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 '16 at 19:21

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. – Andrew Leach Dec 27 '16 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. – Andrew Leach Dec 27 '16 at 22:22

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