For the Offertory, Canon and Our Father I faced the altar, not the congregation. I said the opening prayers form the presider’s chair, where I remained for the readings. I wore a microphone as usual. I then read the Creed and the prayers of the faithful, went down to receive the offerings of bread and wine, and then went to the altar directly, not going around behind it. The deacon and I turned to the congregation at the prayer “Pray brethren..” I next turned to the congregation at the sign of peace and then again at the “Lord, I am not worthy...” After the distribution of Holy Communion I returned to the presider’s chair and finished the Mass as usual. The music was very simple, very little organ, mostly plain chant in English, some Latin used in the ordinary parts of the Mass, all prayers and readings in English. I had warned the congregation that I would do this one time only as part of the conference that we were having at the parish. I faced away from the congregation for about 14 of 55 minutes, all told.
I did it as an experiment. I suspect that the Council Fathers of Vatican II never envisioned Mass facing the people. I wanted to know what the Mass of Vatican II would really be like, some English, some Latin, Gregorian chant, unaccompanied singing and a balance of facing toward people when addressing them and facing the altar with them when addressing the Father. I think this is what is called in the rubrics of the Missal when it indicates that the priest should face the people six times during the Mass:
1)When giving the opening greeting (GIRM 124).
2)When giving the invitation to pray at the end of the offertory, "Pray brethren" (GIRM 146).
3)When giving the greeting of peace (GIRM 154).
4) When displaying the Host and Chalice before Communion and saying: "Behold the Lamb of God" (GIRM 157).
5) When inviting the people to pray before the post communion prayer (GIRM 165).
6)When giving the final blessing (Ordo Missae 141).
The fact that these rubrics exist, seems to assume that the priest is facing away from the people at some time during the liturgy.
After Mass, comments were varied. Some people loved it, most didn’t like it, some were infuriated. In particular I got angry fingers in the face, from someone who said that “the Pope had sent a letter to all priests telling them that they had to face the people.” How do you prove something that never happened? Rome has never said anything about having to face the people during Mass. One must do so only six times. It is one of the great mysteries of our times why, overnight, most of the altars in Catholic Churches were turned around.
There had been some experimentation in the 1950's by people like Balthasar Fischer based on the assumption that the first Christians had celebrated Mass with the celebrant facing the congregation. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the custom of facing away from the people originated among the Frankish clergy in around 700 or 800 AD. I would like to know why they write this.
For two reasons, I doubt that the Mass was ever said completely facing the congregation. Facing east, which usually means facing away from the people is the usual posture in liturgical prayer of the Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian traditions. It is still the custom in most of the Eastern rites, at least during the Eucharistic prayer. They have done this from time immemorial and still do. They wouldn’t have changed it just to accommodate the Frankish barbarians of the west, 700 years after Christ. This custom of congregation and clergy facing the same direction in prayer was universal until about 1967. The first Christians were Jews for a century after Pentecost, at least according to sociologist Rodney Stark. Facing a sacred direction and not a congregation was normal in the synagogue services from which the Mass developed. Orthodox Jews still face east, or more precisely toward Jerusalem, away from the congregation for much of the service. It is a natural gesture.
I, however, wish I had not said Mass facing away from the congregation, and not because of the anger directed at me. I am a Catholic priest. I am used to people being angry with me. I wish I had not said Mass in what I believe to be the posture assumed by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, because it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my priestly life. You cannot imagine what it was like to say words like “we” and “our Father” and “us” while standing at the head of a congregation that was turned together in a physical expression of unity. No matter how one might argue to the contrary, it is impossible to say “we” while looking at 500 people and not be speaking to them.
The Mass is a prayer addressed to the Father, and despite our best intentions, we clergy address it to the congregation at whom we are looking. You cannot help it. The human face is a powerful thing. Last Saturday night I realized for the first time that I was part of a family of faith directed toward the same heavenly Father. I felt as if I was part of a church at prayer. It was not my job. It was my church. I never realized how very lonely it is to say Mass facing the people. I am up there looking at you. I am not part of you. For 13 or 14 minutes. You weren’t looking at me. We were looking at God.
I love the Tridentine Mass, or as we are supposed to be calling it now, the “extraordinary form.” I think that the Holy Father has been very wise in allowing its revival for those to whom it is meaningful. Its sense of solemnity is very beautiful and enshrines an essential dimension of the mystery of worship. I taught Latin for about 25 years, I understand the complex rituals of the old Mass. They mean a lot to me. Still, I don’t think that we should return to the exclusive use of Latin. I think the Council Fathers were right to simplify the mass.
The Holy Spirit anticipated the difficulties of our times. The simplification of the complex and beautiful gestures of the Tridentine Mass are entirely appropriate for the times we live in. In the same sense, there should be a pastoral balance between the common language and a “sacred language.” People pray best in their own first language. Remember that Latin was the vernacular when the Mass was in Greek. Latin itself was a concession to the popular mind. This being said, we the clergy should admit that we enshrined the liturgical abuses that were at the heart of the rebellion against tradition. We have become stuck in the 1960's and are unable to look without prejudice at the hemorrhaging of our congregations. We have failed to inspire them with a sense of the sacred and sublime and generations have been lost to the Lord and the Gospel.
I know that most people in my congregation would be offended if I started to face the altar regularly, because they are unaccustomed to it. I would be accused of factionalism or some such crime, so I don’t think that the market will bear it, but from now on every time I say Mass staring at the congregation and they hear Mass staring at my ugly mug, I will remember what could, what should have been. I fear I am as much a performer as a priest. I want to be a priest, but the show must go on.
The Rev. Know it all