Priest and people together praying
with their hearts and eyes lifted to Christ
In a sense, you might say I am finally coming to grips with the invitation from people I respect, first and foremost from the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and now Pope Benedict XVI, to look again at certain aspects of the last forty years of liturgical reform and specifically for me as a priest and bishop to look at the question of the best stance for the priest when praying the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass.
This paper is intended only to deal with the orientation question; the other questions involving liturgical music, the worthy reception of Holy Communion and more are also profoundly important, but pamphlet size and context will limit us to the one question for now. Furthermore, the orientation question deserves separate treatment because it is the only matter regarding the reform which necessarily involves “moving furniture”.
Regardless of how seriously until now I might have taken the Holy Father’s call to return to sacred worship ad Orientem, I doubt, as a papal nuncio, if I would have had either the courage or the right to make structural changes in an established chapel or church without a directive or permission to do so from a higher authority (nuncios are accountable to the Holy See generally in terms of their behavior and cannot presume the authorization to make extraordinary expenditures or modifications in a building belonging to the Holy See). (Enter: b) the irresistible opportunity! And hence c) a little of both contributing to my choice) The need to remodel parts of the Apostolic Nunciature in Port of Spain early in 2005, to make convent space for the larger community of religious women arriving in September of that year, and from mid 2006 to mid 2007, major renovation following the authorization to replace an old leaky roof with a new one, and, at the same time, to rewire that part of the house while the roof was off, provided the opportunity to improve the utilization of available spaces in both houses and arrange a new chapel in the part of the house that would not be out of commission for months on end during the renovation of the old house.
As the family of the Nunciature and our friends know, the creation of this new worship space within an existing room has been an evolutionary process over the last couple of years, conditioned first by the need to move quickly so as to have a chapel in the new house and to have everything ready for roof work on the old house during the dry season of 2007.
Another factor which dictated the gradual approach to finishing the new chapel was what we’ll call simply “the sometimes availability of artists and craftsmen” to put the finishing touches on our somewhat hurriedly arranged new worship space. With really more success than most can boast in this lovely country, the project continues at a far better than average “Trini” pace and the bare essentials are gradually being embellished and some temporary appointments are finally giving way to what we hope will be their enduring form. Stained glass is taking the place of opaque white Plexiglas installed temporarily to eliminate distractions from windows which look out on the garage and the lane approaching the house. This was also a way to temper the morning rays of the sun since both windows face east. Temporarily too the beautiful poster reproduction of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Crucifix from the former chapel took their places, in about the only configuration possible given their size, in relationship to the Tabernacle, no longer at the side as in the former chapel but now centrally located on the south wall. With the installation of the new backdrop of paintings (altarpiece), consisting most notably in the center of the Crucifixion Scene with Adoring Angels in strict rapport with the Tabernacle flanked by Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Patroness for the chapel and the Patroness of the Americas, to one side and St. John the Evangelist to the other, the chapel is nearly complete.
The fixed furnishings in stone are those recommended by the relative instructions in the liturgical books approved by the Holy See: a free-standing Altar; a lectern; a seat, in our case a bench, for the priest and concelebrants from which he can preside over the Liturgy of the Word. In the land of termites, there is much to be said for the permanency of stone. With the Altar positioned front and center and with the new focal point provided by the altarpiece, the chapel invites not only to Eucharistic Adoration but also to the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with priest and people together lifting their eyes and hearts to the Lord: ad Orientem. Interestingly enough, the altarpiece has enhanced the appearance of the tiny Tabernacle, which was purchased years ago for a much smaller room.
In a sense, that says it all, but I want to take a little time to anticipate some legitimate questions and render what might appear to some as a radical change (namely, worshipping ad Orientem) understandable for what it really is, the deliberate choice of an option, one which the Holy Father and I believe is better for prayer and praise.
Let me first anticipate some of the spontaneous questions, which deal with the particular arrangement of the chapel in the Apostolic Nunciature of Port of Spain. Let it be said at the outset that much of what you see was conditioned by the available space (in what was designed as a formal room with adjoining guest bed rooms – hence the new wall to partition off the chapel) and by budgetary constraints (generous benefactors are always welcome and will never be discouraged). As the room itself runs north and south, facing east was never a serious consideration.
Why are there no steps up to the Altar?
Basically no platform for the lectern and priest’s bench and no steps up to the Altar and Tabernacle were foreseen for practical reasons. No theological statement of one kind or another was intended. The ceiling of the room, a given, is too low to admit of steps. Above the present plasterboard ceiling are only a couple handbreadths of space below the poured concrete base of the floor above (hiding water pipe and electrical conduit for the floor above) and so nothing would be gained by tearing it out. The existing wood parquet floor seems to be holding up nicely after more than two years of use. Use would seem to confirm the judgment that installing a stone floor was not urgent from a practical and economic standpoint.
Why isn’t the Altar longer?
The size of the Altar is dictated by the width of the room and the initial intention to accommodate the celebration of Mass with the priest facing the assembly. An Altar built against the back wall of the chapel could have been longer, perhaps even double its present length. Free-standing as it is in the room, there was a need to provide sufficient space to pass between Altar and lectern and to accommodate candlesticks and allow a reasonable space between the priest’s bench and the Altar on the other side. The present size of the Altar, both in terms of length and depth, generously accommodates the sacred vessels which are meant to stand upon it along with the sacramentary, the book containing all the Mass texts. Candlesticks set up on the Altar with any measure of height or dignity would have put the ceiling in danger from candle soot or fire/heat. To return for a moment to my introductory comments, if my a) “crisis” had come at the beginning of this process, the chapel might have been arranged differently. The present arrangement would allow a successor to return to celebrating the Eucharistic Prayer facing the assembly, if he were so to choose.
Why granite furnishings and not marble?
A lovely white marble Altar or a sculpted Altar in a warm Travertine would have been nice, but Europe is far away and transportation costs are prohibitive. More often than not New World Altars are stone facing on a support structure of less noble material. This is what we have done in the chapel as well.
The two colors of granite (both from Brazil, I believe) were chosen to harmonize with the woods of the floor and other furnishings, which have a reddish cast. I can imagine embellishing both the lectern and the Altar with metal sculptures. For the moment, any ideas I might have are still waiting for the artist to come on the scene who could interpret them.
The granite priest’s bench with the chromed steel back (chroming is readily available because of the steel pan, the national musical instrument of Trinidad and Tobago) behind the presider’s place was chosen as opposed to chairs. It was set to the side at a right angle to the rest of the room so as to respect the overall symmetry of the presbyterium and the chapel. The granite is more substantial than wood and the bench is cleaner cut and takes up less space than a set of chairs. Even though the Nuncio is named as Ordinary in the Eucharistic Prayer in the chapel of the Nunciature, his chapel is not a cathedral and as such does not have a cathedra where only the local bishop can be seated.
Where is the Communion rail?
A small private chapel or oratory might well have a Communion rail but this one does not. If a proper rail were added the overall space available for special occasions where chairs are added to accommodate about 60 people would be lost. Neither consideration really excludes the addition of a Communion rail or kneeler at some future date.
What changes with a celebration ad Orientem?
In a sense, nothing changes because this option has always been foreseen in the liturgical books of the last forty years. Nothing changes for the assembly in any case; only the priest’s stance changes according to the option used to celebrate. The Liturgy of the Word should be celebrated from the priest’s bench no matter on which side of the Altar he may stand for the rest of the Mass.
The expression ad Orientem refers specifically to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The priest goes to the Altar to prepare the gifts and then prays the Eucharistic Prayer at the head of the people, all focused together with him on Christ. You will notice even celebrating ad Orientem, that on a couple occasions when the priest speaks to the people during the Liturgy of the Eucharist he does so by turning to address them.
When oriented everything makes more sense, you might say, as the Eucharistic Prayer and the Communion Prayers are addressed to God. When facing the assembly across the Altar at this time the priest normally isn’t looking at the people anyway. He is looking at what he is reading from the sacramentary; otherwise his gaze should be lifted to heaven, to the Crucifix or focused on the Sacred Gifts upon the Altar. This explains the legitimacy, also as a preferred arrangement, of the one used by the Holy Father for the main Altar of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, where there is a lovely big Crucifix centered between six candles to provide the visual focus for the Eucharistic Prayer (I excluded this arrangement for the chapel of the Nunciature because of the ceiling height. Furthermore, it would still leave the priest with his back to the Tabernacle during the Eucharistic Prayer. St. Peter’s is big enough for a Blessed Sacrament Chapel).
Doesn’t the ad Orientem arrangement exclude people from what is going on at the Altar?
I don’t know how it could. The only real difference is that the priest needs to elevate the Host and Chalice over his head so that they can be seen after the words of consecration, but basically when oriented, the Eucharistic Prayer should be more meaningful or make better sense to all involved, because the focus of the action is more natural.
Will you be celebrating from both sides of the Altar?
No, I really am convinced that praying the Eucharistic Prayer ad Orientem makes more sense and is therefore better. I will celebrate that way in my chapel. In other chapels and churches, when I am invited, I will celebrate as is the custom there. Remember, the Holy Father has decided to teach by example in this case. I can find no evidence that things are otherwise. The liturgical books foresee both options. To date, no new rubrics have been issued on how to celebrate and no new directives given for the renovation of churches or the construction of new ones which require one arrangement to the exclusion of the other.
Here are some quotes (borrowed from another author’s collection) from the Holy Father’s past writings on the issue of the proper orientation for worship:
[T]he positive content of the old eastward-facing direction lay not in its orientation to the tabernacle.... The original meaning of what nowadays is called "the priest turning his back on the people" is, in fact--as J.A. Jungmann has consistently shown--the priest and people together facing the same way in a common act of trinitarian worship.... Where priest and people together face the same way, what we have is a cosmic orientation and also an interpretation of the Eucharist in terms of resurrection and trinitarian theology. Hence it is also an interpretation in terms of Parousia, a theology of hope, in which every Mass is an approach to the return of Christ.
-- The Feast of Faith (Ignatius Press, 1986), pg. 140
Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.
-- The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), pg. 75.
The common turning toward the east was not a "celebration toward the wall"; it did not mean that the priest "had his back to the people": the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together "toward the Lord".... They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us.... [A] common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord.
-- The Spirit of the Liturgy, pp. 80-81.
As I have written in my books, I think that celebration turned towards the east, towards the Christ who is coming, is an apostolic tradition.
-- Looking Again at the Question of Liturgy with Cardinal Ratzinger, ed. Alcuin Reid (St. Michael's Abbey, 2003), pg. 151.
[A]mong the faithful there is an increasing sense of the problems inherent in an arrangement that hardly shows the liturgy to be open to the things that are above and to the world to come.
-- Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning towards the Lord (Ignatius Press, 2004), pg. 11