ROME— Anyone surprised by a recent suggestion from Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea that priests should once again celebrate Mass ad orientem, facing east and thus with their backs to the faithful, just hasn’t been paying attention.
The 71-year-old Sarah has long been a champion of traditional Catholic doctrine and practice, and his suggestion on Tuesday that priests adopt the ad orientem posture beginning Nov. 27, the first Sunday of Advent, is utterly consistent with that profile.
“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,” Sarah said on Wednesday, opening a conference in London called Sacra Liturgia.
Sarah had floated the same idea in early June in an interview with the French Catholic magazine Famille Chretienne.
Although his comments were phrased as suggestions rather than an edict, Sarah’s desire for a return to the ad orientem posture nevertheless has generated wide reaction and debate, in large part because it’s associated with the older Latin Mass in use prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
To be clear, Sarah was not calling for rejection of the post-Vatican II form of the liturgy, but for a more traditional way of celebrating that liturgy by incorporating the ad orientem stance. While the posture was largely abandoned after Vatican II, in principle there’s no reason why it can’t be used in the new liturgy, and in a handful of dioceses around the world doing so is already common.
As Sarah sees it, a return to the ad orientem style is about putting God back at the center of the Church’s liturgical life.
The cardinal said Tuesday that the very first article of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document on the liturgy, says that one of the reasons for the council’s reforms was a “desire to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful.”
Yet, Sarah asked: “My brothers and sisters, where are the faithful of whom the Council Fathers spoke? Many of the faithful are now unfaithful: they do not come to the liturgy at all.”
Quoting St. John Paul II, he said that many Christians today live in a state of “silent apostasy,” living as “if God does not exist.”
Another reason for the liturgical reformation was to achieve unity “among all who believe in Christ” – which, as Sarah pointed out, hasn’t happened either.
“Have we made real progress in calling the whole of mankind into the household of the Church?” he asked. “I do not think so. And yet we have done very much to the liturgy!”
Sarah acknowledged that “prudence” and catechesis would be necessary before widespread adoption of the ad orientem rite, but urged priests to have “confidence that this is something good for the Church, something good for our people.”
After suggesting the first Sunday of Advent, he closed this section of his remarks by quoting the “lament of God” proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah: “The people have turned their backs on me.”
“Let us turn again towards the Lord!” he said.
Sarah then appealed to bishops to lead this “simple but profound reform” by example, choosing this form of celebrating Mass at large diocesan celebrations and in their cathedrals. He also urged them to form seminarians “in the reality that we’re not called to the priesthood to be at the center of liturgical worship ourselves, but to lead Christ’s faithful to him as fellow worshippers.”
The cardinal, appointed to the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis on November 2014, also said that as an African, he doesn’t see the liturgy as a place to promote his culture, but as the place “where my culture is baptized.”
“Certainly, cultures and other Christians bring gifts with them into the Church,” he said. “But they bring these gifts with humility, and the Church in her maternal wisdom makes use of them as she judges appropriate.”
“The liturgy is not about you and I,” Sarah said. “It is not where we celebrate our own identity or achievements or exalt or promote our own culture and local religious customs. The liturgy is first and foremost about God and what He has done for us.”
He then said that some “very serious misinterpretations of the liturgy” had crept in after Vatican II, resulting in liturgical celebrations that were subjective, focused on the community’s desires.
Sarah quoted his predecessor in the Vatican congregation, Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, who called this sort of thing “the do-it-yourself Mass.”
The cardinal also said that it’s “essential” to understand that in Catholic worship, God is the center of liturgy, not “people, personalities and human achievements” that he claims have become too prominent in recent decades.
“The liturgy is not about us, but about God,” he said, quoting Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Benedict XVI. “Forgetting about God is the most imminent danger of our age.”
Sara also said that there must be a “balance” between using vernacular languages and Latin, for instance at international gatherings, where the local vernacular is not understood by many.
In his remarks, available by sections on the Facebook page of Sacra Liturgia, Sarah also said that Francis had asked him to continue the liturgical work emeritus Pope Benedict XVI had started.
“Just because we have a new pope does not mean that his predecessor’s vision is now invalid,” he said.
“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,” he said.
Sarah also said that during a private audience with the pope last April, Francis had asked him to study “the question of a reform of a reform” to see how to enrich the twofold use of the Roman rite – the “ordinary form,” meaning the post-Vatican II liturgy in the vernacular languages, and the “extraordinary form,” or the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass.
The prelate’s words were highly praised among some conservative and traditionalist bloggers, yet as one of them, Rorate Caeli, pointed out through their Twitter account, “If there’s no document (and there isn’t one so far) it’s only a suggestion.”
The group, self-defined as the “most-read international Catholic traditional blog,” was also discouraged by Sarah’s constant use of terms such as “perhaps” and “according to your judgment.”
Since his election, Francis has celebrated Mass ad orientum at least once a year, for the annual tradition of the pope baptizing the newborns of Vatican employees in the Sistine Chapel, and has also used Latin in the liturgy in a handful of occasion, for instance during his foreign trips.
Yet he also fully supports the changes put forward by Sacrosanctum Concilium.
In March 2015, when he celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Mass offered in Italian, he said that allowing priests to celebrate Mass in the language of the local congregation rather than in Latin helped the faithful understand and be encouraged by the word of God.
“Let us thank the Lord for what he has done in his Church in these 50 years of liturgical reform … It was truly a courageous gesture for the Church to draw near to the people of God, so that they are able to understand well what they are doing.”
“It is not possible to go backwards,” he said. “Always forward! Those who go backward are mistaken.”
Aside from debates over policy and theology, observers have noted at least one practical obstacle to implementing Sarah’s suggestion: While churches built before Vatican II were designed to accommodate the ad orientem posture, many constructed afterwards were not, and in some cases it would require significant internal renovations to move the altar.