
Those who think the priest should face the people emphasize the communal, people-centered aspect of Catholic worship, and see the Mass as “the Last Supper where the people of God gather for the family Thanksgiving meal and look forward to the banquet of heaven.”
Those who think the priest should pray facing the same direction as the people, meanwhile, stress the idea that the priest is re-presenting the once-for-all sacrifice of the Mass with, and on behalf of, the people of God.
So who’s right? Both are.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the Mass is, “The Lord’s Supper, because of its connection with the supper which the Lord took with his disciples on the eve of his Passion and because it anticipates the wedding feast of the Lamb in the heavenly Jerusalem.”
But it also says that the Mass is, “The Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering. The terms holy sacrifice of the Mass, ‘sacrifice of praise,’ spiritual sacrifice, pure and holy sacrifice are also used, since it completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.”
At the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Holy Spirit led the Catholic Church to open up to new ways of worship while remaining rooted in the timeless traditions and revealed truths of the Catholic faith. The Council Fathers were insistent that humanity was facing new and previously unimagined challenges, and that the Catholic Church had to be flexible enough to adapt to the modern world while not changing the heart of the historic Catholic faith.
When it comes to liturgy, it is increasingly obvious that in a modern, mobile, multi-cultural world, one-size liturgy does not fit all, and neither the radically trendy Catholics nor the radically traditional Catholics can expect to have it all their way.
Instead, the modern Catholic Church quite rightly, and brilliantly, allows diversity in worship styles while only allowing an authorized and approved liturgy. We underestimate how unique and empowering this blend of authority and individual freedom really is.
Somehow, the global Catholic Church has been able to maintain unity while not enforcing uniformity.
The city where I minister is a very interesting example of the diversity of Catholic worship today. That it’s Bible belt South Carolina, where Catholics are in a minority, makes it even more interesting.
We have about twelve Catholic communities. The historic downtown church is an impressive Neo-gothic structure where the “high church” liturgy is celebrated ad orientem accompanied by a top notch choir, well-drilled, all-male altar servers, and dynamic preaching.
Across the river in the historically needy part of town, a popular Franciscan ministers to an ethnically diverse community in a crowded, low-budget building with a gospel choir, dynamic social outreach and a challenging, down-to-earth preaching style.
The two largest suburban parishes couldn’t be more different. At one, the young pastor (who is a former Southern Baptist) offers Mass in a traditionally-styled modern building using the Extraordinary Form, meaning in Latin according to the pre-Vatican II style.
He does so not only every Sunday, but every day. He ministers tirelessly with enthusiasm and energy to a good-sized, highly committed traditionalist community, while also being pastor to the “mainstream” members of his congregation.
Meanwhile on the other side of town, the largest parish in our diocese is centered around a typical, modern fan-shaped building. With thousands of families, the priests in this parish offer the new Mass with contemporary music, lead a super busy parish life with a dynamic congregation, a large Hispanic ministry, and a high level of involvement and initiative.
In addition to these four, there are three other English-speaking parishes, a self-started Hispanic mission, a newly established Vietnamese church, a Maronite parish, and a community of the (Anglican) Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter.
If you were to attend Mass at any of these churches, you would experience the fullness of the Catholic Mass, but none of the worship styles would be even remotely similar.
This is just one American city.
Now throw in the Eastern Rite churches, and the fact that the Catholic Church is global. Then consider that we celebrate one Mass, but in a multitude of different languages, cultural styles and traditions. When you think about it, the result is astounding, abundant and alive.
Shall we replace this lively and refreshing diversity with legislated liturgical uniformity? I don’t think so.
Instead of fighting the liturgical wars and self-righteously insisting that we are right and others are wrong, we should be thankful that the Catholic Church has enough abundant life within her that such diversity is not only possible, but thriving.
Admittedly, innovation and liturgical diversity is a risk. Are there abuses of the liturgy? Of course. Does personal taste and style sometimes intrude? Yes. Does over-attention to superficial matters sometimes distract? Without a doubt.
Abuses should be corrected by the rightful authority, but we must also admit that people should be met where they are culturally and spiritually and be led where they ought to be.
The diversity in Catholic worship is a risk, but the diversity shows the enthusiasm and love of God which worship empowers. If everything is not always “right and proper,” and if we sometimes make a mess, we should remember that a person who never made a mess never made anything.