Cardinal Sarah’s pastoral call to “turn to the Lord” | Jeanette Flood | CWR
Some de-mythologizing needs to take place in order for many to accept Cardinal Sarah’s call to celebrate Mass “ad orientem.”
With Advent around the corner, one cannot help but wonder if any pastors or bishops will accept the controversial invitation Cardinal Robert Sarah made last July. As keynote speaker at the 2016 Sacra Liturgia conference, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments called for a “return to a common orientation of priest and people eastwards.” He urged that the change be implemented beginning on the first Sunday in Advent.
The news was met with intense consternation in some quarters and a tendency to paint Cardinal Sarah as a rogue throw-back, suffering from a warped nostalgia. With the dampening reaction made by the Holy See Press Office shortly afterward, followed by the considerable papal changes to the membership of the congregation, it is unlikely that there will be widespread implementation at this time, but it does not follow that there will be none.
What is clear is that a great deal of education and de-mythologizing must take place first.
I can understand the shock and even aversion to Sarah’s proposal. I was raised on the idea that before Vatican II, the Church was stuck in the Middle Ages and the priest said Mass with his “back to the people.” In fact, when the opportunity arose in the ’90s for me to attend ad orientem Masses, I avoided it for some time.
I was blessed to work in-house at Ignatius Press for two years. While I liked and respected the Press’ founder and editor, Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, I was a little hesitant to attend his Masses. I had grown up in the charismatic movement, and expected his style of Mass—while fine for those who liked it—to be too different from my spirituality for me to enjoy.
When I finally went, it turned out to be a real eye-opener. I was pleasantly surprised to find how much I learned and, ultimately, how perfect it was.
What really struck me was that Father didn’t “turn his back to us” the whole time as I expected, but frequently turned around to address us. As he explained to me afterward, “When I’m talking to the people, I face the people. When I’m talking to God, I face God.” He didn’t have his back to us but his face to God. He was facing God with us, leading us in prayer.
Years later, Father Fessio wrote:
I don’t say Mass “with my back to the people” any more than Patton went through Germany with his “back to the soldiers.” Patton led the Third Army across Germany and they followed him to achieve a goal. The Mass is part of the Pilgrim Church on the way to our goal, our heavenly homeland. This world is not our heavenly homeland. We don’t sit around in a circle and look at each other. We want to look with each other and with the priest towards the rising sun, the rays of grace, where the Son will come again in glory on the clouds.
Father Fessio didn’t come up with this all on his own. The director for his doctoral thesis was Joseph Ratzinger. In other words, Father Fessio studied with the future Pope Benedict XVI less than a decade after Vatican II. Ratzinger was not only present at the Council, in the capacity of a peritus (expert, or consulting theologian), but was a shining light there, a featured speaker on theological topics. As early as 1967, Ratzinger spoke of “exaggerations and aberrations” that had crept in to the new Mass, asking, “Must every Mass, for instance, be celebrated facing the people?”  This indicates that that orientation was not intended by the Council to be the norm.
The change took hold nonetheless (along with many others made in a free-form “spirit of Vatican II”). Years later, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger reflected: