The idea that a celebration facing the people must have been the primitive one, and that especially of the last supper, has no other foundation than a mistaken view of what a meal could be in antiquity, Christian or not. In no meal of the early Christian era, did the president of the banqueting assembly ever face the other participants. ~Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy
Paging through some archived photos, I came across the above pictures. They show the interior of Saint Casimir on Milwaukee’s East Side. I took them last summer. The church is historic and, as you can see, beautiful. But is there something that stands out? Something that clashes? You don’t have to look too hard. It is clear that, sometime in the course of the building’s history, significant reorientation and redesigning of the sanctuary and nave took place. The pews did not originally face each other. The sanctuary did not originally protrude into the nave. There used to be a communion rail, separating the nave from the sanctuary. And the altar originally looked like an altar, not a square table.
The picture provides a very clear illustration of what then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote about regarding changes to orientation in worship in The Spirit of the Liturgy. “The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself.” (Page 80) Ever the gentleman, Ratzinger does not engage in gratuitous versus populum bashing, but simply highlights the reasonable, logical consequences of such a radical transformation of orientation in worship. The redesigned interior of Saint Casimir quite visibly manifests a “self-enclosed circle.” All the while, Christ, reserved in the tabernacle in the stunning reredos, is relegated to the background.
Contrasting the “self-enclosed circle” approach to worship with the priest and people facing the same direction (ad orientem) Ratzinger writes, “What corresponds with the reality of what’s happening is not the closed circle but the common movement forward, expressed in a common direction for prayer.” (Page 81)
In light of ongoing discussions on how to kickstart a “new evangelization” in Milwaukee, a good place to start is the restoration of our churches to more accurately reflect unity in worship among believers, so that the focus is on Christ, and not ourselves.