Is it going too far to suggest that the reformed liturgy of the late ’60s (what most Catholics experience on Sundays) can be executed ad orientem (facing east)? Many would balk at the mere suggestion. Some would rise in vigorous, angry protest. Ad orientem? That’s for that old, pre-Vatican II Mass. The Council did away with that, and we’re better off for it! (So they say.) You see, it’s very easy to shelve an idea and move on by casting it as “irrelevant,” “crazy” or “radical.” That way, you don’t have to do the difficult work of arguing on the merits.
Returning then, to ad orientem…no, it is not “radical” to propose its return to the new liturgy. And second, it’s actually quite a relevant and serious idea, since it’s on the mind of the cardinal handpicked by Pope Francis to head up the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Robert Sarah. It’s funny how serious, bold ideas that aim to bring about an authentic reform and renewal of the liturgy are often the first ones to be dismissed, or not even considered, by those calling the shots. Such proposals, you see, are just too far-reaching, too bold, too “pre-concilliar.” (You know, they might actually work, and we don’t want that.)
As they see it, those talking about kickstarting a new process of evangelization in the archdiocese need to accomplish two things: first, talk a whole lot about renewal and evangelization, and second (and this is key) play it very safe and not actually consider anything visionary that would dramatically overturn the still-popular Weakland narrative. In other words, let’s rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic after it has struck ice, and then pat ourselves on the back that we’re doing something significant, instead of recognizing that what we’ve been doing has not worked and is not working, and consider bold alternatives.
So let’s look at ad orientem liturgy. We should return to this ancient form of praying the liturgy, and the local archdiocesan synod should have placed this at the top of its list. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, on the continuity of ad orientem in the new liturgy.
Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained, it is in full conformity with the conciliar Constitution—indeed, it is entirely fitting—for everyone, priest and congregation, to turn together to the East during the penitential rite, the singing of the Gloria, the orations, and the Eucharistic prayer, in order to express the desire to participate in the work of worship and redemption accomplished by Christ. This practice could well be established in cathedrals, where liturgical life must be exemplary. *
So, following Cardinal Sarah’s counsel, why not start the ad orientem liturgical movement at our very own Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist? Yes, Archbishop Weakland nearly destroyed it with his disordered, embarrassing renovation. Yes, the tabernacle was removed and replaced with an enormous organ. Yes, the beautiful baldacchino was hacked to bits, against protest by the Vatican. Yes, the altar rail was removed. Yes, the altar itself was dismantled and made into a tasteless round table in the middle of the nave. Yes, the pews were removed and replaced with cushy chairs. Yes, the sanctuary is now used for the display of the choir. But all is not lost. Why not take Cardinal Sarah’s advice and start somewhere: ad orientem at the Cathedral? Then let’s see it spread.
Archbishop Weakland arrogantly ignored the plea of Cardinal Sarah’s predecessor, Cardinal Medina Estévez, to save the baldacchino. How sweet would it be if we, in humility, followed Cardinal Sarah’s advice regarding ad orientem at the Cathedral?
It’s good to be bold.
(For an excellent look at the historical and theological basis of ad orientem worship, read Uwe Michael Lang’s excellent book, Turning toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer.)
* Adoremus translation.