We are a community, not an audience

by Maureen Fiedler

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I was truly shocked when I read this lead sentence in a July 7 story on NCRonline:

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, urged priests and bishops at the Sacra Liturgia conference Tuesday in London to start celebrating Masses "ad orientem," or facing away from the congregation, beginning the first Sunday of Advent this year.

No way, Jose (or Robert, as the case may be)! One of the most meaningful liturgical changes made by the Second Vatican Council was having the priest/celebrant face the congregation (rather than a back wall or a marble altar). It makes total sense. People come to church to celebrate the Eucharist, not to watch a show or pray their private prayers. They come to pray together, and the priest is called to lead the community in prayer.

I am old enough to remember the years when the priest faced the altar; I was young and took it for granted that that was the "way things were."  But, after decades of having the priest face the congregation, that old way not only seems odd, it comes across as downright impolite. Priests often urge their communities to come and celebrate the Eucharist. Hospitable people don't invite someone to their home and then turn their back on them … literally.

NCR quoted "experts" who said that canon law already permits the priest to face away from the congregation. That might be the case. I don't read canon law to charge my spiritual batteries. But frankly, I don't care what canon law says in this case. It is just plain stupid, and inhuman, to face a wall or a marble altar, and not face the people. In communities, people look at each other and talk to each other, pray with each other -- and share Eucharist with each other.

The group to which Cardinal Sarah gave his talk is called Sacra Liturgia, and one glance at their website gives the clear impression that they are a highly conservative group. They would like to bring back the old pre-Vatican II Tridentine Mass. One photo actually pictures a celebration of the Eucharist with the priest facing the altar. Brings back memories of the 1950s. Positively archaic.

Now, if someone finds that mode of worship meaningful, let him or her engage in it. But imposing such an "archaic" practice on the church at large is something else again.

Church attendance is already down significantly. A change like this would likely reduce it to a handful.  

I can't imagine that Pope Francis thinks this is a good idea. It's past time for him to replace Cardinal Sarah at the Congregation for Divine Worship.

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