First Things: Ad Orientem and Absolutism

Fr. Charles Shonk, O.P.

Fr. Charles Shonk, O.P.

Ad Orientem and Absolutism
By Fr. Charles Shonk, O.P.


Shortly after Cardinal Sarah made a mess and, Francis-like, sparked some uncomfortable dialogue in the Church, I spoke with a priest of my acquaintance whose thoughts on liturgical orientation I couldn’t have predicted. A smart, practical padre in his mid-fifties, he’s known to have zero interest in liturgical niceties and scant patience for liturgical crusaders of whatever stripe. So I was surprised when he said he had recently attended a Mass celebrated ad orientem. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and he sat in the pews because he wanted to see it from the people’s perspective. It was a new experience for him, and he confessed that he liked it.

What impressed him was that, contrary to stereotype, this ancient style of worship engendered a spirit of cooperation and communication between priest and people. When the celebrant turned around to speak to the congregation—to say things like “Pray, brothers and sisters”—the words took on special force; one’s awareness of being directly addressed and invited to participate was heightened. Precisely because the priest had turned with the people to address the Lord, his turning back toward them and speaking to them was imbued with greater significance. In other words, vive la différence. Just as speech gains power from being framed by silence and loses much of its meaning when it is incessant, so one posture is enriched and informed by another. Even lovers would tire of facing each other if they did so every second of the day; and, liturgically, when there is no such thing as not facing the people, well, even that tends to lose some of its efficacy.


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