If you are skeptical about this practice or even frustrated by it, I encourage you to read or listen to this homily slowly and prayerfully. And then I encourage you to experience it. Many a person has thought they were going to hate it but once they gave it a chance they even preferred it.
(11 follow-up blurbs in the bulletin: here and here and here.
And related homilies on high altars and the turns used in ad orientem.)
I wish I had a hat.
I wish I had a hat for Mass.
I don't mean a biretta, the little black pillbox-shaped hat you see on priests in old movies.
It doesn't tell you much.
Just comes off and stays off.
I want a hat that tells you what I'm up to.
Something like a bishops hat.
I mean, I don't want to be a bishop! That sounds horrible!
I just want the hat for Mass.
So you'd know whom I'm talking to.
Did you know that?
Bishop's hat tells you who he's talking to.
When he’s talking to the people= hat on
and talking to God the Father = hat off
It's beautiful and very handy.
The best that I can do is use my arms:
For the priest, talking to the people = hands folded
God the Father = extended up and out, beseeching God
Invite to the people- quick open and close
Beginning of Mass:
"The Lord be with you." <quick open>
"Brothers and sisters let us acknowledge our sins" <hands folded>
and then after "Let us pray",
"O God, who manifest your almighty power..." <hands open>
I first noticed the hat trick when I was a seminarian with Bishop Bruskewitz on Good Fridays.
10 petitions: "let us kneel; let us stand"
Hat on, hands together: “Let us pray for those who do not believe in Christ…”
"Let us kneel, let us stand"
Hat off, arms apart: "Almighty ever-living God, grant to those who do not confess Christ
that, by walking before you with a sincere heart,
they may find the truth…”
And then once I was ordained I realized I did the same with my arms:
First I noticed on Good Friday, I had to do my little priest version of the Bishop
And then realized all of the Mass and sacraments followed the rule: hands together to talk to you; hands open to talk to the Father
Probably never noticed in 20, 40, 60 years
We priests try to help our arms out in this effort
I try to look up to Father,
down to Jesus on altar,
and then directly at you when I'm talking to you and only when talking to you.
But honestly I don't know how well that works:
My eyes are kinda beady, glasses
And look, my body isn't doing my eyes any favors in this quest.
I'm trying to use little eyes and maybe my chin to tell you I'm talking to the Father, but my shoulders are squared up facing you.
My whole body is turned to you.
I can say that I'm worshiping God.
I can say that I'm talking to the Father.
I can say, like all good priests should, that “The liturgy isn't about me."
You can say, like all good Catholics should, that Mass isn't about just gathering the people and celebrating the community.
But at the end of the day, you're looking at me.
And I'm facing right at you.
Mass is supposed to be the people of God, worshipping the Father, through the work of Christ the Son.
Mass is supposed to be this pilgrimage the Church takes to the heavenly kingdom.
And yet, communal worship and a parish pilgrimage are both the kinds of things people do side by side, shoulder to shoulder:
As companions on a journey, soldiers together in the fight.
Some things are done best face to face, like teaching and instruction.
But when it comes time to worship, praise, and adoration, that is something best done shoulder to shoulder
Side by side.
With Jesus front and center gathering our prayers and leading us.
And with the priest standing in for him when necessary.
And so that is why I am inviting you all to join me in a specific spiritual exercise.
To help us see anew, more clearly, what it is we are coming here to do.
Our bodies speak a language, and I want them to speak that language as clearly as possible.
So I invite you join me, for at least the next year, in praying together, as Catholics did for centuries and millennia, with the priest and the people facing in the same direction, as one family.
Instead of you facing me, and me facing you, and us both still trying to talk to God—let's all face forward.
I mean, a bishop's hat might do the trick;
My arms and the eyes have tried to signal what we're doing;
But when the whole body turns, it's unmistakable that I'm talking to the Father and we're all praying together as the Church.
This form of worship is often called ad orientem which is Latin for "toward the east", because often churches were built with their sanctuaries pointing east.
Ours here is south. (The Vatican is west)
But really ad orientem is shorthand for "the priest faces the same direction as the people"
Before I go any farther with what can be a controversial idea, I want to draw attention to today’s Second Reading, from Paul to the Philippians.
Even though Paul loved the people of Philippi most, and always had the least to complain about with them (compared to the Galatians, Corinthians, etc) he spends two chapters begging them to remain united, peaceful, and granting patience and charity to each other, with humility and self-sacrifice.
He says today. “If there is any encouragement in Christ,
any solace in love,
any participation in the Spirit,
any compassion and mercy—
complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love,
united in heart, thinking one thing.
And so too do I beg you to hear me out as to the reasoning behind this,
to give it a fair shot from an honest and humble heart,
and I ask that, as we grant each other charity and patience, we strive to be a family—“united in heart” as Paul says.
I want to explain what this is not
What it actually is
Why we are doing it
And maybe answer a few questions in advance
First, what this is not:
This is not a sudden, knee-jerk thing.
People have been talking about this for decades, and our bishop wrote about it and encouraged it in Advent three years ago.
And if I have remained in Doniphan, I would’ve started over a year ago, but I felt I needed to wait a year once I was moved to Wahoo.
But also notice what else this is not:
This is not just a thing for Advent… or Lent.
There are some places that do ad orientem worship in some seasons:
Prague, Plasi, Weston, Touhy for example
The downside of just doing it for a month is that a person who is skeptical can just grit their teeth and white-knuckle through it for four weeks.
Or heck, it’s Saunders County. Up here there’s always another church 8 miles away that a person can hide out in.
We need time to dive in fully, to worship, and to see how it changes our prayer.
Also, I don’t want us ever starting to think: “Oh good, it’s Christmas; Father will be looking at us again!”
The whole idea of ad orientem is to minimize the priest’s personality and maximize God.
Like John the Baptist said, “He must increase; I must decrease.”
Also, what is this not? It’s not rolling back Vatican II or the New Order of Mass.
First, there is not one word in the documents of Vatican II suggesting we should have Mass facing the people.
Secondly, every Roman Missal, English or Latin, for the last 48 years, is written as if the priest and the people were facing the same way and the priest has key moments when he turns to the people.
Third, if you’re old enough to remember the last time Mass was celebrated with the people and priest facing the same direction, and so this feels like you’re going back in time, please note how much else has changed since:
We’re not banning guitars and insisting on Gregorian Chant.
Not having the whole Mass in Latin, and saying large chunks of it silently.
We’re not demanding that everybody only receive Communion on the tongue, kneeling, and at a Communion rail.
There is no reason to feel disconnected from the Mass or the priest.
Everything is still said aloud and with full voice, in English, using the exact same prayers and Order of Mass.
If you hear someone say later, “I heard Fr. Faulkner is taking St. Wenceslaus back to the old Pre-Vatican II Mass," you can gently correct them.
We’re not looking for the Old Mass.
I don’t know how to say the Old Mass.
I understand that at the Old Mass sometimes people could feel like mere spectators.
There was probably something a bit off at the old High Mass when the priest, choir, and congregation were all singing and quietly reciting the Gloria at different paces.
But honestly I don’t think the feeling of separation came from the priest facing ad orientem.
It more likely came from the Latin—even in the readings—and from some long stretches with the priest speaking only under his breath.
I think, on the contrary, you will be amazed about how much more you feel a part of the Mass.
I talked to four priests of our diocese, all of whom did ad orientem beyond the four weeks of Advent the Bishop suggested in 2014.
All of the feedback they got was along these lines:
A girl in CCD in Sutton wrote to Father: “I finally get the Mass now!”
A priest did one school Mass at St. Cecilia’s and a teacher who would’ve been the perfect age for having been taught growing up “Father had his back to us until the Council fixed it” came up to him after with tears in her eyes saying, “That’s the most I have focused at Mass in years.”
Ok, so then what is it?
In praying with us all facing together we are united as one church,
worshipping our one Father,
through the person Jesus
who offers the sacrifice of the Cross
to his Father.
One of our boys from Wahoo was at ordinations this summer and Bishop Conley said Mass ad orientem and he was asking me about it afterward and “Ok, I get not facing the people, but why not face the tabernacle then, if we’re talking to Jesus?” since the tabernacle at the Cathedral is off to the left side.
And I explained that Mass actually isn’t directed to Jesus. There’s literally only two spoken prayers to Jesus.
Mass is us getting in on Jesus’ prayer to his Father.
Some who have objected to the priest facing forward have used a pretty solid Catholic argument for it: “But, Father, you guys are standing in persona Christi—in the person of Christ—so you should face us.”
But that is the brilliance of ad orientem: the priest is in the person of Christ, and so when Jesus would be talking to you, the priest turns to you, and when Jesus would be talking to the Father, the priest turns and leads us all in talking to him.
So at the gospel, the homily, Communion, the “The Lord be with you’s”, and at the “Pray brethren, that my sacrifice and yours”, he’s face-to-face with you.
But when it’s time to worship, he turns forward and we pray together.
I don’t need that hat any more.
Heck, I don’t even need arms!
Ad orientem is like the ultimate “What Would Jesus Do?”
Notice, we don’t find this orientation weird in other kinds of prayer:
When we have Eucharistic adoration, nobody finds it odd that the priest kneels on the step and he and the servers pray, and sing, and swing the incense ad orientem.
At a funeral rosary, what are we doing? We are interceding on the deceased person’s behalf. So we all together kneel and beseech God’s love and mercy for that person.
Stations of the Cross? Zero eye contact. No problem.
We get this pretty instinctively.
And we know that when a person is for the most part not looking at us, and then they suddenly do, it takes on a new poignance.
Imagine people gathered to listen to a reading of “A Night Before Christmas”
If the reader is a famous actor and he’s always looking up and making eye contact and stuff, you’re like, “Yeah, he’s a good reader and he knows the story well.”
But if the reader is your old grandpa and the whole family is gathered to listen, Yeah, he might not be as smooth and look up from the book a lot, but when he looks up and catches your eye just when he reads your favorite line, or when he looks a Grandma always at the same part every year… Uhhf, those little looks just kill you, don’t they?
That’s what happens in ad orientem.
When the priest breaks from what he’s doing for a moment to draw you in, or show you the body of Jesus.
It’s interesting that, almost everybody on the planet is more open to ad orientem than American Catholics.
I know some Protestant churches that do parts of their worship this direction.
In Europe, people realize that depending on the place and the space, Mass might be ad orientem today.
Pope Francis, not exactly a liturgical traditionalist, has said Mass ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel before.
But some places recognize pretty directly that it’s a better way to let go of one’s self and one’s distractions and pray better.
Taizé is an ecumenical monastery in France.
That means its monks are literally a mix of Catholics and Protestants.
You actually know their music:
Jesus remember me.
Eat this bread drink this cup.
There is one Lord.
They drive home to all those who do Taizé style prayer services and meditative singing (Catholic and Protestant) that they all need to face the same way.
Two different articles:
“It is preferable for all the participants to face the same direction during the prayer, as a way of expressing that we pray not to one another but to Christ.”
And: “During the prayer it is better if no one directs the music; in this way everyone can face the cross, the icons or the altar. (In a large congregation, however, it may be necessary for someone to direct, as discreetly as possible, a small group of instruments or singers who support the rest, always remembering that they are not giving a performance for the others.) The person who begins the songs is generally up front, together with those who read the psalm, the reading, and the intercessions, not facing the others but turned like them towards the altar or the icons.”
If that’s true for an ecumenical prayer service, how much for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass??
So, why are we doing this?
I am asking that we doing as a spiritual exercise for at least one year.
What do I mean by a spiritual exercise?
I mean that in the same way a person goes on retreat,
or adds a holy hour,
or does something new and different for Lent,
we are going to be launching ourselves out into new, different, uncharted waters.
And that is good.
When a person goes on a retreat, the change in location—even the dislocation—is part of what makes it effective.
The single best, most formative experience of my first 20 years of being a Catholic was when my home parish remodeled the church.
But the game-changer wasn’t the new pretty paint job.
It was that I had made a deal with God that for Advent I would go to 6:30 Mass every morning for a friend who had a drug problem.
And at that time the church was under renovation, so we had Mass in a musty room in the old parish community center.
An old flimsy wood altar,
20 metal folding chairs,
and off-key old people.
I wasn’t soaking in the gorgeous music my parish had,
and the stunning windows,
and the Gothic architecture.
It was just the Gospel, the Eucharist …and me 8 feet away.
I needed that stripped-down Mass.
It changed me.
It made me forever a Catholic.
It made me choose the priesthood.
New spiritual exercises are good for us.
And what does this exercise do for us?
Humans are face creatures.
You take a class on Communication and half of it is about our body language and what our faces convey to people.
Who we face and how we talk actually generates a lot of unspoken communication to the person and also loads unintended perceptions in us.
When we seminarians had to take classes before visiting the sick, huge emphasis was placed on talking to the person in the bed, even if family members tended to beat them to the punch and answer before they could.
Same thing when talking through an interpreter: you look at the person in question and ask things to them in the second person. You don’t look at the interpreter and don’t ask “Does he feel better today?”
Our looking speaks a language to our fellow conversationalist,
to anyone watching,
and subtly it writes notes in our own heads about that relationship.
So this exercise not only cuts down on the distractions, but also clarifies in our own minds whom we are talking to and whom are here for.
You know how almost every 2- or 3-year-old waves to the local priest and says “Hi God.” or “Bye Jesus” after Mass?
I did some hunting on that.
Understand: Jokes about little Catholic kids are fairly universal.
From lots of different eras, we find stories of seven year olds confessing “adultery” in their first confession because they though it had to do with being disrespectful to adults.
Kids have been slaughtering the Act of Contrition for decades:
"Oh my God, I am hardly sorry for having defended you… I firmly pretend with the help of my grace to confess my sins and end my life.”
But from my tiny little bit of research, I can’t find examples of the “Hi Jesus” trope except in the modern era.
It makes sense:
You tell your kids we’re going to God’s house, and well, we’re always there facing the priest and talking back and forth.
It’s interesting that I don’t find evidence of that specific slip-up from the era when the priests were facing toward the altar.
Yes, of course kids grow out of this.
And obviously adults don’t think that the priest up front is God or even remotely like him.
But I do think that we will see Mass differently when the priest is positioned, less like an actor on a stage and more like a servant in a temple.
Maybe that helps the priests pray better too.
I’ve preached long, so I want to answer just one question that I can foresee coming:
“Father, does this have any thing to do with the changing up of the building campaign and with eventually renovating the church?”
No… and a tiny yes.
No. Because I purposely picked a random Sunday in Ordinary time so that we could do this exercise independent from anything else.
Not in Advent, not with more Latin, not attached to other changes.
Someone heard of my plans and suggested that once we start this I should move the crucifix from here over to the center of the sanctuary.
But I remembered my 7th grade science teacher who taught us the scientific method, beating into our heads that, if we want a good experiment, we can only change one independent variable at a time.
So actually I purposely detached this one change from all other considerations.
There is a small Yes, in that I think a parish should have at least looked at both postures of worship before trying to redesign their sanctuary.
There is more to explain on that but I am out of time here.
That, and about 10 other items—which I didn’t have time to get into here—I am going to start explaining bit by bit in the bulletin over the upcoming weeks.
To end, I want to say that this was not something I frivolously wandered into.
This was something that I resisted intensely all through my time in the seminary, and a only slowly came around to in the priesthood as the arguments for it piled up.
I never did it in any of the previous Advents when the Bishop talked about it because I wanted to do it at a moment when I could explain it, and when it wouldn’t get confused with just being about one season or be the kind of thing we just endure for a month.
Even now, there are things that I will miss about Mass versus populum—facing the people.
But I'm willing to give those things up.
Because I think this makes us better prayers, better worshippers, a better more united family.
There are plenty of arguments for it based on theology and history, but I have chosen to present the reasons from the psychological and practical angles.
Let us pray together to our Father.
We have tried with our arms and with our eyes, now let us put our whole body behind it.