The third (and final) collection of my weekly bulletin blurbs on the parish saying Mass ad orientem. See here and here for previous ones. Happy Advent and Merry Christmas!
IX. Every Thursday the school Mass is a “Quiet Mass” which means there are no hymns and no homily. Sometimes I hear students mistakenly call it a “Silent Mass”, even though it’s definitely not silent. It really isn’t even much quieter than other days, but Quiet was what it was called at Lincoln schools by administrators who thought it would be good to show students that daily Masses can be done at different levels of bells and whistles. It is in fact impossible to have a silent Mass.
One Sunday a parishioner said I was taking us back to “The Old Mass”. We are of course not saying the Latin Mass as it was said here in 1962, aka the Tridentine Mass or the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The clearest sign of that is the fact that you hear what we priests say after the Holy Holy. If you attend an Extraordinary Form Mass, the biggest change wouldn’t be the altar or the Latin (both of which are still normative in Masses after Vatican II), it would be not hearing the Eucharistic Prayer. This led some people to call it “the silent canon”, but it is actually just spoken quietly so most people only hear a whisper. But again, that is not what we have. As I’ve said before, the bigger shake up was the change in translation in 2011. We are saying and doing all the same things, we now are just doing them as one worshipping people.
X. What makes Catholic worship different? What makes our worship distinctly Catholic? We know there are differences of theology, and that we would insist that the bread and wine are transformed into Jesus at our Mass, but to an outside observer, what makes Catholic worship different from, say, the Sunday worship at a Protestant mega-church? I think two things that Catholics would likely emphasize is that Mass is 1) traditional, and 2) it “isn’t about us”. By traditional I mean that we do what we have received from two thousand years of Christians before us, and that our local church, or even our whole country, isn’t able to just invent new ways of celebrating the Eucharist. And “it isn’t about us” means that priest, choir, ministers, and people all have liturgical guardrails that focus our energies and that resist impulses to make Mass “my personal thing”. At Mass you won’t find big testimonies from the pulpit, clapping after a solo, impromptu spoken prayer, or tinkering with the readings. We have our places for the individual and the spontaneous. In fact, we think they are great things, but they aren’t built into our communal worship of God. Returning to Mass ad orientem highlights these two distinct Catholic features. For well over a millennium leading up to 1965, our tradition was not priest and people facing each other across the altar like a table. And having the priest only face the people at key moments when Jesus would be addressing them helps both celebrant and congregation remember that worship isn’t about them.
XI. In this, my last column about the Mass, I’m going to touch on what some priests have talked about first when introducing Mass ad orientem. Three years ago, our Bishop started celebrating this way as Advent began and he talked about the connection of facing East as one people (even if just a liturgical East) and standing, waiting, for the Lord to come. Some priests have preached this angle too as they launched ad orientem and some parishes pray this way only during the Advent season. There definitely is a connection, since the first part of Advent is about longing for and awaiting the Second Coming, and the colors of purple and rose represent a dark sky with the dawn breaking, heralding a new day. Advent is the start of a new year, and its quiet, solemn, conscientious focus on Jesus’ first and second comings can be greatly benefited from us praying ad orientem. So if parishes want to give it a quick try, this season makes a lot of sense. In the end I chose to not connect our praying this way with Advent because 1) we are always awaiting Jesus’ return, 2) our minds need awhile to get used to things, and 3) my reasons to switch back were rooted more in the psychology of prayer than in the liturgical calendar, but it’s also neat to know that throughout the diocese there are quite a few parishes praying like this, as our rose colors announce the coming sunrise.