ROME— In the wake of recent comments by its chief liturgist recommending that priests celebrate Mass ad orientem, meaning facing east with their backs to the people, beginning in Advent, the Vatican released a statement on Monday saying no new rules along those lines are in the works.
A Vatican spokesman also rejected the vocabulary of a “reform of the reform” in liturgical practice, saying that phrase is “at times the source of misunderstandings.”
Father Federico Lombardi said the decision to release a statement clarifying comments made by Cardinal Robert Sarah, of Guinea, came after the prelate met with Pope Francis on Saturday.
“Cardinal Sarah has always been rightly concerned about the dignity of the celebration of the Mass, in order to adequately express an attitude of respect and adoration of the Eucharistic mystery,” Lombardi said.
The papal spokesman added that some of Sarah’s expressions had been misinterpreted by the press, as a signal that changes in liturgical norms were imminent.
“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 had said July 5, opening a conference in London called Sacra Liturgia.
Although his comments were phrased as suggestions and not an edict, Sarah’s desire for a return to the ad orientem posture nevertheless generated wide reaction and debate, in large part because the posture is widely associated with the older Latin Mass in use prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
In truth, the rules for the post-Vatican II Mass also allow for the use of the ad orientem posture, and some priests celebrate it that way. In the public imagination, however, it’s generally seen as a more traditional way of doing it.
In the aftermath of Sarah’s comments, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the UK sent a letter to priests in his diocese saying that the Mass was not the time for priests to “exercise personal preference or taste.”
According to the Catholic Herald, Nichols also noted the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which lays out the rules for celebrating Mass, states in paragraph 299 that “the altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.”
In his statement, Lombardi quoted the same paragraph both in Latin and in Italian.
Sarah was appointed to the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Francis in November 2014.
Lombardi said that when he visited Sarah’s dicastery, Francis expressly told the Guinea cardinal that the “ordinary” form of celebrating the Mass is the one promulgated in the missal by Pope Paul VI, meaning, after the Second Vatican Council. The pope also said that the “extraordinary” form while accepted under the means expressed by Benedict XVI in the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, shouldn’t become the norm.
“There are therefore no new liturgical directives for next Advent, as some have wrongly inferred from some of Cardinal Sarah’s words,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi’s rejection of the phrase “reform of the reform” is also noteworthy in light of Sarah’s comments in early July.
In his remarks, Sarah had 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.