ad orientem

The above image appears to be going viral, being posted by even some of my most sensible friends. So it is worth a moment of reflection.

Some people heatedly want a Western return to the priest presiding ad orientem (facing East) rather than the popular versus populum (facing the people). This type of person rejoiced in the papacy of Benedict XVI and is struggling with Francis (all the “obedience to the pope” arguments that they used during Benedict’s papacy are quietly being sneaked out of the room).

Yes, the pulling out of the altar a yard (metre) from the East wall of the sanctuary, and having a priest being able to slide sideways behind it to face the congregation across an oversized sideboard that would be incapable of being used as a table, is not liturgical renewal! Having a liturgical space so that the priest’s back is to the crucifix is not liturgical renewal.

Yes, in the early church people faced East to pray (also see orientation). Yes, in the culture of the early church, for meals people “were all sitting, or reclining, on the convex side of a C-shaped table, or of a table having approximately the shape of a horse shoe”.


When the church building faced West (and some famously did and still do), and all faced East to pray – ALL faced East to pray. When the Bishop of Rome in St Peter’s in the Vatican presided at the Eucharist in that famously West-facing building, he did so looking across the altar at the congregation. And the congregation, during the Eucharistic Prayer, also faced East. (See here and here). They turned their backs on the pope.

I will listen more to liturgical fundamentalists who assiduously advocate ad orientem for the Eucharist when I see them turning their backs on the pope during the Eucharistic Prayer – as everyone would have in the early church.

Liturgy is not about an archaeological obsession to replicate some sort of early ideal period. It is not about mimicking Jesus and his last supper.

in circuitu altaris

Our culture has meals around a table – not (as in the period of the early church) on one side of it. We may be limited, in inherited buildings, to produce that image well (but actually we can do a great deal better than a lot of the pulled-out-sideboard effects that make the priest look like a bartender who owns this particular piece of furniture). When it comes to creating new worship spaces – there just is no excuse for producing something that is neither fish nor fowl, neither having the integrity of the pre-Vatican II ad orientem configuration, nor the sense of the whole people of God gathered around God’s table as equals.

Let’s stop using the term versus populum. It is time to start using the term in circuitu altaris (around the altar in circuitu mensae).

And puhleez stop it with the comments, jokes, and jibes about people facing each other praying to each other. They are an insult to our intelligence and to those who have taken prayer and the spiritual journey most seriously since the earliest church. Have these people not spent just five minutes visiting a monastery, or seen this illustrated? How do monastics, who devote their whole life to prayer, pray? They face each other.


This post can be seen as another in architecture reflections on this site.

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