How to Introduce Ad Orientem to Your Parish


The Ordinary Form celebrated ad orientem at Prince of Peace, Taylors, SC:
photo credit, James Honker Photography

Robert Cardinal Sarah’s landmark address to Sacra Liturgia UK this month has pastors all over the world wondering how they might introduce ad orientem worship to their parish.  Particularly given the controversy that has erupted as a result, I am sure there are some of the brethren who may be thinking the time is not ripe for moving in this direction in their parishes.  On the contrary, I think the controversy may provide the perfect opportunity to explore how to implement this change of liturgical direction in the parish, and to do so by Advent 2016.

First of all, since news of the controversy is already all over Catholic and secular news, it provides the occasion for the pastor to explain to his people what all the fuss is about.  In a homily and bulletin column series, go back to Ratzinger’s famous Hermeneutic ofContinuity address to the Roman Curia.  Then, provide the faithful with quotations from both Sarah’s address as well as the communiqué from the Holy See and Cardinal Nichol’s letter about the matter.  You can explain that this current battle in the liturgy wars is a clear manifestation of the hermeneutic of continuity vs. continuity of rupture.  You can then provide the current legislation of the Roman Missal as well as the Holy See in which the people can see for themselves that the Missal presumes the ad orientem direction and that Bishops do not have the power to forbid it.
Then, the months leading up to Advent can be a powerful time for catechesis.  Father Jay Scott Newman of St Mary’s, Greenville, has an excellent set of bulletin columns by which he introduced the idea, along with a series of sermons, to his parish.  Excerpting and integrating these into bulletin columns and pastoral letters to the faithful can introduce the idea to the faithful.
In my own parish, we put into the pews a resource, which explains to visitors and parishioners why what they may see, hear and experience at our parish may be markedly different than their experience in other American parishes.  That resource is given to all new families when they register and is excerpted in the bulletin on a regular basis.  We also invite people at Christmas and Easter to take home the booklets to learn more.
It is a great time to do a book study on Michael Lang’s seminal work TurningTowards the Lord.  Send a personal invitation to your highest donors, heads of ministries, school faculty and staff, parish employees and members of the finance and pastoral councils. 
These months of catechesis leading up to Advent may be geared towards the implementation of ad orientem worship, but can also be used to address some of the lack of catechesis and liturgical confusion all around.  In my own parish we did a book study on Ronald Knox’s Mass in Slow Motion as well as a sermonseries to which I go back from time to time. 
It is important during this time to avoid polemics over the versus populum stance.  Attacking a position that the vast majority of the faithful have come to expect as the norm for worship in their time will bear scant fruit.  We can, however, emphasise the ad orientem posture, not as evidence of “turning back the clock to before Vatican II” or even “turning our backs on the people”, but as exercising a legitimate option that is part of the creative diversity of the Church, and of uniting priest and people on the same side of the altar.  It is also important to underline that this position in the Novus Ordo is generally taken up only at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the prayers are addressed to the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, with the Cross on the Altar as a focal point for the entire assembly.  You can also mention that, in St Peter’s in Rome, Mass is celebrated in both directions every day: at side altars with the altar against the wall, with priest and people facing the same direction, as well as behind the altar towards the people, in the case of the Altar of the Chair and the Papal Altar.  If it’s good enough for St Peter’s in Rome, it should good enough for your parish, too.

Pope Francis celebrates the Ordinary Form ad orientem at the Altar of St John Paul II at St Peter’s, Rome

 As far as the actual implementation goes, there are various theories about the best way to do this.  Some feel that using the so-called “Benedictine arrangement” of six candles and a more or less prominent altar cross on the altar is an important first step.  Parishes like St Mary’s went ad orientem at all their usual Sunday and weekday Masses after the catechesis occurred.  In my parish, for several years there were experiments with the new position: for brief periods of time, for holy days, for school Masses. 
Here is a way that the position can be gradually introduced:
1.    Daily Mass.  Often your daily Mass crowd can give you a very good read on the temperature of reactions in the parish.  Doing the position at some or all daily Masses, while tailoring catechesis to those Masses is a way to start.
2.    School Mass.  Catechizing school faculty, staff, parents and children through workshops, classes, and letters.  It also means that children will grow up in an environment where the position does not carry the same baggage as previous generations carried about it.
3.    Principal Mass.  After 1 and 2, maybe during Lent, is a good time to do the position at the principal Mass.  Especially if the Mass tends towards the “High Mass” variety with choir, incense and a serious complement of altar servers, it introduces the idea to Sunday worship while still giving options to those faithful who are not ready for the transition.
4.    Holy Day Masses and Holy Week.  Doing the position for those days highlights their solemnity by making them different, and the position can always be brought into the homily on that occasion.
5.    All Masses.  Repeat all of the catechesis again before doing this, and still keep a safety valve Mass, particularly the one where the oldest crowd, that might have more trouble receiving this change, go. 
6.    Keep Masses with the Bishop or visiting celebrants versus populum.  Instead of making an issue out of the contrary position, it can be presented as making the celebration special when someone comes like the Bishop or as an act of hospitality to visiting celebrants who might not be used to it.  The occasional reversion to versus populum will cause people to reflect on the differences between the two positions and want to explore the reasons for them, as well as their own reactions more. 
Some prelates legitimately fear that it will cause division and strife in the parish.  That is why priests must be prepared to know and exercise their rights in the matter, and to account for the gentle and firm way in which they have prepared the parish for the change.  Building up a culture of support for the change within the parish will also be important when the priest is criticized for doing so.

It is also important that parochial vicars or assisting priests prudently forego their right to celebrate ad orientemwhen the pastor has reaffirmed the versus populum position.  Creating division between priests in a parish will unsettle the faithful and provide them with ample opportunity to recreate that divide amongst themselves.  The young priests will get their chance, and it will be easier for them when their older brothers have blazed the trail.  If, after all of this, the Ordinary insists, then he is then in the position of having to explain to the faithful and his presbyterate why he insists on denying to some priests the right to exercise those rights which are instilled in the law itself.  A priest should always be obedient to his Ordinary, and God will reward that obedience and patience.  As more parishes experience ad orientem worship and more Catholics see that Vatican II is not undone and the sky does not indeed fall, ad orientem will move from the fringes of the life of the Church, where it has been unjustly exiled, back to the heart of the Church.          

11 Replies to “How to Introduce Ad Orientem to Your Parish”

  1. This is a beautiful thing to put Christ at the epicenter of mass and thats the reason for celebrating mass anyway

  2. Years ago I was a curate at an Anglo-Catholic parish where the priest wanted to introduce Mass versus populum. He did the whole first part of the Mass facing East until the Secret. Then he went around to face the people and celebrated the anaphora until the conclusion of the canon. He then returned facing east for the rest of the Mass. I think adopting this theory with the Novus Ordo will not shock the people: Start the first part of the Liturgy facing East until the collect. Do the readings the way you normally do with the priest seated at the chair. From the offertory to communion face East. Conclude the Mass from the chair. In this way there will not be as much of a change.

  3. Blessings, Father Smith…….if only it were to be celebrated this way in the Cathedral! Keep spreading the message, encouraging our priests to adopt leading the faithful to face God together. So beautiful. Thank you.

  4. Excellent, Father! Retiring this practice along with face to face confession and shaking hands at PAX and any gestures by the congregation would be welcome by so many.

  5. The identity of priests is now largely centered around versus populum, so much so that even the thought of directing attention to our Eternal Father during the canon can deeply disturb them. Many priests will not even know who they are anymore if they orient themselves. Therefore, there needs to be some sort of spiritual counseling provided for priests disturbed by the reorientation movement, even for those priests who do not intend to make the change, but who live near priests who plan to do so.

  6. Dialogue, priests are that frail? I guess they're not the stuff of martyrs, truly sad. Facing the Lord for the Eucharistic Prayer still gives the priest plenty of opportunity for "face time" with the congregation!

  7. My little parish-in-the-middle of nowhere was doing "ad orientem" about a year before Cdl. Sarah. Our parish priest used exactly the argument you mention—"…exercising a legitimate option that is part of the creative diversity of the Church." Ever since we got the new translation of the Missal, he's been quite fond of mixing it up by using all the different options for Eucharistic prayers, penitential rites, memorial acclamations, etc. His argument is that all of these are perfectly legitimate and his parishioners ought to be familiar with all of them as part of our Latin Rite heritage. And if we ever visit other parishes, we won't be taken off guard if they use something different. He spent a couple of Sunday's ramping-up for the "ad orientem" with words to that effect. And, as far as I can tell, the "ad orientem" has been met positively. He uses "ad orientem" about 75% of the time in comparison to "versus populum."

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