At daily Mass and first Sunday Masses, we celebrate the second half of Mass Ad Orientem, meaning “To the East” in Latin. This means the priest and people will all be facing the same direction, towards the Eucharist. As with all changes and improvements at our parish, we are doing this to help us pray and grow in holiness and love of God.
On First Fridays and every time we have exposition/adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, notice that the priest is always facing the Eucharist in front of the altar. It’s something quite beautiful: The whole community, including the priest, deacon and servers, are all together looking towards Jesus and going toward Him. Adoration is hugely popular among young people and many have conversions when they adore the Blessed Sacrament; when everyone’s adoring Jesus, it’s a kind of encounter with Him. Similarly, facing East during Mass will become a kind of encounter for everyone.
There are two ideas that we always have to keep in mind as Christians: that God is transcendent (He is beyond us), and that God is immanent (He’s present among us). Whenever we celebrate Mass facing the same direction, it reminds us that God is beyond our world and we’re looking towards something heavenly. One of the reasons why, after Vatican Council II, the priest faced the people is because it was focusing on the fact that God is present right here, when everyone surrounds the altar facing Him. But, we’ve lost the sense that God is majestic and heavenly, and the awe and wonder of the One who comes to us. So we need both: We need to remember that Jesus is among us but also beyond us.
One of the most practical reasons for Ad Orientem is because most people aren’t aware when the priest is speaking to the people and when he is speaking to God. This becomes clear when we see the priest turn around and address the people, and then turn back again and pray to God. It becomes obvious that we’re all praying together toward God. The priest is a mediator who stands in between God and the people. He prays for them and then brings them God. And we see this very clearly when the priest changes which way he’s facing.
Ad Orientem does not mean that the priest has his back to the people—that’s a sociological interpretation and has never been the way Christians see this. For the vast majority of Church history, this is the way Christians celebrated Mass. Nor does this mean that we’re going backwards in time. Here at St. Anthony’s we do many things that are modern, like having flat screens in church, showing videos when necessary during the homily, having welcome announcements before Mass, modern music, Alpha in a café, etc. But before any of these changes, the question always is: Does this help us grow in prayer and love of God? We’ll try Ad Orientem a few times and see if it helps us.