Facing East

In a recent column in this space (“Latin Rising”), David Bonagura, Jr. wrote that the Latin language has a “sacral character and an immutability” that is making it once again relevant for Catholics. I agree, although after nearly half a century of vernacular, we have a long way to go to restore broad comprehension of the Tridentine Mass and the many Latin prayers and terms that once helped define Catholic life.

Consider the phrase ad orientem.

It’s the root of “orientation,” commonly meaning the act of getting one’s bearings, as in kids starting college. But the word’s most fundamental and original definition is actually ecclesial: “the building of a church or temple on an east-west axis with the chancel and main altar to the east.” Ad orientem.

Looking into the Latin origin of words and learning (or relearning) Latin phrases is a kind of spiritual archaeology. Out of time and dust come revelations. “Orientation,” for instance, is at the heart of the ongoing question of the position of the priest as he says Mass. In most churches, if the priest celebrates Mass facing the people, versus populum, he isn’t oriented. He too should be facing the altar, which is to say looking towards the holy city of Jerusalem.

As one is often reminded in daily readings of the Divine Office – which frequently recall Zion, Judah, Judea, Salem, Ariel, Jerusalem – our faith began in Israel. It explains the Holy Father’s longstanding instruction that we remember the Holy City.

Five years before he became Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that, notwithstanding various liturgical innovations, “one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying towards the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.” As he wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy:

The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall;” it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people.” . . . For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.” . . . They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us.

I suspect this still hasn’t sunk in with many priests and parishioners in churches throughout the Catholic world – even after Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, in which the pope not only makes it clear that the Tridentine rite may be celebrated anytime and anywhere, but also that Vatican II never actually mandated the vernacular. To be sure, that particular edict does not address orientation as such, but the two issues – facing the east and speaking in Latin – are hand-in-glove. When we worship and pray it ought to be in our universal language and towards Jerusalem, where Christ will return in glory.

I began thinking about all this, because in my ongoing pilgrimage through cyberspace, I recently came across the website of Most Holy Family Monastery in Fillmore, New York. The “traditionalists” there take the insolitus position that Benedict XVI is a heretic, in part because he knelt and prayed eastward – or, as they assert, towards Mecca—during the papal visit to Turkey at the end of 2006. And they have the photos to prove it!

More temperate observers will recognize that the Pope was simply “oriented.” The view of the Holy Family website suggests, as Jaroslav Pelikan once remarked, that whereas tradition is “the living faith of the dead,” traditionalism is often “the dead faith of the living.”

I should mention – before readers berate my imprecision – that not all Catholic churches are oriented. Indeed, there are famous exceptions to the rule, most notably St. Peter’s, the main altar of which does not face east. No one is certain why not, although conjecture has it that in the fourth century there was a vogue for celebrating the mass versus populum; others speculate that the jumbled “orientation” of many Roman churches has to do with the fact that they are, in origin, former pagan basilicas (Roman law courts, for instance) over the foundations of which Christian edifices arose. But no matter how many exceptions there are, orientation was always the rule – so much so that some ancient Romans assumed the earliest Christians were a cult of the rising sun.

I took my compass into a local church the other day. I stood in the nave, faced the altar, and was pleased to see it is oriented. A priest saw me and frowned. I walked over, introduced myself, and explained what I was up to. He sighed with great relief. “Good heavens,” he said, “I thought there was a new highway coming through.” Nope, just the old Way.

Brad Miner is the author of five books, including The Compleat Gentleman, a new edition of which will be published on April 22 by Richard Vigilante Books.

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  • Richard A

    Doesn’t “orientation” come from “oriens” which means “dawn”? Churches face east, toward the rising sun – as eventually acknowledged – so as to face “the morning star rising in our hearts”, Jesus Christ, the light who rose from the dead. It is only a happy accident, for Western churches, that facing the east also faces Jerusalem, but would not the ancient churches of Syria, Chaldea and Armenia also be “oriented”?

  • Brad Miner

    Richard A.: No doubt true re: “dawn,” but I think it’s clear that “orientation” (as opposed to the word’s older root) IS about facing Jerusalem. I have to admit I’m clueless about ancient Syrian, Chaldean, and Armenian churches, but I refer you again to Benedicts statement that “praying towards the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.”

  • Kirk Kramer

    Speaking of the liturgy – Louis Bouyer, the French theologian, pointed out that at the Last Supper, Christ our Lord prayed, not in Aramaic, the spoken language of his day, but in Hebrew, the liturgical language of the Jews. Hebrew in 1st century Palestine was as dead a language as Latin is today – which shows that praying in a language not understood by the people conforms to the practice of our Saviour, and has always been a part of God’s church, both in the old covenant and in the new.

  • Richard A

    Well, the old Advent hymn refers to Christ Himself as “Oriens.” Regardless, thank you for pointing out how the older liturgy built in the importance of both priest and people “getting their bearings” right from the start of Mass.

  • William Dennis

    We should remember that Latin was not used for centuries in great parts of Christianity. France and England continued to use the vernacular well into the ninth century. The Celts were most resistant to Roman imposed Latin. However, Latin is beautiful with a strong tradition. The Novus Ordo is here to stay and that is a good thing. But I think the interjection of Latin and some Greek into Mass is to be welcomed. Unfortunetly some people are resistant to Benedict’s Liturgical renewal. Why?

  • Eric Giunta

    JD Candidate, FSU Law
    Mr. Miner:

    A fine attempt at an article, but Richard is correct. Eastward worship is NOT AT ALL about facing Jerusalem, but about facing the rising Sun, a symbol of Christ. As Ratzinger himself points out in his SOTL, as the Jews prayed toward Jerusalem, toward the Temple, so Christians prayed toward the Sun, the symbol of Christ, as Christ Himself is revealed in the New Testament to be God’s Temple. Also, it’s not true that Saint Peter’s is not oriented. It is. When the Pope faces . . .

  • Eric Giunta

    JD Candidate, FSU Law
    . . . the people, he is facing East. Scholars tell us that over a thousand years ago or so, in basilicas like Saint Peter’s, at the Eucharistic prayer the faithful would turn around, their backs actually toward the celebrant, so that they would face East with the celebrant.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Interjection of What?
    Mr. Dennis writes of”the interjection of Latin and some Greek into Mass.” What the Council authorized was the interjection of some us of vernacular while retaining Latin. Many of those who resist the Pope’s renewel are innocents who swallowed the neoo-protestant banquet-not-sacrifice poison and now react to mere mention of the Tridentine Mass way the Dracula reacts to a crucifix. What are those who continue to peddle the poison up to?

  • debby

    my 4th attempt 2 write to all of you good brothers. you are all giving me so much stress w/your apparent quarreling over Latin standing sitting kneeling tongue hand sign of peace no sign..you get me.
    can i ask a question?
    when He comes to you,
    when you are just with Him,
    no expectations, no yapping,
    just breathing w/ Him,
    gazing on your ONE LOVE
    your heart echoing His,
    & He whispers His love to you…
    what language is He speaking?
    God embrace you more & more
    til you can’t breathe

  • Brad Miner

    I’m grateful for the comments–including the very civil corrections. But let me address Debby: What I was discussing here–and the other writers have commented upon–are details that may seem not about perfect love (and that’s true), but which are still important. Forms of worship matter and are worth considering, especially when our pope is accused of heresy. But none of us doubts that Christ’s love is all.

  • Aaron Aukema

    Unless Scott Hahn is mistaken, doesn’t the Euchartistic altar represent the altar of Heaven, the new Jerusalem? The older altars, with the Tabernacle immediately behind it, represent this quite well: the altar (on which the Lamb is sacrificed in Revelation) is immediately preceeding the Throne of the Almighty (the Tabernacle, or Holy of Holies). In this case, the priest in offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice is then offering it up to God, for the people assembled.

  • Aaron Aukema

    Its all Greek to me…
    Latin is the language of the Church, our universal language, just as Greek is the language of the Eastern Church. The prayers are all written in those languages, and the words used reflect our shared theology and understanding of who God is, His love for us, and our complete need for Him. Often, in the attempt to translate those prayers from Latin (or Greek), much of what is orthodox theology is lost. Perhaps this is why the Vatican is approving a new translation for us.

  • Kirk Kramer

    The Holy Father has explained very well why the way we worship matters to our life in Christ: “The liturgy is not a festivity; it is not a meeting for the purpose of having a good time. The liturgy is what makes the Thrice-holy God present amongst us; it is the Burning Bush; it is the alliance of God with man in Jesus Christ, Who has died and risen again.”

  • Sunil Korah

    I am from India and if we want to turn to Jerusalem we have to face west. So how do you explain.
    I cannot understood the logic of saying prayers in a language you cannot understand. If Jesus prayed in Hebrew at the Last Supper I am almost sure that the Apostles with Him could follow Hebrew. If you study Jesus’ actions it was always bringing people in contact with God, and I am sure he would not say something which would be mumbo jumbo to his hearers.

  • Terra

    This is a useful article, but I have to say I really object to sedevacentists being described as ‘traditionalists’. There is no Tradition outside the Church, and to tar those who can genuinely claim the term within the Church (such as the FSSP and ICK) with the same brush is unfair.

    Particularly when faithful traditionalists have been quietly arguing the case for ad orientem and Latin for forty odd years, while others have seemingly just discovered it…

  • David Bonagura Jr.

    More Latin
    To add another Latin phrase, our liturgical orientation is to be versus Deum, toward God, who is object of our worship. The ad orientem altar facilitates this focus, which Pope Benedict has stressed. Placing a crucific on the versus populum altar also does this, as the Holy Father has written about and done in his pontificate.

  • Brad Miner

    To Sunil Korah: You make a great point. I wonder what the Church instructs in this regard–when you are east of Jerusalem.. As to hearing the Mass in the vernacular, the Holy Father has made it clear that we should have Masses in our own languages, but also that there should be no barrier to hearing it in Latin. Imagine the soiritual power of the world’s Catholics praying in a single language. Not at every Mass perhaps but at some.

  • Patricia K

    My study group has spent this year studying the liturgy and spent a fair amount of time on orientation of worship. We used “The Spirit of the Liturgy” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger); “The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Backgrounds” (Msgr. Gamber); and “Turning Toward the Lord” (Fr. Lang). I took a quick look at some of my notes from this group and pasted them below as they are relevant to the discussion you’re holding here.

  • Brad Miner

    Patricia K continues
    I’m taking the liberty of breaking up Patricia K’s wonderful comments so we can fit it all on the site-Brad:
    1. According to the Holy Father (SL), we don’t know exactly when but very early on Christians turned from worshipping toward Jerusalem to worshipping toward the East.
    2. Fr. Lang supports this in his research: Early Christians- in private and liturgical prayer turned no longer toward earthly Jerusalem but toward heavenly Jerusalem… rising sun was an expression of this eschatological hope (Lang p. 41)
    3. Early Church practice based on understanding of Scripture in early Church: Syrian ‘Disascalia Addai’, 4th cent. “The apostles therefore appointed that you should pray towards the east, because ‘as the lightning which lightens from the East and is seen even to the West, so shall the coming of the Son of man be’ Mt 24:27 . By this may we know and understand that he will appear suddenly from the east.” (Lang p. 47-48)
    4. Origen, Augustine, St. Thomas – That Christians faced East to pray was accepted practice in early Church
    5. Eschatological significance: Praying to the East means going out to meet the coming Christ (Ratzinger)

  • Pustumus

    The “most fundamental and original definition” of “orientem” is not ecclesial (it predates the Church), nor is the fundamental meaning even “east.” Oriens is the present participle of the verb orire, to rise. Oriens means rising. By extension it is the direction of the rising sun, east.

  • Brad Miner

    Patricia K. continues, 3
    On the question of versus populum and westward oriented churches. It’s true that there is a debate about why certain churches in Rome and N. Africa were built with westward oriented apse during the 4th century. Any argument that churches were built this way for the priest to face the people though has been discredited. In those churches that did have an apse that oriented westward, what mattered was that the priest turn toward the East during the Canon. He turned toward God and where the people were was not important:
    1. “… neither in the Eastern nor the Western Church was there ever a celebration versus populum – rather, there was only the practice of turning towards the East while praying” (Gamber p 77)
    2. Fr. Louis Bouyer “The idea that the Roman basilica is the ideal design for a Christian church building because it made it possible for the priest and the people to face one another is complete nonsense. That would have been the last thing that the early Christians had in mind.” (Lang p 165)
    3. “Never, and nowhere, before that (16th century) have we any indication that any importance, or even attention, was given to whether the priest celebrated with the people before him or behind him… the only thing ever insisted upon, or even mentioned, was that he should say the eucharistic prayer… facing East…” (Bouyer in Gamber p79)
    4. Idea that priest should face the people originates with Luther “… the altar should not remain in its current form and the priest should always face the people – as, we can undoubtedly assume, Christ did during the Last Supper.” (“The German Mass and Order of Worship”) (Luther is wrong also about how “undoubtedly” Christ stood at the Last Supper but that’s another topic)

  • Brad Miner

    Patricia K. continues, 4
    The Holy Father on what to do now from “The Spirit of the Liturgy”
    “Where a direct common turning toward the east is not possible, the Cross can serve as the interior “east” of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community.”

  • Postumus

    As to language, not only should there be “no barrier” to Latin, but perhaps we should actually follow the instructions of the 2nd Vatican Council: “. . . the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites”; “. . . a suitable place may be allotted to [the people’s] mother tongue. . . . Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them”; “. . .the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office.”

  • Brandon

    Liturgical Directions
    From New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11305a.htm

    I’ve always understood that the liturgical east need not be the same as the physical east. Like many things Catholic, the practice (the priest’s orientation in this case) has a sacred meaning that is more than just a symbol.

    Remember, the gospel was (and in some parishes still is) proclaimed to the (liturgical) north, the direction of darkness and home of pagan tribes (think Northern Europe), where the Good News is needed most!

  • Padraig O’

    Retired Catholic Educator
    Well, I love the latin mass and I also love the English language Mass. It’s the Mass that matters! We come to gather around the table with one chosen from among us to celebrate the Eucharist. The readings and the word ala the synagogue or the temple and the table we surround as the apostles did with Jesus. Let’s not get into angels on pinheads again. IT’S THE MASS THAT MATTERS let’s celebrate it and participate in it with faith and joy and not get hung up on compass bearings.

  • dr david pence

    There are a lot of Christians east of Jerusalem. Christian ad orientem is more than facing a city like Mecca. It is grounded in both a physical reality and a Christological understanding. The earth really is turning that way. We see the morning sun and new sky only in the east–everywhere on earth. Facing the east of the coming sun or Jerusalem-points us to the coming Christ . Orietnation is not arbitrary. Our prayer posture recruits the physical order in bowing to Christ.

  • David Tomosini

    Would it not be advisable to know all things before we speak? Do you not know that even before you think GOD already knows what you are going to say? Is it not written that our tongues are an UNRULY evil and no man can control his? Have you ever noticed that when the heart speaks the tongue is silent? I see a lot of nonsense “Search the Scriptures then, believe me, you will not have time to squabble over the things of satan for you will be busy on your knees Thanking GOD till HE come.

  • Brad Miner

    To David Tomosini
    Mr. Tomosini: We might more appreciate your comments if we knew what the heck you were talking about.

  • David Tomosini

    Did you read what was wrote? I am laughing at what is going on,people tripping over themselves whether they should do this or that and who is right and who is wrong when all along satan lies back and laughs at the amount of upheavel he is causing. Yourselves being the perfect example. “Ye know nothing” as I do but one thing I do KNOW “Christ and HIM crucified.” I remember speaking to a priest recently and asking him why they still have an Altar? Please, its not Catholic just Romanisim.

  • Bassball_Batman

    So some specific churches in Rome and north Africa are occidented, i.e. aligned to the west, hm? Well, that might have to do with the Jerusalem Temple itself being occidented. I suppose the High Priest faced east when sacrificing on Yom Kippur. But the entry way was from the east, and the Most Holy Place (the presence of God) was located at the west end. Some sources say that places of worship in the earliest ages for Christians were occidented to commemorate the Jerusalem Temple. Also, I only know of facing toward Jerusalem as the axiom lasting from the longest, given that in the eastern land (either Persia or Shinar), Daniel looked out a window to pray toward Jerusalem — which clearly had to be westward. So I know Jerusalem has its significance, but I don’t know of east being singled out as holy any more than west in either Testament. It could be that rising-sun orientors mis-interpreted Jerusalem oriention as using the sun for symbolism, and that the “rising-sun” practice caught on from then forward.
    And I agree with Tomosini about schismatic upheavals and petty things that divide us, given that Christ’s death and resurrection should be uniting us.