Why does the priest have his back to the people?

At a typical Mass in the contemporary form, the priest and congregation face each other for the duration of the liturgy. While this orientation has become, unofficially, the norm for the Roman rite, in the scope of the Church's 2,000-year history it is a very recent innovation. Before the latter-20th century, the universal practice of the Catholic Church worldwide was for priest and people to face East (ad orientem), the direction of Christ's empty tomb and of his Second Coming at the end of time.[1] According to St. John of Damascus (ca. 676-749) this custom is of Apostolic origin.[2] Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote that before the change,

the common turning towards the East ... did not mean that the priest "had his back to the people": the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together "towards the Lord." ... The Lord is the point of reference. He is the rising sun of history.[3]

Mass ad orientem also has invaluable practical advantages: it helps keep the priest prayerfully focused on the holy sacrifice he is offering, and draws the attention of the congregation away from him and his peculiar characteristics, keeping their focus on the Lord whose minister he is.

Since not all Catholic churches are built facing East (due to landscape logistics), the custom that prevailed for the Traditional Mass is to face the same direction relative to the architecture, that is, toward the altar and away from the nave. Sometimes called "facing liturgical East," this arrangement facilitates uniformity and removes undue complications in following the rubrics. For churches with the tabernacle in the center of the altar, the priest offering Mass ad orientem can be said truly to be facing the Lord.

The separated Eastern Churches, and even some Protestants have maintained this ancient tradition. Martin Luther, the first to advocate "facing the people," never himself put it into practice;[4] and to this day Lutheran ministers in parts of Western Europe and Scandinavia face the same way as their congregations.

Within the Catholic Church, the modern orientation did not appear in any significant number of liturgies until the mid-20th century, when respected scholars such as Joseph Jungmann[5] and Theodor Klauser[6] asserted that it was the custom of the Primitive Church. Jungmann eventually retracted his position,[7] but by then "facing the people" had taken hold. It not only became the norm for the Roman rite, but was eventually introduced into some of the Eastern Catholic rites.

But what about the very first Mass, the Last Supper? Didn't our Lord face the Apostles seated around a table? On the contrary, liturgical scholar Louis Boyer writes:

In no meal of the early Christian era, did the president of the banqueting assembly ever face the other participants. They were all sitting, or reclining, on the convex side of a C-shaped table, or of a table having approximately the shape of a horse shoe. The other side was was always left empty for the service. Nowhere in Christian antiquity, could have arisen the idea of having to 'face the people' to preside at a meal. The communal character of a meal was emphasized just by the opposite disposition: the fact that all the participants were on the same side of the table.[8]

While at present the modern custom prevails in the larger part of the Catholic Church, the custom of Apostolic origin remains not only the rule for the Traditional Mass, but also a legitimate option for the contemporary Latin and Eastern rites.

1. Gamber, Msgr. Klaus. The Reform of the Roman Liturgy. Una Voce Press: San Juan Capistrano, 1993, p. 77 ff

2. De Fide Orthodoxa IV, 12

3. John Saward, trans. The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 80. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2000.

4. Gamber, p. 77

5. Missarum Sollemnia (1950), cited in Gamber, p. 151

6. Richtlinien für die Gestaltung des Gotteshauses (1949), cited in Gamber, p. 77

7. Gamber, p. 151

8. Liturgy and Architecture, pp. 53-54; qtd. in Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 78.


© Todd Aylard