Why did versus populum (the priest facing the congregation) become commonplace after Vatican II, when ad orientem ("facing east," with the priest's back to the congregation) was the norm before Vatican II? Did a Vatican II document prescribe versus populum?

Example of shelf style altar

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    In many older churches, especially in Europe there are altars that make it an obligation for a priest to say the New Mass "ad orientem", facing east. Visit St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican for example.
    – Ken Graham
    Dec 26, 2016 at 19:21

3 Answers 3


No Vatican II document said that priests must face "toward the people" (versus populum). In fact, all Masses today can be celebrated ad orientem ("toward the east," the same direction the people face, which is toward the tabernacle).

During the aftermath of Vatican II, Otto Nussbaum's study, which concluded that versus populum was the norm in the first four centuries of Christianity (although this is disputed), influenced many modernists today who want to return Christianity to its "primitive roots." Versus populum is also in accord with Vatican II's relative anthropocentrism.

From the FIUV position paper "4: Liturgical Orientation":

Missale Romanum (2002), Institutio Generalis no 299:

‘Altare exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebration versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit.’ (‘Let the main altar be constructed separate from the wall so that one can easily walk around the altar and celebrate facing the people—which is desirable wherever possible.’

‘Quod’ (‘which is’) naturally refers to the first clause of the sentence, not the second, which is subordinate to it. See C.M. Cullen and J.W. Koterski ‘The New IGMR and Mass versus populumHomiletic and Pastoral Review June 2001 pp51-54.

  • Of course, at St Peter's Basilica and some other Roman churches of ancient foundation, the celebrant is both ad orientem and versus populum at the same time. Dec 27, 2016 at 22:19
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    Would you mind altering "with the priest's back to the people" to the less disapproving "facing the same way as the people"? The priest isn't turning his back on the people; he's facing east as they are. Dec 27, 2016 at 22:22
  • The gospel is clear in Matthew chapter 26, Jesus is facing the Apostles the chosen Bishops when He instituted the "First Sacramental Mass", and at Calvary, Jesus the High Priest became the "real sacrifice" and He is facing the People of God at the foot of the Cross, in both Sacramental and Real Mass, Jesus the High Priest is facing the People of God. So, Jesus had shown "versus populum" and not "ad orientem". The "ad orientem" was seen when Mary the Virgin Priest was described by St.Luke as "standing" at the foot of the Cross contrary to Jesus who is sitting at the Last Supper. Dec 24, 2019 at 6:20

Why did “versus populum” (instead of “ad orientem”) become commonplace after Vatican II?

Before getting into the crux of this question, let us see what the origin’s of this tradition might be. We can not truly understand this issue unless we can understand its’ origin.

Early evidence of Christian praying towards the east

Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220) says that, because Christians faced towards the east at prayer, some non-Christians thought they worshipped the sun.

Clement of Alexandria ( c. 150 – c. 215) says: "Since the dawn is an image of the day of birth, and from that point the light which has shone forth at first from the darkness increases, there has also dawned on those involved in darkness a day of the knowledge of truth. In correspondence with the manner of the sun's rising, prayers are made looking towards the sunrise in the east."

Origen (c. 185 – 253) says: "The fact that [...] of all the quarters of the heavens, the east is the only direction we turn to when we pour out prayer, the reasons for this, I think, are not easily discovered by anyone."

Later on, Fathers of the Church such as John of Damascus advanced mystical reasons for the custom.

Origin of the practice

The primitive Church had no knowledge of the origin of the practice. Origen says: "The reasons for this, I think, are not easily discovered by anyone." Although the general custom among Jews was to pray towards the temple in Jerusalem, Clement of Alexandria, Origen's older contemporary, says that the custom of praying eastward was general even among non-Christians: "In correspondence with the manner of the sun's rising, prayers are made looking towards the sunrise in the east. Whence also the most ancient temples looked towards the west, that people might be taught to turn to the east when facing the images."

In 1971, Georg Kretschmar proposed a connection between the Christian custom of praying towards the east and a practice of the earliest Christians in Jerusalem of praying towards the Mount of Olives, to the east of the city, which they saw as the locus of key eschatological events and especially of the awaited Second Coming of Christ. In his view, the localization of the Second Coming on the Mount of Olives was abandoned after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, but the eastward direction of Christian prayer was retained and became general. Stefan Heid rejects his theory, but Lang holds that it is not without reasons to support it.

Martin Wallraff held that at the time of the formation of Christianity Jews prayed as commonly towards the east as towards the Jerusalem temple, but Lang considers that the eastward posture was rare among Jews. It was the practice, Paul F. Bradshaw says, of the Jewish sects of the Essenes and the Therapeutae, for whom "the eastward prayer had acquired an eschatological dimension, the 'fine bright day' for which the Therapeutae prayed being apparently the messianic age and the Essene prayer towards the sun 'as though beseeching him to rise' being a petition for the coming of the priestly Messiah." - Ad orientem (Wikipedia)

Celebrating the Mass facing the people is a centuries-old practice, although the vast majority historically said the Mass facing east.

After the Council, detailed directions for the celebration of the revised form of Mass were drawn up, including an instruction that the priest should celebrate Mass facing the people.

No, I am not referring to the Second Vatican Council or Inter Oecumenici or the GIRM. This was the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563), and the relevant documents were prepared under the leadership of St Charles Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan. He had not attended the Council, but he became a major implementer of the disciplinary reforms that the Council promulgated. Many of these were about removing superstitious ceremonial from the Mass; others spoke directly to the conduct of bishops and priests. The former were to avoid silken vestments, expensive furs, rings other than the episcopal ring; the latter were to exhibit restraint in their clothing and personal furnishings. Both were expected to exercise simplicity and moderation in every aspect of their lives. The splendor of faith was to be preferred to ornate display. You might say that St Charles anticipated the call for ‘noble simplicity’ of a later Council.

He also wrote extensively about the construction and furnishings of churches, in a document published in 1577, Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae. Chapter 10 speaks about the principal chapel of any church:

The site of this chapel must be chosen at the head of the church, in a prominent place and on an axis with the main entrance. The back part should face east, even if there are houses behind it. It must not face to the east of the summer solstice, but towards that of the equinox.

If this is not possible, the Bishop can decide and permit that it be built facing another direction, but in this case care must be taken at least that if possible it does not face north, but south. In any case the chapel in which the priest celebrates Mass from the high altar facing the people, in accordance with the rites of the Church, must face west.

In other words, orientem means simply “east”. When the priest celebrates at the main altar, facing the people, “in accordance with the rites of the Church”, he is to face east.

The historian John O’Malley asserts that Borromeo sought to standardize and promote a number of liturgical practices. Some were broadly adopted – for instance, placing the tabernacle in the center of the main altar. Others, which Borromeo had advocated, were not – O’Malley cites celebration with the priest facing the people as an example.

Uwe Lang speaks about Borromeo in his book about the orientation of liturgical prayer:

… the archbishop of Milan says that the capella major must be oriented, with the main altar facing east. Where this is impossible, it can be directed towards another cardinal point (except north) but preferable toward the west, ‘as, in accordance with the rite of the Church (pro ritu Ecclesiae) the sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated at the main altar by the priest with his face turned towards the people.’

But Lang airily dismisses this as an exception:

Borromeo must have had in mind those Roman basilicas with a westward apse and an eastward entrance, where Mass was celebrated facing the people; this practice was no doubt familiar to him. Still, for Borromeo, the eastward direction was the paramount principle for liturgy and church architecture.

Celebration facing the people did not become normative, as (per O’Malley), St Charles Borromeo had wished it would. But this bit of history seems to give the lie to claims that celebration facing the people was a fabrication of the 20th century liturgical movement, or of misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council. - Celebration facing the people: a centuries-old practice

While the current edition of the Roman Missal assumes that Masses are to be celebrated “ad orientem,” it is also permitted to celebrate “facing the people”. So, both ways are allowed.

No Vatican II document said that priests must face "toward the people" (versus populum). In fact, all Masses today can be celebrated ad orientem ("toward the east," the same direction the people face, which is toward the tabernacle). However, modern church architecture has made all but impossible to do so in many regions.

In many older churches, especially in Europe there are altars that make it an obligation for a priest to say the New Mass "ad orientem", facing east. Visit St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican for example.

There is no one correct answer as to why so many priests celebrate Mass facing the people. But some hints do exist.

  • The Mass versus populum is completely liturgically permitted by Rome.
  • Sadly, almost every church built or renovated since 1965 has significant design impediments to celebrating the Mass ad orientem. Because of confusion about what exactly the Second Vatican Council’s reform of the Mass required of sacred architecture, the traditional design of a church was radically altered in such a way that a return to the traditional posture of the priest facing liturgical East is difficult, if not impossible, in many churches. (Source)
  • Non-traditional Catholic seminaries do not teach their students the significance of saying the Mass “ad orientem”. Traditional gestures within the Mass need to be instilled into seminarians studying for the priesthood. Sadly this not being done in any great degree.
  • The faithful also are not taught the significance of the gesture of saying the Mass “ad orientem” so that the true symbolism of this gesture would be more easily accepted.
  • @marianagustin Comment are for asking for clarity and not mini answers. Now you can delete your mini answer!
    – Ken Graham
    Dec 24, 2019 at 1:52

Why did “versus populum” (instead of “ad orientem”) become commonplace after Vatican II?

There are three major things that greatly contributes to celebrating the Holy Mass or the Novus Ordo Mass in "versus populum".

1. The new understanding & teachings of the Church of the word "People of God".

The “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” reflects the attempt of the council fathers to utilize biblical terms rather than juridical categories to describe the church. The treatment of the hierarchical structure of the church counterbalances somewhat the monarchical emphasis of the First Vatican Council’s teaching on the papacy by giving weight to the role of the bishops. The teaching of the constitution on the nature of the laity (those not in holy orders) was intended to provide the basis for the call of lay people to holiness and to share in the missionary vocation of the church. By describing the church as the people of God, a pilgrim people, the council fathers provided the theological justification for changing the defensive and inflexible stance that had characterized much of Catholic thought and practice since the Protestant Reformation.

The word "the council fathers provided the theological justification for changing the defensive and inflexible stance that had characterized much of Catholic thought and practice since the Protestant Reformation."

Evidently, the change was forthcoming and the change is geared towards empowering the People of God and defining the role of laity as not just an ordinary member but as baptized Catholic they share a common priesthood or a royal priesthood. Before Vatican II , the understanding is only an Ordained Priest can offer a sacrifice. But the Council Fathers was inspired to fortify the role of ordinary laity and the Church was inspired to implore a greater call to holiness not only to Clergy but extend it to all the ordinary laity by way of their participation in the celebration of the Holy Mass.

By revisiting the Sacred Word of God and Sacred Traditions, the Vatican II Council Fathers understood that the People of God as St.Peter teaches is also a royal priesthood and can greatly participates in the "sacramental offering" of the body,blood, soul & divinity of Jesus Christ during the celebration of the Holy Mass particularly in the "consecration prayer in lifting up the sacramental host".

New American Standard Bible But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God's OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;(1Peter2:9)

  1. The fullness of understanding of the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy also contributed to the changes.

The “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” establishes the principle of greater participation by the laity in the celebration of mass and authorizes significant changes in the texts, forms, and language used in the celebration of mass and the administration of the sacraments.

The “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today” acknowledges the profound changes humanity is experiencing and attempts to relate the church’s concept of itself and of revelation to the needs and values of contemporary culture.

The council also promulgated decrees (documents on practical questions) on the pastoral duties of bishops, ecumenism, the Eastern-rite churches, the ministry and life of priests, the education for the priesthood, the religious life, the missionary activity of the church, the apostolate of the laity, and the media of social communication. Furthermore, declarations (documents on particular issues) on religious freedom, the church’s attitude toward non-Christian religions, and on Christian education were produced. These documents reflected the renewal in various areas of church life begun decades before Pope John—biblical, ecumenical, liturgical, lay apostolate. The impulse of the documents and the council deliberations in general had by the early 1970s been felt in nearly every area of church life and had set in motion many changes that may not have been foreseen by the council fathers.

Since the Council Fathers had seen the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy in light of empowering the People of God and teaching them that they also share in the common priesthood, a greater participation of the laity was permitted and can be seen in the Novus Ordo Masses after the St.Pope Paul VI Mass started to be celebrated. We can see the participation of the laity both man and woman in the celebration of the Holy Mass, and the People of God was implore to participates in "lifting up" or join in the consecration prayer in a much fuller way and not just expectator like the old, but more emphasis on their participatory role as royal priesthood.

  1. Where does the Church leads the People of God the sharer of the royal priesthood of Christ? The Vatican II Church was inspired by the Holy Spirit to preach & magnify the Mercy of God.

Since the People of God shares in the common or royal priesthood of Christ as God explicitly said what kind of Kingdom does He wished to established by the People of God thru Moses one of the pre-figured Christ;

New American Standard Bible

"and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel." (Exodus19:6) Source:

The Vatican II Council Fathers was inspired by the Holy Spirit to celebrate "versus populum" to treat the People of God as priest too like the Apostles in the Last Supper, wherein Jesus was facing them when He instituted the First Sacramental Mass.

But, since the Calvary is the continuation of the Sacramental Holy Mass instituted by Christ at the Last Supper. The Theotokos, whom the Church acknowledge as a royal priest and the Mother of all Priest in the order of grace, and even St.Pius X papacy recognized and proclaimed Mary as Virgin Priest by granting 300 days indulgences, where does this inspiration & teachings leads the People of God?

The Holy Spirit leads the People of God to finally fulfilled what Jesus Christ had said;

Jesus Predicts His Death …31*Now judgment is upon this world; now the prince of this world will be cast out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death He was going to die*(John12:31-33)

Jesus although offered freely His life as a pleasing sacrifice to Eternal Father, needs to be lifted up by the People of God.

At the Foot of the Cross, the Theotokos and St.John and the other Mary's represents the People of God "lifting up Jesus to the Eternal Father". This is where the "ad orientem" Mass originated, it was shown by Mary the Virgin Priest and St. Luke described "ad orientem" as "Mary standing at the Foot of the Cross".

Mary is "Beholding or Gazing" at the Foot of the Cross, why? Mary is honoring and offering to the Eternal Father the meaning of His revealed name YHVH or YHWH. Moses had seen in the "burning bush" the image of a Crucified Man and God revealed His name to Moses which according to Jewish scholars are not a name but a desccription. In Hebrew the meaning of YHVH or YHWH is;

"Behold the Hand, Behold the Nails".http://the-kingdom-of-god-is-within-you.blogspot.com/2012/02/behold-nail-behold-hand-exodus-314-this.html

Mary the Theotokos the Virgin Priest, the Mother of all Sacramentally Ordained Priests and the Mother of all the redeemed also a sharer in the common priesthood of Christ is leading all the People of God to one united prayer offering. And this prayer offering to Eternal Father was revealed by Jesus Christ to St.Faustina;

All the People of God united to the Pope the Head of the Church and fully consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary the Mother of the Church must joined together in imploring the Mercy of God thru this "prayer offering" thru "ad orientem";

"Eternal Father I offer thee the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ truly present in the Most Holy Eucharist in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world."

In closing, Jesus taught "versus populum" because He celebrated the First Sacramental Mass to the Apostles an ordained priest or Bishops, and Mary the Virgin Priest had shown "ad orientem" in offering or lifting up Jesus the victim or sacrifice to implore all the People of God to invoke the Mercy of God on all sinners.

Jesus the Eternal High Priest and the King og Kings celebrated the "First Sacramental Mass" and the Theotokos the Virgin Priest the Sovereign Queen of all things continued the offering and lifting up of Jesus at the Foot of the Cross, thereby elevating the "Sacramental Mass" to a "Real Mass or a Real Sacrifice" of the "body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

Jesus the Redeemer and Eternal High Priest in the order of grace celebrated the First Sacramental Mass in "versus populum",and Mary the Co-Redemptrix and Virgin Priest, a royal priesthood in the order of grace too elevated the sacrificial offering to the First Real Mass "ad orientem".



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