Last night I enjoyed that heady sense of being on stage in front of a large, captive audience, aware of my presence and focused on my every word and gesture.
I was at Mass, leading the singing.
I’ve been in this position many times before, and over the decades I have tried to learn how to pray through it, because it is a huge distraction for me at Mass. What distracts me most is my concern that I should not distract anyone else. This leads to a secondary concern, whether I am acting prayerful or truly praying. I suppose anyone in this type of position has experienced these questions.
As a singer, the easiest fix is simply not to be in front of the congregation–not facing anyone. Stay in the loft behind, or at the far end of the nave. That is much easier because my role as a singer is to be heard, not seen.
The role of the priest is exponentially more complex. He cannot hide. His role is inherently, and in some regards primarily, visible, leading the congregation through the veil, into the Holy of Holies. We follow him, as he expresses in the highest possible way his conformity to Jesus, our advocate before the Father.
For centuries the symbolism of our “following” the priest was clear. However, in the postconciliar period, and without a direct referrent in the Council’s documents themselves, the character of the priest’s relationship to the people has been visibly distorted by the versus populum posture.
When people face each other, they aim to please. They make eye contact; they smile encouragingly. There is a word for such gestures: flattery. People flatter their priests and their priests flatter them, at an average ratio of, say, 500 to 1.
None of this is encouraged in the Council documents. The versus populum posture is specifically worldly. It sets up the priest, not as a model to follow, but as a talk show host to be flattered insofar as he delights us. There are no good reasons for this.
The lines of sight to God should be made clear in the Liturgy (see Pseudo-Dionysius’ Ecclesiastical Hierarchy for a beautiful exposition of how this should work), but instead our path towards God is obscured by the distracting cycle of eye-contact and feedback.
The Sunday liturgy is for everyone their primary and for many their only contact with the Church. As such, its symbols should express the truth, including the truth about ecclesial relationships, which should not be a matter of flattery but of service.
The Psalmist sings, “Let your priests be clothed with holiness/ The faithful shall ring out their joy.” Ad orientem posture lets priests be priests and the people be themselves too, all facing God together.