People, Look East

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 32C

For one of the breaks from school I had during college seminary, I decided to visit the home of a classmate from the Diocese of Joliet in Illinois. He also came from a large family, and during the week they would load up their van to attend Mass each day in a parish on the outskirts of Chicago. Mass there was pretty much what I was used to, with maybe just one or two exceptions. 

When the priest went to the altar for Offertory and the Eucharistic Prayer, he faced the tabernacle, the same direction as most of the people. He also spoke in such a way that it was clear he was talking to God and not to the people assembled there. Otherwise, the Mass was in English as usual, and it was fairly ordinary. As someone in the pews at that time, I was amazed at what a difference it made, just to have the priest facing the same direction, all of us facing and praying to God together. After being ordained a priest, there was a time at Holy Spirit Parish in Sioux Falls when the skylight was leaking onto the altar, so for a regular weekday Mass, I simply used the opposite side. On his way out, one of the parishioners commented, “I really liked that, Father. It felt more like we were all praying with you, rather than being talked at or just watching.” 

The practice of ad orientem worship (literally, “towards the East”), with priest and people facing the same direction, goes back for more than 1000 years in the Roman Church. If Jews faced Jerusalem to pray and Muslims faced Mecca, Christians traditionally faced east, the direction of the rising sun, because when Christ, the “Sun of justice,” returns again—it was always thought—He will appear in the east (Cf. Malachi 4:2). Impressively enough, both St. Anthony in Hoven and St. Augustine in Bowdle are built in such a way that in saying Mass toward the high altar and tabernacle, both priest and people actually face east. But even in churches where this is not the case, Christ present in the tabernacle or represented by the altar and crucifix was considered liturgical east. 

This is all so much to say that I would like to begin using the high altars in our churches for the celebration of Mass during the Advent and Christmas seasons, when we especially look forward to Christ’s return at the end of the age and celebrate His first appearance among us in human flesh. This should also simplify setup for the concert in Hoven. I realize many of you have been to Mass celebrated this way before. I hope our openness and appreciation for how the Mass was prayed for so many centuries will continue to mature and deepen. 

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