The claim that the altar of the early Church was always designed to celebrate facing the people, a claim made often and repeatedly, turns out to be nothing but a fairy tale.
—Josef Jungmann, S.J., a former advocate of Mass facing the congregation 1
When asked about the era before the liturgical changes of the mid-1960s, Catholics who lived through it often bring up exotic tales of Masses celebrated by a priest with “his back to the people,” sometimes wistfully, sometimes not. In these reveries, the Second Vatican Council inevitably becomes the event that turned the priest around and broke the altar away from the wall. Until then, the celebrant had typically faced the apse or rear wall of the church, ostensibly appearing to be “away from the people.” This practice was described for symbolic and historical reasons using the Latin phrase, ad orientem, “to the east,” sometimes also rendered in English as “the eastward position.” 2 Now he was turned to face the congregation, versus populum, an apparent fruit of post-Conciliar openness. However, a careful combing of the relevant Council document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, reveals that Vatican II did not mandate any such action. In light of the skepticism Pope Benedict has expressed throughout his career concerning the prudence of this change, it is imperative that the informed layman to be able to evaluate the true historical rationale behind this still-controversial decision. Any detailed examination of the matter will find the logic behind this shift deeply flawed.
Even today, the virtual mandatory abandonment of the eastward position is unjustified by present-day liturgical law. Ad orientem liturgy is a lightning-rod for modern Catholic urban legends. The popular mythology that has accrued around the Council attributes this to a desire for intelligibility and collegiality utterly absent from the documents. A seminarian I met who led tours of the excavations beneath St. Peter’s suggested that the Council Fathers re-arranged the sanctuary because the early Christians faced East towards a Christ who would return within a span of a few years. Since the eschaton had yet to immanentize in 1965, it was high time we changed liturgical focus—-so ran his logic. There is nothing in the whole of Vatican II to back up this claim.
Indeed, while liturgists had advocated celebration of the Mass versus populum since the 1920s, often engaging in it without official approval,3 the documentary evidence for an actual hard-and-fast Vatican mandate is embarrassingly scant. It was permitted first in regulations issued by a commission after the Council, the text Inter Oecumenici, and then not to the exclusion of the eastward position. 4 Even when touching on whether the altar should be pulled away from the wall, it speaks only in the context of new church buildings, and then principally so it can be circled at the incensation, with an optional versus populum Mass as a side benefit.
While rare today, it is possible at present to say Mass ad orientem using the current 1970 missal. The rubrics of the present post-Conciliar missal, first issued in 1970 and currently in force, include directions that only make sense in the context of a liturgy said ad orientem. 5 In such a Mass, the priest faces the people when reading the Gospel, or when addressing them, as at “The Lord be with you,” but turns to the altar when praying to God. One sometimes hears the eastward position described, as an appropriate consequence, as versus Deum, or facing God, as the altar crucifix standing before the priest often served as a symbolic focus for his devotion. 6 To quote the noted Oratorian priest, liturgical scholar and Patrologist Uwe-Michael Lang, whose studies have received great praise from Pope Benedict:
The rubrics of the renewed Missale Romanum of Pope Paul VI presuppose a common direction of priest and people for the core of the Eucharistic liturgy. This is indicated by the instruction that, at the Orate, fratres, the Pax Domini, the Ecce, Agnus Dei, and the Ritus conclusionis, the priest should turn towards the people. This would seem to imply that beforehand priest and people were facing the same direction, that is, towards the altar. At the priest’s communion the rubrics say “ad altare versus,” which would be redundant if the celebrant stood behind the altar facing the people anyway. This reading is confirmed by the directives of the General Instruction, even if they are occasionally at variance with the Ordo Missae. The third Editio typica of the renewed Missale Romanum, approved by Pope John Paul II on 10 April 2000 and published in spring 2002, retains these rubrics. 7
A recent official clarification from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship interpreted ambiguous passages in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal in such a way that versus populum was still only one possible option. 8
The novel practice of facing the people nonetheless became ubiquitous at the time of Vatican II, even if it not mandated by the Council. One may chalk this up to what the Jesuit priest Joseph Jungmann, a then-famous scholar of liturgical history and a former apostle of versus populum liturgy, bitingly referred to as “a fashion, to which one succumbs without thinking.” 9 A Catholic staple of the Conciliar era, the 1965 Supplementary Volume to the Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home, bristles with images of confident, up-to-date Masses celebrated facing the people—though embellished with the now curiously nostalgic detail of altar cards. The opinions of prestigious liturgists thus turned one possibility into effectively what has become the sole acceptable option. The trauma of these rapid changes effectively rubbed out any memory of the original logic of the eastward position and replaced it with a murkily imagined pre-Conciliar dark age when Mass was said by the priest with “his back to the people,” as a symbol of clerical obscurantism. 10 In truth, to use terms that have been crudely devalued by their overuse, the eastward position is the model of communal, inclusive worship before God. The priest and people turn together towards the East, marked by the apse of the church. The priest thus becomes the head of a procession filling the nave of the church, symbolically moving towards eternity—the East from which Christ would rise like the sun on Judgment Day. This arrangement is certainly well-established in the extant churches of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Counterreformation and post-Tridentine eras, but how far back can it be traced? It is time to examine the archaeology behind the liturgy.
In terms of the eastward position, one does not speak today much of the physical direction of the East as a spiritual or liturgical east marked by the apsidal end of the church. Initially, and ideally, the two were one, but geography and pragmatism sometimes made this impossible, and “symbolic east” became the direction marked by the apse. Both spiritual and physical East pervade ancient Catholic practice. The Great Antiphons preceding Christmas speak of the coming Christ as the cosmic Oriens. Before his election to the papacy, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of the liturgical practice of turning to the East as a “Conversi ad Dominum,” an existential turning towards the Lord less related to Israeli geography than to the ancient Christian symbolism of the rising sun, an eschatological image of the risen Christ who is to come. 11 When one turns to the East, both priest and faithful are turning towards the Jesus of the Second Coming. It is not a return to the past but a bold march forward to eternity. 12 It is also far more ancient in origin than popularly supposed.
The most common line of argument presented today in favor of the Mass said versus populum claims the arrangement of the primitive “house liturgy” is very much similar to the current arrangement of the altar facing the people. 13 Many modern liturgical historians consider this a questionable proposition at best. Even if this were the case, it is instructive to recall that Pius XII in Mediator Dei warns against holding up the original, primitive form of the Mass as the sole template for the reform of the liturgy. 14 Still, the appeal to the simplicity of the early faithful is a potent emotional argument for the versus populum format, and one which will require an answer if the eastward position is ever to take hold in the liturgical climate of modern American Catholicism. The average Catholic has the vague, romantic notion that the early Christians gathered together facing each other over homely tables, and that the turning towards the East was the result of an alien liturgical rigorism imposed at some unspecified point during the post-Constantinian era. However, the true origins of today’s versus populum Mass have more to do with the liturgical politics of the decades preceding the Council than the simplicity of a catacomb never-never-land. Contemporary scholarship indicates that of the varied arrangements of the sanctuary and altar during the palaeo-Christian and Constantinian eras, the only one that was never utilized is the versus populum arrangement of today.
At first glance, the architectural evidence does not seem hopeful for the case of the eastward position. The most ancient Roman basilicas, The Lateran and Old St. Peter’s, with their freestanding altars, appear to be hard evidence for the versus populum arrangement. 15 On top of the physical evidence, the historical credentials of the versus populum camp seemed impeccable. It is here that we once again encounter the Jesuit Jungmann, then a renowned liturgical scholar—albeit one not above presenting certain agendas in his work. While urging caution in the wake of the unwarranted changes of the 1960s, he had originally pressed hard for the implementation of the versus populum arrangement in the modern world. 16 Shortly after the reforms began, he would come to question his presuppositions, and in time, admit their essential fantasy.
Jungmann’s pre-Conciliar support gave the practice a scholarly veneer. His historical works nonetheless do not treat the subject with great confidence: in his magisterial work The Mass of the Roman Rite, he touches on the issue of its historicity as a foregone conclusion, but fails to back his contentions with much in the way of solid documentation. 17 In other works, he suggested that the proper rationale for present-day versus populum was principally pastoral rather than archaeological. Indeed, he even suggested the Early Christians were sloppy or even ambivalent to the whole issue of direction, apparently ignoring the vast corpus of early Christian hymnody, art and liturgy now known to be focused on Christ-as-rising sun and the East. 18 Others forsook innuendo and took a more emphatically dogmatic approach. The liturgist Klauser, another versus populum advocate of the pre-Conciliar period, insistently connects the modern versus populum arrangement with an ancient source: “[…] in the church of the future [he is writing in 1949], the priest will again be standing behind the altar and will celebrate Mass as is still being done in the old Roman basilicas.” 19
Sed contra: For Stephen Schloeder, a noted church architect writing today with thirty more years of archaeology to draw upon, “it is clear from archaeological evidence that versus populum was definitely not the norm.” 20
Directional symbolism frequently trumped practical considerations in the early church, despite Jungmann’s assertions of the opposite. One of Pope Benedict’s favorite liturgical historians, the late Monsignor Klaus Gamber, devotes the latter half of his book The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background to the archaeology of the eastward position. 21 While Gamber notes that the earliest altars were freestanding, he explains this was principally “so ‘the priest could walk round it’” at the incensations of the Mass. 22 In certain churches in Rome, the altar was so designed that facing the apse—-symbolic east-—was either difficult or impossible, and priest and people had an arrangement that, as we will see was almost wholly by accident, only very loosely resembled our current practice. However, this is not a survival of a primitive collegiality that privileged the people’s view of the sacred rites, but a different way of experiencing symbolic east, one of several variant forms that had coalesced in the early Church around the same cosmic rationale. One must make a distinction between two different ways of facing East. “Unfortunately,” explains Gamber (emphasis mine):
Nussbaum [a liturgical scholar of the period, writing in favor of versus populum] fails to make a clear enough distinction between church buildings with the apse facing East and those with the apse facing West—in the latter case, with the entrance facing East. Churches with the apse facing West and the entrance facing East are almost exclusively the basilicas of the fourth century, and among them predominantly those which were built by the Emperor Constantine. [...] As early as the beginning of the fifth century, however, St. Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, reports that the apse facing East was the “usual” way of building churches. [...] In Christian basilicas with the entrance facing East, the celebrant had to stand at the “back” of the altar, in order to offer the Holy Sacrifice towards the East, while in churches in which the apse faced East, the priest always stood “before” the altar… 23
In other words, in early days it did not matter so much where the people stood, but instead which way the compass was turned. Does this mean that a Mass at St. Peter’s in its earliest days, a Mass with the priest oriented towards the open doors-—which faced geographically east—-would have looked functionally the same as a modern versus populum Mass? Would he not be facing the people even if he was turning towards them not for their sake, but for that of the East? Far from it. The action at the altar would have been even more invisible than in the ad orientem arrangement standard before 1965. Gamber and also Schloeder note that the people would have probably sat in the side-aisles, and the altar itself would have been shrouded by veils and a chancel-screen. 24 The people themselves would have turned to face the rising sun through the doors during the Eucharistic Prayer rather focusing their attention than the hidden priest at the altar. The position of the altar at the Roman basilicas, then, was neither a survival of an ancient collegial versus populum arrangement, nor an ad hoc arrangement justifying Jungmann’s casual “pastoral” attitude. 25 Instead it privileged East to a degree that verged on the extreme. Where the people happened to end up was a secondary concern, and an unblocked view of the priest was not even on the list of priorities. This distinction is now less apparent with the loss of the screens or curtains that were removed from most Italian churches, no matter how their altar was oriented, after the Council of Trent.
It is important to note that the Roman basilica was from the start not the model for all early churches in the West. Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger, drawing on Gamber, traces it back to Constantine’s work at St. Peter’s, and to the Roman churches that imitated it. In the Christian East, the altar was always approached from the typical ad orientem posture that would later become standard throughout the west, where priest and people alike faced the “spiritual east” of the apse. This practice was also, with the exception of larger churches imitating the Constantinian Roman practice, quite common in the West at the same time. This arrangement—-a sensible median between geographic symbolism and symbolic pragmatism—-was already common in parts of the West at the same time Rome was using the arrangement described above. It would later replace the cumbersome early Roman approach everywhere in the Western Church. 26
But what of the house churches of the early Christians? The popular assumption, influenced by centuries of devotional images of the Last Supper, suggests something far more homely. Nonetheless, even Leonardo da Vinci has all his apostles oriented in the same direction as Christ. 27 The true arrangement for the Last Supper would have been a semicircular table with Christ reclining on the extreme right-hand side, an arrangement “difficult to order [in] a modern church.” 28 Even then, the apostles and Christ would have faced the same direction and sat on the same side of the table, with the opposite side open for service. Cardinal Ratzinger quotes the great pre-conciliar liturgist Fr. Louis Bouyer in The Spirit of the Liturgy:
“The idea that a celebration facing the people [...] must have been the primitive one, has no other foundation than what a meal could be in antiquity, Christian or not. [...] The communal character of a meal was emphasized [...] by [...] the fact all the participants were on the same side of the table.” 29
The transition between such an arrangement and that of the Eastern churches and the Roman basilicas is surprisingly well-documented . The single table of the Last Supper was replaced by a hierarchy consisting of a head table for the celebrating clergy and subsidiary tables for the laity. Based on archaeological digs in northern Italy, these appear to have been fairly hefty constructions, with horseshoe-shaped stone benches, that were exclusively liturgical in focus to the point that they can be spoken of not as multi-purpose dining rooms but, as in Gamber, true house-churches. 30 These tables then disappeared, while the head table became an altar. Indeed, the second- and third-century Didascalia Apostolorum notes that while people would sit at the individual tables for the communal meal either before or after the primitive Mass, “the people got up and stood behind the celebrant at the altar.” 31 The natural “distillation” of the Last Supper form, as it was worked out by those far closer in time and space to Christ’s years on earth, is thus the ad orientem altar, variously facing the apse, or the doors, but never deriving its logic from easy eye-contact with the people. 32
It can be argued that the shift had occurred as early as the second century, in the form of the house-church of Dura Europos. 33 A large semicircular table with an accompanying stone bench would have left more solid remains than what was found, a lumpy podium possibly for a altar placed close to the wall, or a bishop’s cathedra.
It is interesting to note that Joseph Jungmann, shortly after altars began to be turned around in the 1960s, became disenchanted with the idea of versus populum that he had previously advocated so firmly. This radical shift by the apostle of versus populum remains the strongest evidence for the historicity of the older arrangement. Jungmann, after years of studying the issue and supporting versus populum, concludes that “The claim that the altar of the early Church was always designed to celebrate facing the people, a claim made often and repeatedly, turns out to be nothing but a fairy tale.”
The long history of ad orientem liturgy is a matter of archaeological record. That being said, the question this paper answers might be said to be a moot point, if Pius XII’s advice in Mediator Dei is to be heeded. The worship of the primitive Christians is not the be-all and the end-all of liturgy:
Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy. For research in this field of study, by tracing it back to its origins, contributes valuable assistance towards a more thorough and careful investigation of the significance of feast-days, and of the meaning of the texts and sacred ceremonies employed on their occasion. But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive table form… 34
The prevailing versus populum view of the liturgists of the 1960s was backed up by the latest in archaeological discoveries. This has in turn been disproved by even newer discoveries and scholarship which support the living tradition of ad orientem worship. Perhaps we would have done well to not be so skeptical in the first place of the customs that have been handed onto us. It is in this light that the deep wisdom of Pius XII’s words becomes apparent. The wisdom of what was once a continuous, living tradition, written off in the name of what was then the cutting-edge of a scientific approach to liturgy, has been found to be more trustworthy than we supposed, after all.
So what is the next step in our pilgrimage to the East? This question of orientation, underscoring the presence of the Living God in our sanctuaries, is one close to Benedict’s heart. Yet, having lived through the great trauma of the rapid and perhaps imprudent changes of the late sixties, he understands the dangers of radical, unexplained change. Ratzinger wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy that it would be a mistake to “reject all the reforms of our century wholesale,” but that the face-to-face dialogue of the Liturgy of the Word must also be distinguished from the “common turning to the East during the Eucharistic prayer,” which remains “essential,” as“[l]ooking at the priest has no importance. [...] It is not a question of dialogue but of common worship, of setting off towards the One who is to come. Ratzinger suggests the solution in places “when a direct common turning towards the East is not possible,” to create an “interior ‘east’ of faith,” in the form of a large standing crucifix on the center of the altar table-top for both priest and people to face, and to in part conceal the priest’s identity so that we might recall that he is not acting for his own sake at the altar. This, along with catechesis and education, will pave the way slowly towards a gradual re-orientation of the liturgy, and will prepare us in time to once again turn both physically and spiritually back to the East. Once we realize that we are meant to gaze upon the same Christ rather than on the talking head of the priest, the ancient custom of the eastward position will not seem so outré and alien. 35
There is always some risk in attempting to re-work a living tradition on archaeological lines, as the liturgical crisis of the last thirty years has shown us. Let us have the humility to listen to the small, steady, populist voice of the Church’s traditions, before automatically assuming that the academic record of archaeology holds the only key to the historical truth.
Matthew Alderman is a recent graduate of the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, and a contributor to the blogs The Shrine of the Holy Whapping, the New Liturgical Movement, and the Society of St. Barbara. He currently works with a classical residential architectural firm in Manhattan.
1.Quoted in Gamber, Klaus . The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background. Capistrano and New York: Una Voce and The Foundation for Catholic Reform, 1993, p. 151.↩
2. Mostly in Anglican sources; it is nonetheless suitable for our purposes. For instance, in The Works of the Rt. Rev. Charles C. Grafton (Vol. 6), New York: Longmans, Green, 1914, pp. 26-34: “To stand before the long side of the altar, and to face the reredos [altarpiece], is what is called the eastward position.”↩
3. Gamber, Klaus . The Modern Rite: Collected Essays on the Reform of the Liturgy. Farnborough: St. Michael’s, 2002, p. 79). In all fairness, Gamber  notes that the 1570 Missal provides for the possibility of a Mass said at an “altare ad orientem, sit versus populum,” in other words, in a church with the apse pointed west and the altar facing East where the people coincidentally happen to be in front of the altar, as at San Clemente in Rome. This was only intended for the most exceptional of cases.↩
4. Fr. U.W. Lang covers the documentation thoroughly in his article “Turning towards the Lord” (an abridgement of his controversial and much-read book of the same name) in the April 2005 edition of Adoremus Bulletin, available at http://www.adoremus.org/0405LiturgicalPrayer.html. The author was unable to obtain a copy of Fr. Lang’s controversial and much-praised book in time to complete this article; it is, however, definitely recommended reading to anyone with an inquiring mind, and features a preface by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger.↩
5. Schloeder, Steven J. Architecture in Communion: Implementing the Second Vatican Council through Liturgy and Architecture. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998, 69; Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. The Spirit of the Liturgy. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000, p. 77.↩
6. This term may also refer to the interior disposition of the celebrant, but appears in some contexts to describe his physical orientation, as in the speech “The Natural Direction of Liturgy” by the Vatican’s secretary for the Congregation of Divine Worship, Archbishop Malcom Ranjith, available at http://www.latin-Mass-society.org/2006/turning.html. The speech was given in reference to the Italian release of Fr. Lang’s book.↩
7. Lang, n.p.↩
8. Cardinal Medina Estévez, Letter on the position of the priest during the Eucharistic Liturgy, Prot. No 2086/00/L. Available online at http://www.adoremus.org/12-0101cdw-adorient.html.↩
9. Quoted in Lang, n.p.↩
10. Even before the change, liturgists treated the official rubrics with a surprising degree of contempt. See Jungmann, Joseph . Public Worship. London: Challoner, 1957. Jungmann, writing in 1957, describes the arrangement prevalent at that time as the altar having been “pushed into the background, into the recess of the apse,” which, while not derogatory, is hardly complementary (62). This same note of distaste is ubiquitous throughout the authors of the period, such as in Reinhold’s somewhat strange though fascinating book, Bringing the Mass to the People (Baltimore, Helicon, 1960).↩
11. Unlike Muslims, who turn towards a specific point, Mecca, Christians in the Southern Hemisphere who have adopted Eastward-connected practices do not turn towards Jerusalem. A church built in 1851 at Tristan da Cunha by an architect of the Ecclesiological Society had the same eastward orientation as a European church. The eschatological direction, rather than the geographical reality, is privileged in this case. Michael J. Lewis. The Gothic Revival. Thames and Hudson: London, 2002, p. 107.↩
12. Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal [Benedict XVI]. The Spirit of the Liturgy. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2000, pp. 71-76.↩
13. For the Last Supper, see Schloeder, 71.↩
14. Ibid., 65, citing Pius XII, Mediator Dei, no. 66.↩
15. Gamber  proposes that liturgists such as the German parish priest Pius Parsch picked up the erroneous notion of the long pedigree of the versus populum arrangement by visiting the basilican churches of Rome and misinterpreting their orientation as evidence for early Masses said by a priest facing the people (79).↩
16. Schuler notes that to Jungmann credit can be given for “a great responsibility for the turning around of altars.” See Schuler, Richard. “Humanism and the Sacred,” Sacred Music, Winter 1969.↩
17. Jungmann , 156.↩
18. Ibid. 181. The pagan Romans even mistook some Christians for sun-worshippers, so omnipresent was this early iconography. Schloeder quotes St. John Damascene and St. Augustine (71); Gamber  refers to the second-century Didascalia Apostolorum as a precedent for the practice of praying to the East(142).↩
19. From his Guidelines for the Design of the House of God According to the Spirit of the Roman Liturgy, cited in Gamber , 138. See also Nussbaum in The Position of the Priest at the Christian Altar (1965), quoted in Gamber, 156.↩
20. Schloeder, 70.↩
21. See Gamber , 117-119.↩
22. Ibid., 144. Indeed, this type of altar was considered the ideal throughout the whole of the Tridentine period, even if more honored in the breach than the observance.↩
23. Ibid., 156.↩
24. Schloeder, p. 72; Gamber , 162.↩
25. Private communication. Michael Djorjevitch, February 14, 2005; Gamber , 157-9. The author has experienced part of a Vespers service at the Vatican which loosely echoes the practice, where the entire width of the nave was cleared for a penitential litany-procession and the faithful packed into the side-aisles.↩
26. Schloeder, 70.↩
27. Schloeder, 71.↩
28. Ibid., 71↩
29. Ratzinger, 78.↩
30. Gamber , 142.↩
31. Ibid. Emphasis mine.↩
32. It is interesting to note that the practice of veiling the altar—and thus obstructing the view of the people—was not an invention of the Constantinian age. Carey notes frescoed evidence of the liturgical use of veils at the house church beneath S. Giovanni e Paolo in Rome (25), while an item entitled “World’s Earliest Church” in the Summer 1999 edition of Sacred Architecture (6) notes the excavation of a church—not merely a house church—built between 293-303 at Aqaba, Jordan, which made use of a chancel screen. See Carey, “Veiling the Mysteries,” Sacred Architecture, Winter-Spring 2000, 23-27.↩
33. Private Communication, Michael Djorjevitch, February 14, 2005. If they had persisted with the old multiple-table arrangement, would not presumably the bishop would have been seated at a table rather than at his own cathedra?↩
34. Mediator Dei, No. 62.↩
35. Ratzinger, Ibid., pp. 83-84.↩