Mass Facing the People or the Altar

A look at liturgical changes in the Mass after Vatican II - Part 6



The post-conciliar period saw liturgical abuses. One alleged abuse is moving altars away from the back walls of churches to allow, or require, the celebrant to face the people. Let us look at Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2003 foreword to U.M. Lang’s Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (2d ed. 2005; link at, in which he tried to tamp down a controversy then lasting about 40 years (from 1963) and now about 60 years.

Ratzinger addressed the issue of whether the priest should face the people (versus populum) or the altar (ad orientem, literally “to the East,” facing the dawn of the Risen Christ). This option can only occur in a Novus Ordo; a Mass “facing the people” is not an option for the TLM. About a priest “facing the people” when celebrating Mass in the Ordinary Form, he wrote:

There is nothing in the Council text about turning altars towards the people; that point is raised only in postconciliar instructions. The most important directive is found in paragraph 262 of the [GIRM], issued in 1969. That says, “It is better for the main altar to be constructed away from the wall so that one can easily walk around the altar and celebrate facing the people (versus populum).” The [GIRM] issued in [30 years later in] 2002 retained this text unaltered except for the addition of the subordinate clause, which is desirable “wherever possible.” 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. The physical orientation, the Congregation says, must be distinguished from the spiritual [orientation]…

This is an important clarification. It sheds light on what is relative in the external symbolic forms of the liturgy and resists the fanaticisms that, unfortunately, have not been uncommon in the controversies of the last forty years…The Congregation’s response should thus make for a new, more relaxed discussion, in which we can search for the best ways of putting into practice the mystery of salvation. The quest is to be achieved, not by condemning one another, but by carefully listening to each other and, even more importantly, listening to the internal guidance of the liturgy itself. The labelling of positions as “preconciliar,” “reactionary,” and “conservative,” or as “progressive” and “alien to the faith” achieves nothing; what is needed is a new mutual openness in the search for the best realization of the memorial of Christ.

Much more than this has been written of liturgical abuses. See, for example, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004),, and Inaestimabile Donum (1980, “The faithful have a right to a true Liturgy…”,

I believe that the informality and irreverence of celebrants, and their departures from the text of our Vatican-approved liturgical books, resulted from two changes in the Mass; neither alone was sufficient but instead both were necessary for this phenomenon. One is Mass in the vernacular. The other is Mass facing the people. When a Mass is celebrated in the vernacular and facing the people, the hubris of the priest can manifest itself. To demonstrate why neither alone is sufficient for this manifestation of hubris, notice that if the Mass were celebrated in Latin facing the people, it would not suffer the hubris of the priest. The priest would not break into extemporaneous English or Latin asides. And, if the Mass were celebrated in English facing the altar, it also would not suffer the hubris of the priest. The priest would not break into extemporaneous asides facing away from the people.

Only when the Mass is celebrated in the vernacular and facing the people, the hubris of the priest may be exhibited. Unfortunately, this is how most Masses in the United States are celebrated. Under these conditions, the priest feels free to convey a personal greeting and generally speak extemporaneously while departing from the liturgical texts. This is contrary to the Code of Canon Law: “The liturgical books, approved by the competent authority, are to be faithfully followed in the celebration of the sacraments. Accordingly, no one may on a personal initiative add to or omit or alter anything in those books” (Canon 846 §1). An exception is made for “interjections,” in particular places for particular purposes, but these must be of “a few words” (GIRM Para. 31.). So, for the very practical reason that I would like to see the hubris of priests curtailed, I would opt for Masses to be celebrated facing the altar.


***For Part 5 in this series, click here


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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