Ad Orientem Catechesis

A Priest reflects on how Ad-Orientem changed his parish

Fr. Richard Heilman, pastor of St. Mary's Parish in Pine Grove, WI reflects on 5 years of Ad-Orientem worship in his parish.  


Father Totton's Catechesis on Ad-Orientem Worship

What is Mass?  

Many years ago, on a cold and snowy winter’s morn, I was preparing for a weekday Mass in the sacristy at St. James. Due to the weather conditions, the congregation was lighter than normal –_the sacristan and the server’s mother were the only two souls in the pews – as time for Mass approached, the server, a boy of about 12 or 13, stopped to ask me, “Father, if nobody showed up, would you still celebrate Mass?” I answered his question with one of my own: “Matthew, if we could say that the Mass has an ‘audience’ who would that be?” With surprisingly little reflection, the server answered the question in one resounding word: “GOD!” “That’s right I said, now ring the bell, and let’s get started!” To this day, I am edified when I think about that young man’s grasp of the Mass. To ponder his insight is to be reminded that Mass is primarily an act of worship! I call this to mind when it looks like a smaller-than-usual congregation has gathered or when we have a “quiet” Mass due to lack of music support, or when those gathered, in the case of a funeral, for example, are unfamiliar with the responses that so many of us take for granted. I am also mindful that whenever the Mass is celebrated, the entire company of angels and saints is present, as we are transported, mystically, to God’s throne in heaven. Still, there is something about basic “religion” (a word, the root of which means to be “re-connected”) by which one is helped by the presence and fervent participation of other believers. One of the most remarked upon phrases of the Second Vatican Council is “full, conscious and actual participation in the liturgy.” Though the meaning of this phrase has been interpreted (and sometimes misinterpreted) in many ways, at its root, it means that the believers gathered are united as members of the one Mystical Body of Christ, to offer Jesus’ Sacrifice to the Father. This “full, conscious and actual” participation happens primarily through our prayerful interior disposition at Mass, not so much by exercising special “ministries” within the Mass such as reading or serving or ushering, etc. To be sure, we need readers and ushers and servers, but those duties do not, in and of themselves constitute “full, conscious and actual participation” otherwise, the 95% of faithful who are “merely” in the pews are deprived of the opportunity to exercise full, conscious and actual participation. Another aspect of Mass about which some are confused is its entertainment value. This usually comes to the surface when people describe Mass by what each “gets out of it.” Usually, when someone says this, they are talking about whether or not they enjoyed the homily, or whether or not the music was “uplifting”. To be sure, since the homily is part of this act of worship, it should be edifying to help the faithful enter into the worship, but we don’t come to Mass merely to hear Father’s musings! Thanks to the “magic” of the internet, one may now read any number of excellent bulletin reflections from priests throughout the world and have a better experience than they might have listening to the homily. If we judge Mass by how entertaining we found it to be, then we are missing the point! The same may be said for music. One may listen to any number of recorded songs of a quality or style far surpassing that which can be done in the average parish (with all due respect to our dedicated and skilled musicians) but the music at Mass is for the purpose of worship, not entertainment. When we sing at Mass, with the assistance of our music ministers, we are singing as an act of Divine Worship! GOD is our “audience”. The texts of the Mass also highlight the degree to which Mass is an act of Worship (of the Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit.). Easily over 85% of the Mass texts are prayers directed to God the Father. It is true that some of the texts involve a dialogue between the priest and the faithful (“The Lord be with you…” for example) but the vast majority of Mass texts indicate that the priest celebrant, Sacramentally configured to Christ, is speaking to the Father, language of Sacrifice, language of Divine Worship. All present at Mass are asked to exercise Full, Conscious and Actual Participation at Mass by uniting their prayers to those of Jesus through the prayers being offered on His behalf by the priest celebrant. In this regard, the priest, acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) is leading the Faithful in Divine Worship.

The Dawn From on HIgh Shall Break Upon Us!    

One of the privileges afforded me during my years in the seminary was an extended pilgrimage “in the footsteps of St. Paul”. Traditionally, the seminary had sent the seminarians to study for several weeks in the Holy Land. Because of elevated tensions at that time (2002-2003) the decision was made to modify the pilgrimage, and we went instead to trace the footsteps of St. Paul in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), Greece and, finally, Rome. To this day I am grateful for having had this opportunity which so few people will ever get. It has truly given me a greater appreciation for the realityof the early Church in places like Antioch, Ephesus, Troas, Iconium, Thessalonika, Corinth, and, of course, Rome. To this day, when I read the Epistles of St. Paul, I can see the ancient cities where once fledgling Christian communities were. As with any travel, part of the “joy” is to experience other cultures: food, language, customs, etc. Istanbul (once known as Constantinople) is, they say, “where east meets west.” This fascinating city, in fact, straddles the geographic divide between the continents of Europe and Asia. The architecture was very “eastern” and yet a common sight in the city was the pastry shops called “patisserie” a French word meaning “pastry shop” where croissants were displayed alongside delectable Turkish delights confected from filo dough and a bounty of pistachios. Though officially “secular”, modern Turkey is the heir of a storied religious past which includes early and medieval Christianity as well as the Islamic rule of the Ottoman Empire. This is evidenced in a profound way in the iconic building known by the Greek moniker “Hagia Sophia” a term which translates into English as “Holy Wisdom”. This historic 1,500-year-old edifice was constructed as a Christian cathedral and later converted into a mosque under Ottoman rule. The conquering Muslims destroyed much of the beautiful Christian iconography within this church and re-fitted it to be used a mosque. When I visited Hagia Sophia I was struck by the presence of a beautiful and ancient screen which evoked images of a high altar but, again, devoid of Christian imagery. The odd thing is that it appeared off-balance within the large semi-circular chapel it occupied. Upon further reflection I discovered that this screen, or prayer station, had been constructed to replace the original Christian High altar, and its primary purpose was to indicate the geographic direction of the city of Mecca! As a Christian church, Hagia Sophia was built on an east-west axis with the sanctuary facing due east because of the ancient Christian custom of facing eastward – toward the rising sun, an early symbol of Jesus’ Resurrection – for communal prayer. When the Muslims re-purposed this church as a mosque, they shifted the focus of their prayer towards an earthly city, Mecca, revered by Muslims as the focus of prayer indicated by Mohammed. At that moment it struck me, that, as Christians, our prayer is directed towards a triumphant God who comes to us from outside this world (as the sun is apart from the earth) and will return again “from the east” as it were. The custom of “orienting” (“oriens” is the Latin term for “east”) Christian churches is one of ancient origin which continues even to this day, though sometimes practical concerns (roadways, topography, etc.) intervene. You will note that both of our parishes are built in an east-west axis: St. Joseph faces east (by the way, it is sublime to watch the morning sun gradually illuminate the rose window in the sanctuary!); whereas, presumably because of the 7th Street. grade, St. Ann faces west. Actual geography aside, the interior of our churches are ordered to convey a sense of “spiritual geography”, a movement or procession “eastward” in anticipation of the Lord’s coming which was proclaimed in Zecharia's Benedictus:  "In the tender compassion of our God the Dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the ways of Peace."  (Luke 1:78-79)  

People, Look East!

...thus begins a familiar Advent hymn. It might also describe a call for us to re-orient our worship. Above, I shared about my experience visiting Hagia Sophia, the ancient Christian Basilica in Istanbul. I am surprised by the positive reactions of many Catholics who are interested in, even fascinated by, such an ancient church half a world away! In comparison with our churches today – even those which are “old” by North American standards – there is something truly “otherworldly” about a place like Hagia Sophia, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or even Paris’ gothic Notre Dame Cathedral. The very design of the architecture is intended to transport us to another time and place. It is intended, I dare say, to transport us to another dimension altogether. As I have stated in earlier bulletin columns, when we are at Mass, we are simultaneously present at Calvary, at the Lord’s Supper and before the very Throne of the Lamb in Heaven! When I was a student at Conception Seminary College, the monks were in the process of a months-long renovation of their century-old Abbey Basilica. In the final days prior to the re-dedication, they were giving informal tours and I remember hearing a lady, a non-Catholic who was working with the visiting “bloodmobile”, comment: “WOW! If something on earth can be so beautiful, imagine what heaven must look like!” To this day, her words have left an impression upon me. Our churches, however humble and simple they may be, should have the ability to convey the grandeur of the action which takes place therein. Where we have lost this, we should seek to recover it, not only by restoring the grandeur to our church buildings, but also by restoring grandeur and meaning, where lost, to our liturgical celebrations. Those of you who lived through the Second Vatican Council will remember the breakneck pace with which changes followed the closing of the Council. It must have been an exciting – and perhaps disorienting – time to experience so many changes so quickly, and with very little time to reflect. As with anything, two people may have even remember the same event in two entirely different ways. Once I asked my Dad about how he experienced the changes at Mass (he had served the Latin Mass as a boy and was 20 years old when the council began) He kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, “the Fathers knew best…I guess.” Others embraced the changes with a greater enthusiasm and still others dug in their heels and called for a moratorium on change altogether. Today I would like to reflect on a significant change which was made – almost universally and almost instantly – which was not even called for by the Second Vatican Council, but one which is often attributed to that Council. This change involves the shifting in the position of the priest at the altar. Prior to “Vatican II” almost every priest celebrating Mass would stand at the altar in a common direction with the people addressing their prayers to God (a position sometimes called “Ad-Orientem” which means “toward the ‘east’”). . Within a short time following the Council, it became almost universal practice for the priest to stand behind the altar facing the people, which has given some the mistaken impression that the priest, rather than God, is the focus of the Mass. Since Mass is not entertainment, but Divine Worship, and the object of our worship is God, we might wish to revisit the question of posture and direction of the priest. In fact, two years ago, Robert Cardinal Sarah, the Church’s chief liturgist, made this plea: I believe that it is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction—Eastwards or at least towards the apse—to the Lord who comes, in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God. This practice is permitted by current liturgical legislation. It is perfectly legitimate in the modern rite. Indeed, I think it is a very important step in ensuring that in our celebrations the Lord is truly at the center. I have read many encouraging articles written by priests and lay people who have experienced a return to the ancient practice recommended by Cardinal Sarah. I wish I had room to share them all with you. The popular author, Fr. Dwight Longenecker offers the following advice to help his readers understand such a shift in direction: At the heart of the Christian experience is repentance and conversion of life. The word metanoia or repentance actually means “turning in a new direction.” Therefore, at Mass when we orient ourselves toward the tabernacle, toward the Lord’s presence, we are turning in a new direction—turning away from ourselves and toward him. There are various times within the celebration of the liturgy when the priest can turn toward the East with the people: during the penitential rite, the Gloria, the prayers of the faithful and the prayer of consecration. The full text of Fr. Longenecker’s article is worth a read. It may be found online at: Finally, I would direct your attention to a brief video regarding Ad-Orientem worship which I have posted on our parish website. You can also access it directly at

An Invitation to Adventure

You find above reflections on the meaning of the liturgy and the direction of our liturgical prayer. Now I am taking a bold step, and I invite you to join me on an adventure which I think will leave a positive and lasting impact on the liturgical life of our parish: Beginning next Sunday, December 2, the First Sunday of Advent, and continuing through the Epiphany, Sunday, January 6, we will celebrate Mass Ad Orientem, that is, the priest will stand in front of the altar, facing in the same direction as the people as he leads them in prayer directed toward God the Father. I know that this represents a significant shift in our practice and may take some getting used to. We will use this time of Advent and Christmas as a period to experiment with a return to this ancient practice. While I welcome feedback and input (written, verbal, etc.) on this practice, I would ask you to patiently wait until January before providing such feedback – open yourselves to the experience and see how it impacts your prayer life and your attendance at Mass before forming your opinion. For those of you old enough to remember the Mass before the Second Vatican Council, you may fear (or hope!) that this shift represents a “turning back the clock”. I assure you that it does not. Our regular Sunday (Ordinary Form) Masses will continue to be conducted in an audible English, and those parts of the Mass which involve proclamation of the Word or greetings addressed to the people will be offered facing the people. On the other hand, for those parts of the Mass in which the priest addresses God, he will turn to face the altar. This has sometimes been mischaracterized as “the priest turning his back on the people” and while that statement may be technically true, it does not represent neglect nor disdain for the people any more than a classical conductor “turns his back” on the people at a symphony when he is addressing the members of the orchestra.  Great minds suggest that plenty of catechesis (teaching) should be provided prior to attempting such a shift. I have tried to be insightful, yet subtle, but I am also of the opinion that one can also err on the side of overexplanation which comes off as overly apologetic or has the effect of reducing the action to one or two practical reasons and reduces or eliminates the element of Mystery in our prayer. Parishes throughout the country which have adopted this direction for their liturgical prayer have reported it as a positive experience, helping their members to experience the Mass in a deeper dimension of prayer. It is my hope that this experience brings each of us to a greater appreciation for the Mass, and enables us to enter more fully, consciously, and actually into the Mystery of Divine Worship. You legitimately may ask “where are we headed?” I would hope the ultimate answer to that question is: “Heaven”. In the meantime, I hope that this period of experimentation will facilitate an honest discussion about the direction of our prayer and whether or not this is something that we should consider adopting as a regular practice in our parish. We cannot have that conversation, however, until after we have experienced this practice at least through this short season of Advent and Christmas. I would like to close with a heart-felt appeal to each of you: Please, open yourselves to this experience; set aside pre-conceived notions about this form of prayer and enter into this time with a sense of adventure about where the Spirit is leading us to grow in our discipleship of Jesus Christ. 

 - Fr. Joseph Totton

Why Ad-Orientem?

EPIC VIDEO: *Ad Orientem*