Looking at Father’s Back

In honor of my beloved pastor, who has announced he is leaving in August to go to the Pontifical College Josephinum as a spiritual director, I thought I would rerun this post from a few years ago. Since writing this, I have officially registered and I have not “floated around” for three years – because he has made this parish a home. Thank you, Father Baker!


The parish I regularly attend (yes, I’m one of those annoying Millennials who don’t register at a parish and float around) is as traditional as I am; Mass is celebrated in the “ordinary form”, but Father is a firm “say the black, do the red,” priest who sticks to the rubrics, preaches great homilies, and does what he can to make the liturgy beautiful.  Mass is in the vernacular, with the exception of the parts of the Mass such as the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, etc.  Exactly what I like.

A few Sundays ago I realized that a striking feature of our Sunday worship no longer struck me.

Father celebrates Mass ad orientem, or, if you prefer, “with his back to the people.”  He began the practice last year, and recently something made me realize that I don’t even think about it anymore.  It’s as natural as singing the Alleluia before the Gospel, taking the collection up during the Offertory, or saying “Amen” before receiving Communion.  It’s just what happens every Sunday.

I suppose it is probably jarring to visitors (and as the downtown parish, the oldest church in the city, we have lots of them), but I found it pretty telling that it is something I don’t even notice it anymore.  I guess some would say that I’ve gotten used to looking at Father’s back … but I think it’s more accurate to say I’ve gotten used to praying with Father.

I never had trouble with Father “turning around,” because I never saw it that way.  I’ve heard objections to ad orientem worship, but I’ve never quite understood them.  (Maybe someone can enlighten me in the combox.) It’s not as if Father’s hiding anything from me — I can pretty much see everything he’s doing anyway.

Yes, I’m looking at his back… but I’m looking at the back of the person in front of me, too.  And we’re all facing the altar, the place of worship.  Father and I are together making the sacrifice, worshipping the Father through the Son. Pray brothers and sisters that your sacrifice and mine may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father

One complaint about Father facing the same direction as the congregation is that it separates him from us.  But in practice, I’ve actually found this to be the exact opposite.

Once Father goes around the altar and faces me, there’s a temptation to separate what he is doing from what I am doing.  If he’s going to be up there facing us, is this his Mass?  Is he celebrating Mass and I’m watching?  Is it his performance?  And why is it just him?  Who is he that he gets to be up there, facing the rest of the congregation?  So we start putting other people on the altar, or we start building churches in the round, so that we can all be equal again.  But wait… weren’t we equal when Father was up there facing the same direction as all of us?

I know some say that if the Mass is a meal, we should all be gathered around the table.  But haven’t you seen pictures of the Last Supper?  They were all on the same side!


Okay, kidding aside.

The error of liturgical theology these days is the opposite — to concentrate on the Mass as meal by excluding the Mass as sacrifice.   That’s not what we believe.  To stress one at the detriment of the other is to misunderstand the Mass.  It’s a both/and.  Likewise, if we celebrate the Mass as a sacrifice without understanding the Mass as a meal, we also misunderstand the Mass.  That is why we don’t just have the Canon of the Mass and offer, through the hands of the priest, the perfect sacrifice of Calvary.  There is also a partaking of that sacrifice — we receive Communion.  To pray the Canon (the Eucharistic Prayer) and then go home would be incomplete.  

Ad orientem worship doesn’t ignore the Mass as meal because it doesn’t exclude the very action that makes that Mass a meal.

So even if we aren’t gathered around the table, that doesn’t mean we aren’t recognizing the Mass as a meal.  It is far too prevalent these days to err by emphasizing the other side of things.

This post isn’t meant to be an exhaustive argument for ad orientem worship, or even a deeply theological explanation for it.  I just thought I’d share:

I’ve found it easier to pray with ad orientem worship.

It is not about Father, it is about all of us, united in the same sacrifice.  We bring our gifts up to the altar, he takes them into his hands, turns and offers them (with us) and the Son to the Father.  It seems natural – perhaps because it is.  I pray that more priests have the courage to do it, and more laity have the courage to try it before freaking out.

This post was originally published on May 18, 2014.

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