History, symbolism behind direction of worship

In July, Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, suggested that beginning this Advent, all bishops should celebrate Mass “Ad Orientem.” By this, the Cardinal means celebrating Mass facing “toward the East” (Ad Orientem), which typically involves the priest and congregation facing the same direction. What is the basis of Ad Orientem, and what does it mean to celebrate Mass this way? Why would Cardinal Sarah suggest this is how the liturgy should be celebrated?

Like most things in traditional Catholic liturgy, Ad Orientem stems from Biblical Judaism. In 1 Kings 8, Solomon dedicates the Temple, stating that anyone who prays toward it will be heard and answered. Daniel 6:11 also demonstrates this practice when Daniel opens his window and faces Jerusalem to pray. Archaeological excavation confirms this, telling us that ancient synagogues usually faced the Temple in Jerusalem. This practice became a way to continue seeing Jerusalem as home, as stated in Psalm 137:5, “If I forget Jerusalem, then let my right hand forget its own strength.” In modern Judaism, this practice is known as “Mizrah”, which is Hebrew for “east,” just as “Orient” means east in Latin. According to the Talmud, when outside of Israel, one would pray toward Israel; in Israel, Jerusalem; in Jerusalem, the Temple; in the Temple, the Holy of Holies.

A New Testament reason for praying towards the east can be found in Matthew 24:27: “For as the lightning shines from the East and is visible even as far as the West, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Many of the Church Fathers, such as Tertullian and Origen, also testify that facing east for prayer and the liturgy was standard. Saint Augustine wrote, “When we stand at prayer, we turn to the east, whence the heaven rises.” Saint John Damascene concurred: “Since … Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2) and Dayspring, the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship.” Archaeological evidence also supports east-facing worship in early Christianity. In the excavated Dura-Europos house church, the platform reserved for the bishop, presbyters, and the altar was at the east end of the house.

Worship towards the east also remained pervasive in the medieval era. Durandus’s thirteenth-century Rationale of the Divine Office states that building churches with the altar towards the east and the doors towards the west was standard. Later, he writes, “the Priest at the Altar and in the Offices [should] pray towards the East.” So where did the idea of facing the people come from?

The precedent for celebrating Mass facing the people is the exception of Old St. Peter’s Basilica (c. 350), which was built facing west. Thus, when the Pope celebrated facing east, he happened to be facing the people as well. This is because St. Peter’s was originally built as a martyrium (a memorial over a martyr’s grave or site of martyrdom) and therefore was not designed with the celebration of Mass in mind. Furthermore, constructing the basilica facing east, with the altar still over St. Peter’s tomb, would have required extensive excavation because the tomb is located on the western slope of a hill. Later Roman churches mimicked this practice by facing the people, regardless of geography.

The broader controversy surrounding the direction of worship has largely developed in the modern era. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, many dioceses used the example of St. Peter’s to justify celebrating Mass facing the congregation. However, while the Council allowed this change, it was not endorsed. For instance, Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy includes a short chapter illustrating the longstanding practice of liturgical East and noting that the Second Vatican Council “says nothing about ‘turning toward the people.’” Although the General Institute of the Roman Missal (GIRM) does explicitly mention turning towards the people six times, the implication of these statements is that the priest does not normally face the people. The GIRM also mentions “facing the altar” several times, alluding to an orientation where the altar and the congregation are on opposite sides of the priest.

As Pope Benedict XVI notes, “Praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.” From the Church’s pre-Christian Jewish origins to the mid-twentieth century, praying toward the east has been the norm of Catholic worship. If you would like to experience an Ad Orientem Mass firsthand, we invite you to attend Masses sponsored by the Children of Mary, on Saturday at 10 a.m. or Sunday at 9 a.m. in the Alumni Hall Chapel.

Go forth and share the Good News.

This article was brought to you by the Theology Club’s Zossima Project: Making prayer an education. For a complete works cited, please email zossimaprojectnd@gmail.com. Thank you for your readership.