Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Common liturgical orientation...

There is an interesting discussion going on over at Fr Hunwicke's blog about auctoritas and orientation in liturgical prayer (do also read the latest about the Latin language - naturally all priests should be Classicists, there is no higher learning than earnest study of the literature of the ancients). Naturally I agree with everything the learned blog host says.

I have a few observations of my own though. If priest and people face together in a common liturgical direction, but this direction is not geographically eastwards, then is there really any point in them doing so? A lot of Catholic churches (probably most) built since the Reformation have lost the correct orientation, and so the apse of the church is at a geographically odd angle. Westminster Cathedral and the London Oratory are noteworthy churches. Once the liturgical direction has been done away with the very notion of a priest celebrating Mass with his back to the congregation suddenly becomes a really objectionable practice, not because of a faulty understanding of the ancient liturgical praxis of the Church (the very downfall of Modernists) but because the contemporary praxis has become divorced from the ancient one. It is for this reason that I take such issue with the so-called Benedictine Altar arrangement (and there are other reasons). Theological/liturgical constructs mean nothing to most Catholics, and as I have said before a row of candlesticks and a crucifix does not avail to correct a liturgical abuse.

What then? It is my sincere belief that facing the wrong way is the absolute worst thing you can do liturgically, but for practical reasons, want of space, money etc, what are we to do? Do we compromise the Liturgy for such reasons, or just make do with what we have? I can offer no imaginative or practical solutions, so comments are welcome.


  1. It's liturgical east, regardless of the actual cardinal direction the apse is facing. I would say that we should try to make the apse face the real east because it is a laudable custom but I wouldn't lose any sleep over it.

    Mass being said "ad orientem" offers a number of other benefits regardless of the geographical orientation. The biggest one is that this style doesn't lend itself well to the "priest as talk show host" role that versus populum does.

    The "Benedictine altar arrangement", it seems, tries to overdo the symbolism. Sure, no matter what way the priest is facing it can be said to be liturgical east but then there is no reason to return to the former practice. You're still facing the people but now there are some candlesticks and a crucifix there.

  2. Patricius:

    Re your comment:

    "is there really any point in them doing so"

    -- assuming we are in a small Church and not a bBasilica, and that the sanctuary is towards one end of the Church (and the Altar, in turn, within it), would you really advocate anything other than so-called 'Ad Orientem' being first choice?

    I'm just trying to work out what else you would have people do! :)

  3. Pope Benedict has made it clear it is not the "literal" east, but "ad Dominum"...facing the Lord; which is symbolized in the Crucifix.
    Otherwise, the folks would have to face literally "east"...as in St. Peter Basilica, which would mean turning opposite of the altar...
    He makes it clear that it is "turning towards the Cross"...which, in the Second Coming, will be in the skies, the true "ad orientem".
    Maybe not so convincing; but I must tell you;
    as a priest, offering the Holy Sacrifice "ad Dominum", I am very well aware of the role of the priest...offering "versus populum" is another matter, altogether.

  4. I believe I'm correct in thinking that in those churches whuch for geographical reasons did not have an eastward orientation, such as St. Peter's Basilica, the people would face east with the priest. Ratzinger writes about this in the Spirit of the Liturgy. Of course, the altar probably would have been veiled during the Eucharistic prayer, nevertheless people and priest turned east during the prayers.

  5. It certainly seems that the idea of orientation was gradually lost in the West. Of course the orientation of many RC churches built in the UK after Emancipation was dictated by the shape of the land available. However, even on the non-Reformation parts of the Continent, some churches were not oriented without a particular reason as an example from Pastor in Valle shows.

    It would not have been possible to build Westminster Cathedral on an East-West axis due to the existing development in Victoria and the shape of the plot. The Brompton Oratory certainly could have been built with its apse facing East but that would have meant losing a facade facing the street which I imagine was considered more important.

    I suspect the idea of looking at something which is ultimately unseeable, which at one time was hidden from view as Paul mentions above, was a major contributory factor into the loss or real orientation.