The Archdiocese of Cincinnati has restricted the celebration of the Mass ad orientem, joining a number of dioceses that have done so in the past two years.
With his decree, Archbishop Schnurr joins other bishops across the country who have either restricted the use of ad orientem or banned it, a trend some may find disturbing, but which others, including Archbishop Schnurr, see as furthering unity in liturgical practice.
In a decree issued Dec. 21 and effective Jan. 19, Archbishop Schnurr ordered that in every church where a public Mass is scheduled, at least one Mass be offered versus populum (facing the people) on Sundays and other days of obligation . Further, the chancery must be informed in writing in advance of implementing a parish Mass schedule that includes Mass regularly celebrated ad orientem (facing, along with the congregation, toward the liturgical east).
On other days when a public Mass is celebrated, at least one must be offered versus populum in each family of parishes. Additionally, the policy states that when a freestanding altar and an older “high” altar are present, the Mass, regardless of whether it is celebrated ad orientem or versus populum, is to be at the freestanding altar. Also, movable freestanding altars are not to be moved to use older altars.
The archdiocese declined a request to speak with the Register about the decree, instead issuing a statement saying that in addition to fostering unity, it was promulgated to ensure that the People of God have reasonable access to versus populum Masses. The statement concluded, “It is important to note that, regardless of whether Mass is celebrated versus populum or ad orientem, the principal spiritual orientation for all present is always versus Deum (toward God).”
Among other dioceses that have banned or limited the use of ad orientem are Venice, Florida, and Chicago, both of which require permission from the bishop to celebrate ad orientem, and Seattle and Boise, Idaho, which have prohibited the posture for the Mass of Paul VI, also referred to as the Novus Ordo.
Christopher Carstens, editor of Adoremus Bulletin and director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, traces the resurgence of interest in ad orientem to the late Pope Benedict XVI.
“One of the things he had done was to open our liturgical minds to the broader, longer and wider tradition of the Church and that [includes] the ad orientem posture. The second thing he emphasized in liturgy is that it’s not principally about us, it’s directed primarily towards God.”
In the decades immediately following the Second Vatican Council, which emphasized the participation of the people and ushered in the use of versus populum, Carstens said Pope Benedict observed that a casualty of these changes was the transcendent, otherworldly, heavenly and mysterious dimension of the liturgy.
“Many because of that environment had this desire to re-instill into the liturgy something that was different, something that was other than what we are living in most of the times in our life.” Among these expressions, Carstens said, is celebration of the Mass ad orientem, reflecting a desire to reorient the liturgy toward the liturgical east.
As more priests have begun to implement ad orientem, however, questions have arisen about whether it is permitted and whether it is causing confusion or disunity among Catholics who have long been accustomed to having the priest face them at Mass.
For example, according to the website of the Northwest-5 Family of Parishes, which had been celebrating all Masses ad orientem, the Archbishop of Cincinnati’s decree has come at a time when there has been a noticeable increase in priests across the archdiocese celebrating Mass in a more traditional manner.
“In response to questions about these practices, Archbishop Schnurr issued a decree to all his priests in the Archdiocese just before Christmas,” the website said.
In addition, Boise Bishop Peter Christensen in his 2020 “clarification on liturgical practices,” said he was banning ad orientem worship to reduce confusion among the faithful and disinformation about liturgical matters. His memo also directed priests to encourage the faithful to stand while receiving Communion by not using kneeling benches or altar rails.
Amid all this, there is disagreement about what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says about the use of ad orientem in the Novus Ordo form of the Mass.
Carstens claims the GIRM allows the Mass to be celebrated either versus populum or ad orientem. He pointed out that even when ad orientem is used in the Mass of Paul VI, the only time the priest is facing in the same direction as the people is during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. At other times — the introductory rites, Liturgy of the Word and concluding rites, the priest generally faces the people.
However, as Carstens writes in a Sept. 12 article for Adoremus, not everyone agrees. The issue lies with the interpretation of Paragraph 299 of the GIRM, which states, “The altar should be built separate 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.”
Carstens and others believe the phrase “wherever possible” refers to the physical placement of the altar. However, still others have interpreted this to say that the GIRM is stating a preference for Mass being celebrated versus populum.
In 2016, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, New Jersey, who then was chairman of the U.S. bishops’ liturgy committee, acknowledged in a 2016 letter to U.S. bishops such a preference as stated in the general instruction, but added that it does not prohibit the celebration of the Eucharist in the ordinary form ad orientem.
Nonetheless, Bishop Christensen in his 2020 letter to priests of the Boise Diocese banning ad orientem said the GIRM is “unambivalent” about liturgical orientation and “makes it plain that the universal Church envisions the priest presiding at Mass facing the people.”
Carstens said ad orientem is a pastoral topic in almost every diocese.
“Pastors want to know what to do, people want to know what to do,” he said. “It wasn’t a question 10 years ago and most didn’t have to come out with a policy.”
Now, however, he said, many bishops are likely thinking about how to respond to this new pastoral situation.
In his own Diocese of La Crosse, Carstens said, there are more ad orientem celebrations than there were five and even two years ago. “It’s growing in popularity or at least as a pastoral consideration.”
La Crosse has a policy similar to Cincinnati in that the diocese has specified that if ad orientem is used, parishioners should also have an opportunity to go to a versus populum Mass.
The diocese also asks that before implementing ad orientem, pastors consult with their parish councils and discern whether use of the posture would be helpful, and then inform the bishop of their plans, assuring him that the people have been properly catechized so that they know the meaning of the practice.
Advocates of ad orientem worship say it allows for deeper reverence and understanding of the Mass prayers and more focus and peace among parishioners during Mass.
However, a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis said ad orientem is not the only aspect of the Church’s rich liturgical tradition that can enhance worship.
Father Michael Rennier, pastor of Epiphany of the Lord Parish in St. Louis, does not offer Masses ad orientem, but he uses incense, Latin, Gregorian chant and other liturgical practices as part of his effort to provide reverent worship for parishioners. As a result, in the space of just five years, he has seen attendance in the parish double by people of all ages.
“We began transforming our Masses at Epiphany because the parishioners insisted on it,” he told the Register. “They were the primary motivators of the changes. Even people who at first didn’t understand why the worship was changing soon came to appreciate it.”
The call for more reverent worship came from all ages, Father Rennier said, and the changes to bring it about were made gradually. Today, not every Mass is what might be described as traditional, but each is reverent and prayerful, he said.
A convert to Catholicism who was trained for ministry at Yale Divinity School and ordained as an Anglican pastor, Father Rennier said he was influenced by the Anglicans’ long history of beautiful worship, adding he learned about true reverence and beauty at Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut.
“This form of prayer, dedicated to contemplative, poetic beauty saved me. ... When I was received into the Church, I naturally continued to pray this way.” He tells that story in a new book coming out in March from Sophia Press, The Forgotten Language — How the Poetics of the Mass Can Change Your Life.
Father Rennier said the reverence he has sought to foster at his parish’s Masses has helped him to pray more sincerely when he is at the altar and takes the focus off him as a personality and place it where it belongs — on Christ.
“As human beings we learn through our senses. Our faith is incarnational. We worship with our whole bodies — smell the incense, taste the Eucharist Host, feel the kneeler under our knees, hear the bells, see the candles. The bonus is that this approach richly feeds the imagination and the parish children immediately become more immersed in the Mass. They participate so intensely it’s truly inspiring.”
To Catholics who are restricted from experiencing ad orientem worship, Father Rennier said, “There are so many liturgical treasures in the Catholic Church. We don’t need to fixate on one devotion or spiritual practice as the fix-all. We do best when we obey our bishops and think with the mind of the Church, and there are many ways to do that and still cultivate reverence at Mass. Liturgy should never be a venue for conflict. It’s a gift of love and we make it the best we can.”