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VATICAN (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis, like Pope Benedict XVI and Pope St. John Paul II, have all said Mass ad orientem in the Vatican.
This January, in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, Pope Francis offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass facing liturgical East with the laity in attendance. The whole Mass can be viewed here.
Pope Benedict XVI, a strong advocate of ad orientem liturgy, said Mass facing the sanctuary instead of the people on various occasions in the Vatican. Pope St. John Paul II is well known for his ad orientem Masses, which he offered regularly in his private chapel in the presence of many.
Many faithful Catholics are wondering, then, why Cdl. Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and head of the bishops of England and Wales, is so strenuously rejecting the mere request to do likewise made to all clerics last week by Cdl. Robert Sarah, head of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW).
Cardinal Nichols, in a recent letter to his priests, cited rubric 299 from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which says, "The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible."
While Cdl. Nichols notes a CDW clarification in 2009 had confirmed that GIRM 299 does allow priests to offer Mass facing the tabernacle, he nevertheless wrote, "But it also 'reaffirms that the position towards the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier.'"
Thus, Cdl. Nichols concludes, "the expectations" of the CDW regarding GIRM 299 are that priests face the people during the whole Mass. He therefore is not allowing his priests the option to face East even though he admits this option comes from Rome.
Cardinal Sarah, appointed head of the CDW in 2013 by Pope Francis, confirmed just last week at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London that ad orientem Masses are not only an option, but a preferred option.
"This practice is permitted by current liturgical legislation. It is perfectly legitimate in the modern rite. Indeed, I think it is a very important step in ensuring that in our celebrations the Lord is truly at the center."
In 2003, two years before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), wrote a forward to a book by Fr. Uwe Lang titled "Turning to the Lord." In it Cdl. Ratzinger debunks the false interpretation of GIRM 299 (previously 262 in the 1969 GIRM). Cardinal Ratzinger says GIRM 299 was identical to GIRM 262 except for the addition of the phrase "which is desirable wherever possible." This is the phrase that Cdl. Nichols now emphasizes.
In the forward to Lang's book, Cardinal Ratzinger explains that the CDW clarified in 2000 that the interpretation — such as that applied by Cdl. Nichols — is a misinterpretation of the GIRM and of the CDW's intention.
This was taken in many quarters as hardening the 1969 text to mean that there was now a general obligation to set up altars facing the people "wherever possible." This interpretation, however, was rejected by the Congregation for Divine Worship on 25 September 2000, when it declared that the word "expedit" ("is desirable") did not imply an obligation but only made a suggestion.
Ratzinger further relates that the same CDW clarification in 2000 said, "Even if a priest celebrates versus populum (towards the people), he should always be oriented versus Deum per Iesum Christum (towards God through Jesus Christ)."
In his address last week Cdl. Sarah appealed to bishops and priests, saying that "it is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction — eastwards or at least towards the apse."
Many so-called "liturgists" in the last 50 years speak of the Mass as an imitation of Christ's last supper at which all the Apostles sat across from one another at table.
Cardinal Ratzinger, even before becoming Pope, was well known for his expertise and concern for the liturgy. In 2000, he wrote a book titled "Spirit of the Liturgy" wherein he describes the common orientation of all seated with Christ at the Last Supper.
They were all sitting, or reclining, on the convex side of a C-shaped table. ... Nowhere in Christian antiquity could the idea have arisen of having to "face the people" to preside at a meal. The communal character of a meal was emphasized by just the opposite disposition: the fact that all the participants were on the same side of the table.
Watch the panel discuss the backlash against ad orientem Masses in "The Download—Turning Your Back on God."