Last week we spoke about how, though the liturgy is first and foremost God’s work in us, we have a proper response and are called to many and varied forms of responding to God’s grace: silence and song, gesture and stillness. This week, we are reminded of the primary focus of divine worship and an interesting way in which it was highlighted in the tradition of the liturgy.
First, we see in paragraph 33 that “the sacred liturgy is above all things the worship of the divine Majesty.” Secondarily, it “contains much instruction for the faithful.”
The paragraph continues: “the prayers addressed to God by the priest who presides over the assembly in the person of Christ are said in the name of the entire holy people.” Therefore, the priest, when praying at Mass, is doing so on behalf of God’s people and his prayers are “addressed to God.” Here I would like to offer a connected side note regarding the way in which this has been emphasized in the history of the liturgy.
The vast majority of what a priest says at Mass is a prayer directed to God the Father on behalf of the people. We might ask ourselves, then, why is he always facing the people? If the prayer of the priest is addressed to God, why does it look like he is praying at me?
Here we encounter the question of directionality at Mass; I can only touch on it briefly here. In the last 50 years, it has become the custom for the priest to stand adversum populum (i.e. against the people). For more than a thousand years, however, this was not the case. Why?
To emphasize the idea that the priest is not separated from the people but is joined with them in worshiping God (the primary purpose of the liturgy), it was the norm for the priest to stand facing cum populum (i.e. with the people). This was the normative position during the Mass because, as was mentioned, the vast majority of the prayers are addressed to the Father. However, for those parts addressed to the people, the priest would turn to face those gathered.
To many people’s surprise, the Second Vatican Council did not change this practice and, in fact, presumes throughout this document that the priest and people are united in turning physically toward God to offer prayer and praise. To this day, the most current documents and missal we use at Mass, presume that the priest is facing with the people. This is seen clearly when, periodically throughout the Mass, these documents indicate the times when the priest is supposed to turn toward the people and address them (which presumes, of course, that the priest had not been facing toward them already).
Why did this ancient and theologically profound practice change? There is only one official document coming from Rome that mentions a reason for using this secondary option. The reason is found in a publication called Notitae which is put out by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. In it we can find a brief explanation highlighting the significance of the ancient practice of facing with the people, but we also find a brief explanation of why a priest might face against the people. It reads as follows: “La posizione versus populum sembra la piú conveniente nella misura in cui rende piú facile la comunicazione.” Translated from the Italian: “the position facing against/toward the people seems more convenient insofar as it renders communication easier.”
Therefore, with the exception of a consideration for convenience, the Church still officially favors the position of a priest facing with the people, a practice rooted in a thousand year old tradition of sound theology and liturgy.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!