Vatican slaps down liturgy chief’s call for priests to say Mass facing east

[Austen Ivereigh] The Vatican has rejected a call by the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Robert Sarah, for priests to return to the pre-Vatican II norm of saying Mass “facing east”, while making clear that no new norms or rules are in the offing.

The 71-year-old Guinean cardinal, a longtime champion of traditional liturgy, told a conference in London last week that it was important “that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction — eastwards, or at least towards the apse — to the Lord who comes.”


Cardinal Sarah

Although his comments established no new norms, his position as head of the Church’s central liturgy office led some to interpret them as signalling a new direction — back to the practices prior to the Second Vatican Council, when priests celebrated Mass with their backs to the congregation, facing east.

Speaking at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London on 5 July, Cardinal Sarah issued an unequivocal invitation to clergy to ensure that “in our celebrations, the Lord is truly at the center” by adopting the ancient ad orientem practice.

He even added: “I ask you to implement this practice wherever possible.”

He continued: “Your own pastoral judgment will determine how and when this is possible, but perhaps beginning this on the first Sunday of Advent this year… may be a very good time to do this.”

Cardinal Sarah also spoke favourably of “the possibility or the desirability of an official reform of the liturgical reform”, an expression used by traditionalists seeking to abrogate some or all of the changes introduced following Vatican II.

The unequivocal statement, which stunned those who heard it at the conference, was greeted in some traditionalist circles as a marking a significant change in Catholic liturgical practice. Under the headline, ‘Cardinal Sarah asks priests to start celebrating Mass facing east this Advent’, the Catholic Herald described it as “the biggest liturgical announcement since Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum gave greater freedom for priests to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass.”

But following a meeting between Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah last Saturday, the Vatican has made it clear in so many words that the cardinal had no right to suggest anything of the sort.

Fr Lombardi

Fr Lombardi

Its spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said that some of the cardinal’s words were “misinterpreted, as if he were announcing new indications differing from the liturgical norms given until now, and the words of the Pope on the celebration towards the people and on the ordinary rite of Mass.”

He also explicitly rejected Cardinal Sarah’s reference to a “reform of the reform” in liturgical practice, saying that phrase is “at times the source of misunderstandings.”

Fr Lombardi reminded journalists that the General Order of the Roman Missal, which regulates the liturgy, “are still fully in force”. No. 299 states that “the altar is built separated from the wall, so as to be able to move around it easily and to celebrate looking towards the people, which is convenient to realize wherever possible. The altar is to be place in a way so as to really constitute the center towards which the attention of the people spontaneously converges.”

In other words, although priests are allowed to celebrate Mass ad orientem, the norms encourage clergy to celebrate facing the people.

Fr Lombardi went on: “Pope Francis, for his part, on the occasion of his visit to the Dicastery [Congregation for Divine Worship] has expressly recalled that the “ordinary” form of the celebration of the Mass is that envisaged by the Missal promulgated by Paul VI, while that “extraordinary” (form), which was permitted by by Pope Benedict XVI for the purposes and the modalities explained by him in the Motu Proprio “Summorum Pontificium,” must not take the place of the “ordinary” (form).”

He added that this clarification was “expressly agreed during a recent audience given by the pope to the said Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.”

The clarification reinforces a message from the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, to his clergy sent last week in response to the Cardinal Sarah lecture.

Cardinal Nichols

Cardinal Nichols

While noting that the CDW had confirmed in 2009 that Mass could still be celebrated facing east, the instruction also reaffirmed that “the position towards the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier”. Therefore, said Cardinal Nichols, “the expectations expressed in GIRM 299 remain in force whenever the Ordinary Form of Mass is celebrated.”

Cardinal Nichols added that the Mass was not the time for priests to “exercise personal preference or taste” and that, “as the last paragraph of the GIRM states so clearly, ‘The Roman Missal, though in a diversity of languages and with some variety of customs, must in the future be safeguarded as an instrument and an outstanding sign of the integrity and unity of the Roman Rite’ (399).”

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