To initiate the liturgical transition:
celebrating towards the Lord

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

The fact for a Parish priest to celebrate once again turned towards God and no longer towards the people seems a small step in comparison to what it would be, for this same priest, to adopt the old rite. But, it is nonetheless already an enormous step in itself. Everyone indeed understands that this is like pulling a string on a ball, eventually it all comes apart, here the ball being the liturgical reform.

That is why the change in direction of the celebration is the first and decisive step of what is called the reform of the reform, which is, as we have explained before, a process of transition[1]. In a series of interviews we published in this perspective in 1997, in a book titled, Rebuilding the liturgy[2], most of those we interviewed said that, indeed, the return to the celebration towards the liturgical east was the first step that needed to be accomplished[3].

Who shall initiate this process? In the end, a pope and the bishops who will be willing to commit to this reconstruction. For the present, diocesan bishops or non-diocesan, better still cardinals, who will initiate this process wholeheartedly, bringing in their tail as many Parish priests as possible, supporting them through the considerable difficulties they shall meet.

An historical debate already resolved

Archeologists wonder about the position of the altar inside the building during Christian Antiquity. But wherever the altar was, the fact that the antic prayer (mass, various offices) was done facing a particular direction so to manifest the return of Christ at the End of Time has been powerfully demonstrated[4]: “For as lightning cometh out of the east and appeareth even into the west: so shall also the cowling of the Son of man be” (Mathew 24, 27).

Joseph Andreas Jungmann, one of the major figures of the Liturgical Movement made noticed at the time that during the Patristic era, the position of the celebrant facing the East was more strongly attested, in Syria for example, in places where the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist was made more explicit by the Fathers. He also noted that “the affirmation often heard that the altar of the early Church always supposed that the priest was turned towards the people happens to be a legend[5].” In fact, in the Anglican Church, in the XIX century, for a number of those involved in the Oxford Movement, says Uwe Lang, a way to restore the Catholic heritage and to underline the expression of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist was by renewing with oriented prayer in worship. It was because of a rigorous traditionalism that the Pope had kept the custom to celebrate in Saint Peter in Rome and in Saint John Lateran, where the apse is to the west, towards the geographical east and not only the liturgical, thus turning towards the nave.

Facing the people, anticipation and symbol of the reform

It was, in this case and in other instances, a de facto versus populum. On the other hand, the intentional versus populum that appeared within the framework of the Liturgical Movement had, under the pretext (false) of returning to antiquity, only an ecumenical value. In reality, it was borrowing from Protestantism (at least Calvinist, for Lutheran worship was often willingly ad orientem). Thus we saw developing a few experiments of worship facing the people, even before the Second World War, on altar especially set up for the occasion, in pilgrimages, in country activities of youth movements, particularly among scouts but, also, in a few “progressive” parishes.

The well-known response of Paul Claudel published in the form of an article in the Figaro littéraire on 29 January 1955, is a protest against “the spreading habit in France, more and more often, of celebrating mass facing the public”, as was the case in Claudel’s Parisian parish, Saint Séverin, a leader in the new trend. On the occasion of large gatherings, such as the Catholic Action Youth Congress, in 1950, at the Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris, the habit was taken to place the altar at the center. In the same way, in the Underground Basilica of Saint Pius X in Lourdes, consecrated in 1958, the altar had been positioned in the middle of the nave, which necessarily made the celebration facing the people an obligation for half of those attending.

But it is in the beginning of the nineteen-sixties that the celebrations facing the people increased in France, in Germany, and in Belgium. They became progressively quasi universal starting in 1964, at the start of the liturgical reform. We can actually define it as a transitional process[6], the reverse of what we advocate. Universal in such a way that the texts which promulgated the reform made no reference to the direction of the celebration, it didn’t have to. It was granted that the normal way to celebrate the new mass would be facing the people.

Lifting remaining obstacles: prerequisites to a return

As it is, even if strictly speaking facing the people is not mandatory as part of the reform, yet according to the common perception, the new mass is characterized prominently by the use of the vernacular and the position of the celebrant facing the people. So much so, that all tentatives of a return to the celebration towards the Lord, at the parish level, are immediately met with all the opposition the defender of the reform are still able to gather, as we saw during the tentative launched by Cardinal Sarah. Philippe Maxence gives us a more in depth account in the present issue. Furthermore, this process of a change in the orientation meets the opposition of some of the faithful simply because it has been in use for over fifty years now.

What is happening currently in the State of Kerala, Southern coast of India, within the Syro-Malabar Church (the second most important Eastern Church united to Rome, after the Ukrainian Greek Church) is in that respect quite informative. After a long fight between partisans of the new and partisans of the old, in 1999 the Syro-Malabar Synod had found a compromise and decided that the priests would face the assembly up to the Eucharistic prayer and after that face the altar. This was then approved recently by Pope Francis. But even this transaction seemed to be unbearable to those who supported facing the people at all times, as they are trying, sometimes quite fiercely, to block the Synod’s decision with the following argument: “The mass facing the people is our tradition”. The quarrel between the new and the old but in a reversal situation…

What is, in the end, an advantage: the progressive reintroduction of a traditional liturgy in the parishes will appear a seductive novelty, not in a demagogic way this time, but a novelty with a great spiritual quality.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] Res Novæ, « Church: What solution out of the crisis ».

[2] Claude Barthe, Reconstruire la liturgie, François-Xavier de Guibert publisher.

[3] See also two books in actual contraposition: Marc Levatois, La messe à l’envers, Jacqueline Chambon publisher, 2009; Claude Barthe, La Messe à l’endroit, L’Homme nouveau, collection Hora Decima, 2010.

[4] Among others see: Uwe Michael Lang, Turning Towards the Lord. Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, Ignatius Press, February 2005.

[5] “Der neue Altar”, in Der Seelsorger, 37, 1967, 374-381.

[6] Paul VI himself supported this transitional process by celebrating a mass in Italian and facing the people, in Rome, in the Church of All Saints, on 7 March 1965.