It is widely believed that the modern practice of celebrating Mass facing the people has solid historical foundations in Church tradition and was called for by Vatican II. As Dr Eamon Duffy argues, both claims are false. Dr Duffy is Reader in Church History at the University of Cambridge and author of a definitive analysis of the Reformation in England, 'The Stripping of the Altars.' The following article first appeared in the UK publication 'Priests & People'. It is reprinted with permission.
A well-known Catholic architect recently complained that the high altar in Westminster Cathedral remains in its old position, facing east. The most important cathedral in the land, he declared, was "setting a bad example," and he asked, "How do we live out our faith through the liturgy and sacraments in that place?"
Everybody thinks that the arrangement of the altar so that the priest faces the people was ordered by the Council. In fact it wasn't, and although "Mass facing the people" has now become almost universal, in important ways it represents a dramatic departure from Christian tradition. It expresses a symbolic understanding of the Eucharist which is at best partial, at worst defective, and, paradoxically, it encourages a depressing clericalism quite at odds with the teaching of the Council.
Mass "in the round" or facing the people does, of course, express an important dimension of the Eucharist, that of the Church as a community gathered around the family table, and among whom the Lord is fully present. But this is by no means the only dimension of the Eucharist that we need to grasp, nor, despite modern emphasis on the present experience of community, is it necessarily the most important. Too strong an insistence on this community now can lead to an enclosed and sectarian understanding of the nature of the Church and Eucharist, which is unreal in failing to grasp or acknowledge the sinfulness and incompleteness of the Church.
In the New Testament and early Church, the Eucharist was above all a pledge of a fulfilment yet to come; it pointed away from itself, away from the sin and brokenness of this world (and of the Church), to the great in-gathering and healing of humanity at the edge of the ages. The world labours and groans towards that fulfilment, and the Church too is a pilgrim looking towards her Lord. The deepest prayer of the Eucharist is a prayer not of achieved unity and peace, but of expectant longing: "Maranatha, Our Lord come."
For most of her history the Church expressed this vital truth in the stance of those taking part in the Eucharist. Priests and people alike faced east. The point was not that the priest turned his back on the people, but that everyone faced in the same direction, towards the rising sun, as they waited and prayed for the dawn of the Kingdom. Even the posture of the pope in the Roman basilicas, invariably used as the precedent and justification for "westward" celebrations, is no exception for, unlike most later churches, the Roman basilicas were oriented towards the west, and when the pope celebrated Mass he at least faced the rising sun, visible through the great door at the end of the church.
Vatican II theology
By abandoning the eastward position, the Church sacrificed the heightened solemnity with which all turned in prayerful expectancy towards the altar. She also lost a precious witness to the eschatological openness and incompleteness of the Church and her Eucharist - a fundamental theme of Vatican II's theology of the "pilgrim Church." In the process, we also saddled ourselves with a clerically-dominated liturgy.
The celebrant is now the focus of everyone's attention, seated in a chair which often occupies the place of the old tabernacle or altar-cross, centre-stage and in eye-to-eye contact with us throughout the Mass. Fr O'Flynn, whether he or we like it or not, is now the star of the show, a reality blood-curdlingly underlined in those churches where the priest opens proceedings with "Good morning everybody," and the congregation, like a school assembly, chorus back "Good-morn-ing-Fa-ther."
For several years I regularly attended Anglican celebrations of the Eucharist with my (then Anglican) wife. The small church had been re-ordered on best "Vatican II" lines, with the altar facing the people and the celebrant's chair behind it; the priest conducted the liturgy of the word from his chair; and the liturgy of communion, from the Lord's Prayer and Agnus Dei onwards, also took place with the priest facing the people. But for the eucharistic prayer itself the priest and his ministers came around the altar, and faced the east, just as the people did.
The effect was electric, a perceptible changing of gears and heightening of atmosphere, and a growing sense of solemnity as the whole congregation, with the priest as their spokesman, turned to the Lord for the greatest prayer of the Church. Yet there was no sense of alienation, of the priest with his back to us, for, in the parts of the Eucharist which appropriately emphasised dialogue and communion, he faced towards us. Instead, there was a profounder sense of reverence, and of a people waiting in a shared hope for the gift of God.
Both that sense of reverence and that sense of expectancy, once almost palpable in the hushed silence which surrounded the elevation, are all too often lacking in modern Catholic eucharistic worship. At least occasional celebrations in which priest and people turned together towards the east, and the dawn of the Kingdom, might help give it back to us. Maybe we should try it and see.