In a recent 'Catholic World Report' interview (extracts from which appear below), Cardinal Janis Pujats, Archbishop of Riga, Latvia, explained how the post-Vatican II changes in the liturgy were implemented in his country without the range of problems which have been encountered in other parts of the Catholic world.
By 1972 we had the new Missal in Latvia, but it was not yet translated. We celebrated the Novus Ordo in Latin, so the people did not notice much change.
So we were already celebrating the liturgy according to the Roman Missal, in Latin. We read the Gospel in Latvian. If the entire Mass had been in Latvian, then maybe we would have faced towards the people. But we used Latin, and we couldn't "talk to them" in Latin, so there was no particular point in turning towards the people.
Consequently we did things in a step-by-step fashion. First we did the Mass in Latin. Then we started to translate the Lectionary. Finally we translated the whole Missal. When we were done with this, we turned towards the people for the Liturgy of the Word.
In the Liturgy of the Word, we are talking to the people, and they are listening to the Word of God. So at that point we should face them. But even today, after we are finished "talking to the people," we turn to the altar to prepare the elements and so forth.
We are not hurrying to turn around the altars. When we build smaller churches, even today, I do not have the altar built out from the wall. This is not a particularly significant matter. The Pope himself turns his back to the people in his own chapel.
The Second Vatican Council does not require facing the people, and I was fully aware of this. According to Vatican II, if it is better to face the people, then the priest should do so; if not, one can celebrate Mass in the old manner.
I think that the criticism [by Western liturgists of Eastern Europe's 'backwardness' in liturgical renewal, e.g., priests celebrating Mass with their backs to the people] is unjustified. These critics see only the outward appearance; they see that the altar has not been turned around. They ignore all the rest of the liturgical reform to focus on this one thing. But liturgical reform touches all of the Mass. There is a very significant difference between the texts of the Tridentine Missal and the texts that are given to us now.
I do not look upon it as an offence to anyone that the priest stands facing the altar to celebrate Mass, even in the Novus Ordo. The Pope knows that we are not in any particular rush to change this. When you make such a change, some people like it and some people don't, so you stir up controversy.
Our liturgical reforms, on the other hand, have been going on for 30 years, and the people do not feel any negative effects from the changes, because of the way they have been introduced and administered. The people are at peace.
What happened outside Latvia happened rather quickly. The Council was not to blame, but the liturgical translators were at fault. The Council was not radical, but when the liturgists began formulating changes, all sorts of extremes emerged. They confused people's minds by what they did.
And we can even boast that our slow liturgical reform preserved old traditions that have been lost elsewhere. I am thinking in particular of the tabernacle in the centre of the altar, with the Eucharist as the centre of the church rather than somewhere off to the side, and the confessionals.
I myself have seen (I will not say in what country) the tabernacle on the floor - in a corner on the floor. That is no way to honour Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I have seen an altar that has been erected from left-over logs: big split logs, placed cross-wise; and across these planks they put a tablecloth to cover it. And this was not in a mission territory, but in a traditionally Catholic country! So the fact that the Eucharist is still in the centre is the primary thing which we have preserved.
The other important thing that we preserved is the confessional. We have not taken them out of the churches, and therefore we have not shortened the lines of penitents. The confessionals are a sort of visible advertisement. The people are already in lines, and so someone who is fearful of going to confession will look at the lines and see that they are very long, and that makes it easier for him to get in line. No one whose faith is shaky will go by himself, and ask individually to see a priest for confession; instead, he will not go to confession at all.
Of course there is another big problem: that in many countries people have the idea that confession is no longer necessary. The result is that today, in many places, few people go to confess their sins, but they all go to Communion. I look on this as the biggest mistake that "reformers" have made. When they lifted the people onto their feet it was apparent to me that it would take two generations to get them back on their knees. And to get them to go to confess their sins, to make their individual confessions, after they have tossed that practice aside - I doubt that can be done.
But with us, individual confession has remained the norm. We have never given general absolution - that is to say, absolution for the whole congregation. That practice is for extreme circumstances, and with the obligation for individual confession later. It is better to go straight to the individual confession. If the people are already accustomed to that practice, then it is better to keep it. We look upon that as a matter in which Westerners can learn something from us.