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A Byzantine Look at Worshipping Ad Orientem, Part I

August 29, AD2017

altar, mass, sacrifice, ad orientem

Last year, Robert Cardinal Sarah urged pastors the world over to “return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction—Eastwards or at least towards the apse—to the Lord who comes, in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God.” To worship ad orientem is a venerable tradition of the Church, both in the East and West, and the call was unfortunately met with some resistance. Cardinal Sarah also asked pastors to “implement this practice wherever possible, with prudence and with the necessary catechesis, certainly, but also with a pastor’s confidence that this is something good for the Church, something good for our people.”

So this prompts the question: why is this something good for the people of the Church?

Not Without Reason or by Chance

Many people, including myself, have spilled a lot of ink on this topic. In short, the practice of worshipping ad orientem during the Holy Sacrifice is an ancient tradition. In an essay entitled “The Nuptial Meaning of Classic Church Architecture”, Dr. Helen Ratner Dietz observes:

The practice of the Christian priest’s facing east when offering the Eucharist, one may surmise, bears some relationship to the early Christian understanding of the Epistle to the Hebrews in which Jesus is likened to the Jerusalem Temple high priest.

… [T]he Christian liturgical practice of [ad orientem worship] … was already a longstanding practice at the time Origen wrote and some scholars trace it back to the early second century. The practice could conceivably have been adopted before AD 70 … when the Christian Eucharist was presumably still celebrated in private homes.

No wonder, then, that St. John Damascene writes, “It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East. … Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him. … So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten” (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 4:12; italics mine).

Are We Scoffing at Eastern Catholics?

The tradition of ad orientem worship is apostolic in origin. But despite that fact, there are more than a few Latin Catholics who are wary of such a tradition, in addition to other traditions such as Gregorian chant, incense, and reception of Communion kneeling and on the tongue. What’s interesting about this sentiment though, is that many of our Eastern Catholic brethren, specifically those of the Byzantine Rite, exclusively worship ad orientem.

For those Latin Catholics that have contempt for traditional practices such as ad orientem worship, I wonder why they wouldn’t also have a disdain for the same practices in the Eastern Catholic Churches. If they scoff at ad orientem worship in the Latin rite, wouldn’t they logically do the same in the Byzantine Rite?

To help me answer these questions, I was able to talk with two Byzantine Catholic priests, one a baby boomer, the other a Gen Xer. First, I talked with Fr. Thomas Loya, STB., MA, of the Ruthenian (Byzantine) Catholic Eparchy of Parma. I also sat down with Fr. Alexander Wroblicky of the Ukrainian-Greek Catholic Eparchy of Saint Josaphat in Parma, who will be featured in a later installment.

The Nuptial Meaning of the Mass

Below is the conversation with Fr. Loya:

Catholic Stand: How did you react to Cardinal Sarah’s call last year to have the Latin rite return to worshipping ad orientem?

Fr. Loya: That holds the key to everything in the Latin-rite Church. You’ve got to turn the altar back around and worship correctly. As Benedict XVI said, if worship is going right, and things are going right at the altar, everything else should go right.

CS: In your talks, you often talk about the spousal or nuptial meaning of the Mass. How does this tie into ad orientem worship?

Fr. Loya: [In her essay, Dr. Dietz] explains this whole spousal mystery that’s in the Mass.  And see, when you turn the altar around, you can put one anywhere. … The same thing as what happened to the altar, to the sanctuary, to the Mass—it’s the same thing that happened in the bedroom with contraception.  It was like contracepting the Mass. What goes on there [at the altar] affects everything. There’s an intent in the Mass … [a] spousal order of the Mass.

CS: So by putting your back towards God, is it like saying no to your spouse?

Fr. Loya: Well what happened is, it made it about each other. It was no longer about higher ends … the transcendent. In the sanctuary, in the classic church architecture, the way a church is laid out (East or West) followed the Jewish temple design which had zones in it and a separation of the Holy of Holies. The Roman Catholic Church used to have the communion rail, and people didn’t go up there because it was for the ministry of the priest.

CS: It separated us from heaven; that was the dividing line.

Fr. Loya: Exactly. But that was also like the wedding bed, the nuptial chamber. And that’s how it was in the Old Testament temple where the high priest would be the only one authorized to enter into the Holy of Holies. And he represented the bride, Israel, coming to meet the Bridegroom, God. And the Catholic priest takes on that same thing. He represents both—he’s called persona ecclesiae and persona Christi. He’s the Church and at different times, Christ. He’s not only Christ, he’s also the Church. When he’s facing ad orientem, he’s representing the Church coming before the Bridegroom, Christ, who will come to the altar and give His Body and Blood to His bride. And we can give ours to Him.

That’s why in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, there’s that famous baldacchino over the altar that’s designed like a wedding canopy, from the Jewish wedding tradition.  Because they knew that the altar was like the mystical nuptial bed where there’d be the consummation of the marriage between Christ and His bride, in the Eucharist. And so the priest represents the bride Israel but when he turns towards the people he represents Christ. The only time the priest would turn towards his people is when he was in a sense “inseminating” the bride.  He was bringing something to them. Think about the ad orientem Mass. … When does the priest turn toward the people? When he’s blessing them. The Word of God and the Eucharist. Otherwise, he’s facing ad orientem. So like in the Old Testament temple, he’s taking on the persona of the church and of Christ. And the whole mystery that’s going on there is a spousal mystery…

All that is obliterated now when you turn the altar around and you made it all about us looking at each other. Not only that, but you reduced the entire sense of the transcendental. To whom are we praying? … [Y]ou lose that transcendence of God, the sense of hierarchy, authority, and you lose the spousal mystery. You’ve lost the most fundamental things by turning the altar around. You lose the reverence of the Eucharist.

The Negative Perception of Ad Orientem

CS: The question that stands unanswered for me is if you’re someone that has a negative perception of ad orientem worship in the Latin Rite, wouldn’t that perception carry on into the Byzantine Rite?

Fr. Loya: That’s a good question to back them into a corner. Because if they say yes, then that’s prejudice, discrimination, that’s arrogance. That’s elitism; that we [Byzantines] are wrong somehow. They stand on absolutely no historical foundation whatsoever. There was nothing that ever directed that the altar be turned around.

CS: When you hear certain Latin Catholics express their dislike of traditional liturgical staples like ad orientem worship, or sacred chant, elaborate vestments, and the use of incense, all things that constitute the norm in the Byzantine Rite, how does it make you feel when your own fellow Catholics say these things?

Fr. Loya: Most of the time they don’t say much; they don’t apply it to us because they don’t know we exist or they don’t know much about us. So I feel bad for them, and for the Latin Church because they don’t know their own tradition. They don’t know their own riches. The riches of the Latin rite church are vast and deep, but they’re lying fallow, covered and buried like in a chest, enclosed.

“Young People Love This Stuff”

… [A]round Christmastime, many churches do a Christmas concert. And they play this music from the Latin Rite tradition that is just beautiful beyond belief; all the stuff that was in the Masses. The music is absolutely gorgeous. This was the Latin rite. This is the riches of it. But now these traditions have to be done in a concert. They’re doing it in a church, but not [in the context of] a Mass. Can you imagine that? And you know what? That church is packed. Packed. Imagine a huge church, like St. Michael’s in Old Town [Chicago]. Imagine that type of church packed for these concerts. People are coming because they’re drawn to this magnificent music and words that were once said in that church as Mass.

… But you know what the hope is? Young people; they love this stuff because they weren’t told to hate it. My generation, they’re the ones that rebelled against [their traditions]. Go back to what Vatican II actually said. … It is not a modernization. Vatican II was a way of trying to restore a more authentic sense of “church”, where it was needed. … A lot that has come out of the Council was correct, like more lay participation, parish councils, and the restoration of the diaconate. …

[Regarding traditions like ad orientem worship], it’s not that you’re going “back” to them. It’s always been there. You’re not going “back”; you’re simply dusting off what always was, that which is good for all times.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Nicholas is 20-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet's monthly magazine, "Christ Is Our Hope".

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