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. [Read more…]