Pope Francis and the Crowd. As I write this (on Wednesday morning, July 24) reports from World Youth Day (July 22-29) in Brazil cause me great concern about Pope Francis’ safety. You may have heard how the Holy Father’s driver supposedly “took a wrong turn” and wound up driving into a mob—that God it was a friendly crowd, but even friendly crowds can be unsafe. Of course, Pope Francis doesn’t seem to care too much about his own safety, as he wants to be close to the people. But while I can appreciate that, I’d also like him to be able to do so for many years to come. So let’s keep him and all the young people gathered in Brazil in prayer, for their holiness, but also for their safety and wellbeing. Viva il Papa!
Hermeneutic of Continuity. Clearly Pope Francis is applying his own pastoral approach to his pontificate, especially as we see his emphasis on simplicity and the poor. In doing this, however, he has clearly not rejected the important contributions of his immediate predecessors, Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. We see this in his homilies as he regularly quotes from their writings, and especially in his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, which he acknowledges as being largely written by Pope Benedict.
One of the most important contributions of John Paul and Benedict , working closely together, was to provide the intellectual basis for settling the great theological confusion that had developed after Vatican II. Benedict summarized their approach by distinguishing between what he called “hermeneutic of discontinuity” and the “hermeneutic of continuity.” [hermeneutic: a principle of or key to interpretation]. He pointed out that the hermeneutic of discontinuity sees a split between the pre-Vatican II Church and the post-Vatican II Church—almost 2 different churches, with different sets of doctrines and beliefs. But the correct understanding follows the hermeneutic of continuity, which sees only one Church before and after the council. What was taught as true or considered for centuries by declarations of popes and councils to be good or helpful for the faithful, cannot be declared false or bad by subsequent generations of the Church—even by a council or a pope.
One key area where Pope Benedict particularly chose to shine the light of continuity during his pontificate was in the liturgy, reminding us that Vatican II called for a reform of the liturgy but not for a complete rupture with the form of Mass in place since before the 6th century. And so, in 2007 he recognized the right of all Catholic priests to say the old “pre-Vatican II” Mass, thus encouraging an awareness and appreciation of continuity in worship between the “Old Mass” and the New. (Note: he was expanding a practice already allowed by John Paul).
And looking at the differences between the Old Mass and the New Mass (the Mass we say here every Sunday) one of the greatest differences is the practice in the Old Mass of the priest offering Mass, as some say, with “his back to the people”—now, of course, the priest normally stands at the altar “facing the people.” But nowhere in the documents of Vatican II (or even the current instructions ) does it ever mention or require this change.
In fact, this “turning the altar around” came about because of weak scholarship, perhaps influenced by the hermeneutic of discontinuity, that concluded that the earliest practice of the Church was for the priest to say Mass facing the people. The problem is, a few years later other scholars proved that the most ancient practice of the Church was the opposite: the whole church, congregation and priest, turned together in prayer toward the East. It ties back to the practice of first century Jews in places like Rome to turn toward the temple in Jerusalem—toward the East (“ad orientem”)— when they prayed. The Christians picked up the practice but for them the East represented the rising of God the Son, the light of the world, turning in expectation to await the second coming of the Messiah. And so the priest led the people in symbolically turning and praying toward God.
Benedict wrote extensively about this “turning toward the Lord” in Holy Mass, and, following the hermeneutic of continuity, he encouraged priests to follow the ancient practice, and often did so himself.
Some people say that when the priest “faces East” it’s as if he’s turning his back on the people and excluding them from the Mass. But as Benedict/Ratzinger wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy: “[this] did not mean that the priest ‘had his back to the people’… [I]t was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, …together …in a procession toward the Lord…’” Furthermore, when he faces the people: “the priest… becomes the real point of reference for the whole Liturgy. Everything depends on him… Less and less is God in the picture…”
Others say we should face each other as a community gathering to eat the Eucharistic meal, like the Last Supper. But as Benedict wrote: “…in antiquity. …the head of table never took his place facing the other participants. Everyone sat or lay on the convex side of an…horseshoe-shaped table. …The communal character… emphasized…by the fact that everyone …[sat] on the same side of the table.” He continues: “The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle… [I]t no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is locked into itself. … [the early Christians] did not gaze at one another, but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ….”
Ad Orientem at St. Raymond’s. Ever since I arrived at St. Raymond’s 3 years ago many parishioners have been asking me to incorporate this more traditional approach here. I have postponed this change because I knew it would strike some of you the wrong way, and I wanted to give you a chance to get to know and trust me first.
That being said, and counting our mutual respect for each other, I am announcing that sometime in September we will begin offering Mass “ad orientem” every Sunday at the 8:45 Mass. This means that after the Prayer of the Faithful the priests will stand at the altar facing toward the high altar and tabernacle—just like you do—leading you in prayer to the Lord.
I know this will be disconcerting for some of you—discontinuity is like that. But there is a greater continuity to be remembered here. I ask you to please to be patient and open minded, and to prayerfully consider my reasons for this addition. If after a few months of adjustment it proves to be widely unpopular, I will reconsider. But remember: it’s only one Mass, and all are free to attend one of the other six Masses offered here every Sunday.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles