Cardinal Sarah, Part Two: on Facing the Lord

ad orientemToday we continue our reading of Cardinal Sarah’s explanation of the liturgy.  In this second part of his article, the Cardinal continues his discussion of true “participation” in the liturgy by discussing the direction we face.  This is the finest thing I’ve read on an important topic.

Liturgy fans like to talk about “ad orientem” liturgy: when the priest, perhaps with his “back toward the people,” faces the same direction as the people.  This is an important issues, but there are many confusions.  First is the question of building churches that face east, also an important issue, but a different one; the priest can face the same direction as the people, or face the people, whether or not the Church faces east.   Second is the distinction of different parts of the Mass.  Sometimes it is appropriate for the priest to face the people: Vatican II did not “turn the altars” around, but one of its most important insights is that the ambo, from which Scripture is read, did need to be turned toward the people. Ratzinger is strong on this point, but Cardinal Sarah’s brief statement here is even stronger.

Finally, there is the question of the goal.  Ultimately, liturgy is not primarily about externals; sometimes we get so caught up arguing which direction the priest faces that we forget to lift up our hearts to the Lord.  Again, Cardinal Sarah’s formulation is fabulous: face-to-face leads to tete-a-tete leads to heart-to-heart.  Externals matter – when they help us internally.  And so this section concludes with a fine quotation from Thomas Merton, not on liturgy wars, but on recollection.

Here’s Cardinal Sarah:


406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003Liturgical participatio must therefore be understood as a grace from Christ who “always associates the Church with himself” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). It is he who takes the initiative, who has primacy. The Church “calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father” (§7).

The priest must thus become this instrument that allows Christ to shine through. As our Holy Father Pope Francis recently recalled, the celebrant is not the host of a show, he must not seek the affirmation of the assembly, standing before them as if they were called to enter into dialogue primarily with him. To enter into the spirit of the Council means—on the contrary—to efface oneself, to renounce the spotlight.

Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained, it is in full conformity with the conciliar Constitution—indeed, it is entirely fitting—for everyone, priest and congregation, to turn together to the East during the penitential rite, the singing of the Gloria, the orations, and the Eucharistic prayer, in order to express the desire to participate in the work of worship and redemption accomplished by Christ. This practice could well be established in cathedrals, where liturgical life must be exemplary (cf. §41).

Of course it is understood that there are other parts of the Mass in which the priest, acting in persona Christi Capitis, enters into nuptial dialogue with the assembly. But this face-to-face has no other purpose than to lead to a tete-à-tete with God, which, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, will become a heart-to-heart. The Council thus proposes additional means to favor participation: “acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as…actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes” (§30).

A hasty and all-too-human reading of the Constitution has led to the conclusion that the faithful must be kept constantly busy. The contemporary Western way of thinking, shaped by technology and dazzled by the media, has wished to turn the liturgy into a lucrative production. In this spirit, many have tried to make the celebrations festive. Prompted by pastoral motives, liturgical ministers sometimes stage celebrations into which elements of worldly entertainment are introduced. Have we not witnessed a proliferation of testimonials, acts, and applause? It is imagined that this will foster the participation of the faithful, when in fact it reduces the liturgy to a human plaything.

“Silence is not a virtue, noise is not a sin, it is true,” says Thomas Merton, “but the turmoil and confusion and constant noise of modern society [or of some African Eucharistic liturgies] are the expression of the ambiance of its greatest sins—its godlessness, its despair. A world of propaganda, of endless argument, vituperation, criticism, or simply of chatter, is a world without anything to live for…. Mass becomes racket and confusion; prayers—an exterior or interior noise” (Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas [San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1953, 1981], passim).



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *