Why do priests celebrate Mass versus populum (toward the congregation) and at most Masses in the Ordinary Form?


3 Answers 3


Why do priests celebrate Mass versus populum (toward the congregation) at most Masses in the Ordinary Form?

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 need to 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 need to also to be 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.
  • Some (with just cause) have reasoned that Jesus had the Apostles more or less in a circle or a U shape at the Last Supper when he instituted the Mass. Impossible to say whether or not Jesus faced east (”ad orientem”). Jesus definitely faced his Apostles at the institution of the first mass. Source
  • Did Jesus have His Last Supper standing?

It should be noted that at Papal High Masses within the Roman Basilica of St. Peter, in either the Ordinary Form of the Mass or the Extraordinary Form of the Mass are both facing the people and the Sovereign Pontiff is still facing east (ad orientem).

As far as the Tridentine Mass goes the YouTube video Mass In Vatican With Pope Pius XII bears this fact out.

Part of this reason is the the actual basilica faces east.

Rome tourist attractions map

Rome tourist attractions map

The traditional liturgical posture is to face East. That is the direction of the dawn, the new light and thus facing the direction of the returning Christ.

Most churches were built so that that the direction of worship literally faced East (traditional synogogues are also built in this manner).

However, St. Peters was not be build that way. Constantine literally had to carve into the side of Vatican Hill to get enough room to build the original basilica so that the altar was over the burial place of St. Peter. For these reasons, both Latin Rites share a common tread with the Supreme Pontiff facing east and facing the people at the same time.

A floor plan of St. Peter’s Basilica makes this unique unity between the the Roman Rite more understandable.

Floor plan of St. Peter’s Basilica

  • '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.' — which is exactly what happens in St Peter's Basilica. Dec 24, 2019 at 20:06

Priests who celebrate the Novus Ordo, especially versus populum, adhere (at least in deeds, if not also in thought) to the Protestant idea that the Mass is an assembly or banquet, not the re-presentation of the one Holy Sacrifice.

1969 Institutio Generalis's Protestant-friendly definition of the Mass

Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci expressed concern to Paul VI on 25 September 1969 regarding the

  1. 1969 Institutio Generalis's Protestant-friendly definition of the Mass as "a sacred meeting or assembly of the People of God, met together under the presidency of the priest, to celebrate the memorial of the Lord." (§2).

  2. Novus Ordo's relegating the priest to a mere presider on the same level of the congregation (§5):

    2) The priest's position [in the Novus Ordo] is minimised, changed and falsified. Firstly in relation to the people for whom he is, for the most part, a mere president, or brother, instead of the consecrated minister celebrating in persona Christi ["in the person of Christ"]. Secondly in relation to the Church, as a "quidam de populo" ["someone of the congregation"]. In the definition of the epiclesis ([IG] no. 55), the invocations are attributed anonymously to the Church: the part of the priest has vanished.

Pius XII's condemnation of liturgical errors

Pius XII's 1947 encyclical on the liturgy, Mediator Dei, condemns the error that a congregation is necessary for a Mass:

  1. Some in fact disapprove altogether of those Masses which are offered privately and without any congregation, on the ground that they are a departure from the ancient way of offering the sacrifice; moreover, there are some who assert that priests cannot offer Mass at different altars at the same time, because, by doing so, they separate the community of the faithful and imperil its unity; while some go so far as to hold that the people must confirm and ratify the sacrifice if it is to have its proper force and value.

  2. They are mistaken in appealing in this matter to the social character of the eucharistic sacrifice, for as often as a priest repeats what the divine Redeemer did at the Last Supper, the sacrifice is really completed. Moreover, this sacrifice, necessarily and of its very nature, has always and everywhere the character of a public and social act, inasmuch as he who offers it acts in the name of Christ and of the faithful, whose Head is the divine Redeemer, and he offers it to God for the holy Catholic Church, and for the living and the dead.88 This is undoubtedly so, whether the faithful are present—as we desire and commend them to be in great numbers and with devotion—or are not present, since it is in no wise required that the people ratify what the sacred minister has done.

88. Roman Missal, Canon of the Mass.

cf. Council of Trent sess. 22 can. 8: If any one saith, that masses, wherein the priest alone communicates sacramentally, are unlawful, and are, therefore, to be abrogated: let him be anathema. (Si quis dixerit, missas, in quibus solus sacerdos sacramentaliter communicat, illicitas esse ideoque abrogandas: anathema sit.)

Pope Pius XII saw that the Liturgical Movement, which started out as a noble effort in the 19th century to educate Catholics about the Mass, was becoming Modernist; instead of educating about the Mass, it now tried to dumb it down. Mediator Dei condemned the new Liturgical Movement's errors.

  • 3
    Your statement that “these priests subscribe to the Protestant idea that the Mass is an assembly or banquet, not the re-presentation of the one Holy Sacrifice,” is totally your opinion and the opinion of some very traditional minded priests.
    – Ken Graham
    Dec 23, 2019 at 21:53
  • 1
    The question in hand deals with the Ordinary Form of the Mass, yet your major quote deals with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. Your other references predate the New Missal which is entirely permitted and comes from Rome herself.
    – Ken Graham
    Dec 23, 2019 at 23:42
  • The Protestant is correct the Last Supper is an assembly as described in the gospel, the Apostles are eating & conversing with Jesus, but they fall short in recognizing Jesus is the Eternal High Priest that has the power to consecrate the "bread & wine" to become His "real body & blood". Peter was given the Keys and the Protestant has no Keys to bind & loose, that's the main difference. Dec 24, 2019 at 2:55
  • @KenGraham "your major quote deals with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass" Mediator Dei is on the sacred liturgy, "chiefly of the Latin liturgy" (§11).
    – Geremia
    Dec 24, 2019 at 4:19
  • @Ken "is totally your opinion and the opinion of some very traditional minded priests" and most pre-Vatican II priests. I've added citations to the "Ottaviani Intervention."
    – Geremia
    Dec 24, 2019 at 4:20

Why do priests celebrate Mass versus populum (toward the congregation) at most Masses in the Ordinary Form?

The answer can be found in the bible and the ending can be found in this prayer offering taught by Jesus Christ to St.Faustina.

The People of God must implore this prayer, a fitting and perfect prayer uttered by Mary a Virgin Priest at the Foot of the Cross.

"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."

Jesus had teach all the Apostles the ordained High Priest or Bishops to celebrate the "Sacramental Mass" in "versus populum". Jesus was teaching them how to "lift-up" an offering and sacrifice.

26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the[a] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Jesus is teaching all the Apostles and priest how to offer or lift-up a sacrificial offering to Eternal Father.

Jesus Predicts His Death …In response, Jesus said, “This voice was not for My benefit, but yours. 31Now judgment is upon this world; now the prince of this world will be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”(John12:31-32)

The Catholic Church sees this as the institution of the Holy Eucharistic Celebration or First Sacramental Mass.

Jesus faced the Apostles "versus populum" and not "ad orientem". But, noticed the Apostles are looking at Jesus Christ "the victim or the real sacrifice", so in reality the Apostles in the Last Supper are facing "ad orientem" when Jesus lifted-up the "bread & wine".

The Priest is alter-Christus, and by celebrating the Holy Sacramental Mass "versus populum" , they are perfectly imitating the First Sacramental Mass like what Jesus had taught the Apostles in the Last Supper.

Jesus biblically had not taught or cannot possibly show "ad orientem" because how can he faced Himself?

The one who had shown or in a way taught the Catholic Church to celebrate the Holy Mass "ad orientem" to participates more fully in offering or lifting up of the "real sacrifice of the body,blood,soul & divinity of Jesus Christ" is Mary the Virgin Priest.

For full answer please see this link;

Why do priests celebrate Mass versus populum (toward the congregation) at most Masses in the Ordinary Form?

  • 2
    Do you have a Catholic source that acknowledges that Jesus faced the Apostles "versus populum" and not "ad orientem". But, noticed the Apostles are looking at Jesus Christ "the victim or the real sacrifice", so in reality the Apostles in the Last Supper are facing "ad orientem" when Jesus lifted-up the "bread & wine".?
    – Ken Graham
    Dec 24, 2019 at 2:39
  • @KenGraham Sacred Word is my source, "ad orientem" means facing east meaning the Apostles is like gazing at Jesus Christ at the Foot of the Cross, to gaze is to behold and to behold the Crucified Man is honoring the name of the God in Hebrew name YHVH it means "Behold the Hand, Behold the Nails". Jesus is facing the Apostles the People of God "versus populum" and the Apostles facing Jesus is "ad orientem". And "ad orientem" means beholding "Jesus at the foot of the Cross" that Mary had shown by standing at the Foot of the Cross. Dec 24, 2019 at 2:49
  • 1
    Sorry but Scriptures do not admit this at the Last Supper!
    – Ken Graham
    Jun 11, 2020 at 3:54
  • This answer is very incomplete. It skips over centuries of tradition in favor of a private interpretation from Scripture lumped with a quote of private revelation of dubious relevancy
    – eques
    Jun 24, 2020 at 14:44

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