If you read Cardinal Sarah’s address, it’s pretty clear he had no intention of issuing directives. While I might quibble here or there on a point, it’s a reasonable article on restoring the sense of sacred. Near the end of the address, he mentioned ad orientem (facing the East, or at least the apse), but as a fraternal request. That’s not the problem. The problem was Catholics misinterpreted what the cardinal had to say. Doing the same thing they do with Pope Francis’ press conferences, people took his words out of context and saw this as the first step of overturning the Ordinary Form of the Mass.
To prevent this from getting out of hand, the Vatican released a communique saying that this was not a prelude to a change of rubrics and the Church was not going to mandate ad orientem over ad populum (facing the people). They have the right and responsibility to make things clear. In the past, this would have solved it. As the old saying goes (a paraphrase of St. Augustine), Roma locuta est, causa finita est.
But nowadays, it seems we could say “Roma locuta est, et nemo exaudiet.” (Rome has spoken, and no one will hear). Instead of hearing and learning from what the Church teaches, some Catholics are making ad orientem an issue of fidelity. Those Catholics who support this position get cheered as champions of orthodoxy. The Pope and bishops who say there will be no changes get accused of cowardice or irreverence. If the Vatican will not say what they want to hear, they will not accept her authority on the matter.
As a result, people argue about the GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal) and the translation of §299. In English, this section reads:
299. 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. The altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The altar is usually fixed and is dedicated.
The dispute is over the phrase, “that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.” Some Catholics argue that this is a mistranslation of the Latin and the proper sense of the term is, “which is useful wherever it is possible, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration toward the people can be carried out."
The problem is, regardless of how many Latin experts there are out there arguing over what expedit means, we have to ask how the magisterium understands the term. Does the Church understand it in the sense of the English translation? Or does she understand it in the sense of what the critics mean? The Fr. Lombardi press release (found HERE with the original Italian and the English translation) shows that the Vatican views the preferred translation as “desirable.” [†]
I’m not going to make myself an arbiter of who has a better command of Latin. My point is we have to understand whose interpretation carries weight. That interpretation comes from the magisterium, not the individual priest or layman.
It is important to note two things:
- That Fr. Lombardi’s communique does not mandate ad populum. Nor does it forbid ad orientem. It merely makes clear the Church position on the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms of the Mass, the fact that there will not be any new requirements, and people should not use the term “reform of the reform” to avoid confusion.
- The GIRM itself does not mention facing the east or facing the apse anywhere. Sometimes it speaks of facing the faithful. Sometimes it speaks of facing the altar. One can reason that ad orientem is not forbidden because it doesn’t say what side of the altar the priest must be on when facing the altar.
Personally, I think the USCCB has described the situation wisely:
However, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has clarified on earlier occasions that this does not prohibit the celebration of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form ad orientem. In fact, there are rubrics in the Order of Mass which reflect the real possibility that the celebrant might be facing away from the assembly (see for example n. 29 before the Prayer over the Offerings: “Standing in the middle of the altar, facing the people, extending then joining his hands, he says ...”). Although permitted, the decision whether or not to preside ad orientem should take into consideration the physical configuration of the altar and sanctuary space, and, most especially, the pastoral welfare of the faith community being served. Such an important decision should always be made with the supervision and guidance of the local bishop.
This insight allows parishes to address the needs of the faithful, but also insists on the Church acting in communion and not as individuals.
As for us, we must not rebel against the lawful authority of the Church to bind and loose as she sees fit. Yes, the Code of Canon Law 212 §3 allows us to make known reverently our opinions on this matter. But we need to regain the sense of respect and obedience towards our shepherds when we do so. I have no complaint against people who prefer ad orientem and practice it with the blessing of the Church. But the “my way or the highway” from some ad orientem supporters towards the bishops has to stop.
[†] I don’t speak Italian, but, for whatever it’s worth, running the Italian translation of the Latin through Google Translate seems to indicate “desirable” is the intended meaning in the press release. I’m not going to use Google Translate as an authoritative source against a skilled translator, of course. I’m just pointing out what I saw.