Westward, ho!

Among the many traditionalist shibboleths is the supremacy of worship ad orientem, “toward the east.” For those of you, who don’t know, that means the priest faces away from the people when he offers Mass.

“What?! No! It means that the priest and people both face eastward, which is the traditional posture of Christian prayer going back to the Apostolic era. Christ is our ‘east,’ the rising sun of justice. The idea that the priest is ‘facing away from the people’ is a modern misunderstanding! Don’t you know that in the Roman basilicas the priest faces the people so he can face east, due to the alignment of the churches? And in the early centuries, the congregation faced east, *away* from priest, at certain times during the Mass?”

Why, thank you for that trad smackdown. I’m sure it was very cathartic for you . . . Ennnnyyy-hooo, let me get back to my point about why ad orientem worship in practice means that the priest has his back to the people.

You see, “liturgical east” isn’t always geographical east. Sometimes liturgical east is actually west. In fact, here are three examples. The first two are among the most noteworthy scenes of ad orientem worship in/near the Driftless Area, and the third is a traditionalist locus amoenus not far away:

1.) St. Mary of Pine Bluff (located in the unincorporated community of Pine Bluff, south of Cross Plains, WI). Say it ain’t so! The apse of this “Catholic Disneyland” (it really is) faces west, so when the priest offers Mass ad orientem, he’s facing west. Not only that, but they’ve removed the freestanding altar so the priest can never say Mass facing east.

2.) The main chapel in the Bishop O’Connor Center (Madison, WI). His Excellency, the Most Reverend Robert C. Morlino, Bishop of Madison, often pontificates at a Pontifical Mass in this chapel on holy days of obligation. At least when the bishop pontificates, the only altar in the sanctuary is the one that’s pressed against the wall of the apse. As with St. Mary of Pine Bluff, the apse faces west.

3.) St. Stanislaus Oratory (Milwaukee, WI). This oratory is staffed by the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest. You guessed it — the apse faces west.

“But the apse constitutes *liturgical* east!” Okay, but that contradicts the explanation above about why the priests in Roman basilicas face the congregation and not the apse (“so they can face east”). Instead of ad orientem, they should actually call it worship ad apsidem*, toward the apse, since that is what traditionalists actually want. You don’t want the priests and/or bishop at the above churches to face the congregation, do you? I didn’t think so.

As it happens, the parish church in the town where I live also has its apse in the west, and the priest offers the Mass facing east, toward the congregation. So when I shun the Novus Ordo here in town in order to attend Mass at St. Mary of Pine Bluff, I’m foregoing a Mass that’s actually ad orientem for one that merely claims to be. How’s that for authenticity?

*Then I could have the sublime pleasure of seeing commenters on trad blogs misspell it as ad aspidem (“toward the asp”). Instead, I’m stuck reading ad orientUm or ad orientAm, time after infuriating time. There aren’t enough nuns with enough rulers to rap all the knuckles that need rapping.



3 thoughts on “Westward, ho!

  1. It’s a practical point. Perhaps providentially so. Suppose you are planning a Mass at the South or North Pole–there is no natural east or west from where you are. Or again, what of Mass on a spaceship? Or the surface of a planet tidally locked with its star, where the sun never rises or sets? In Christianity, the answer is, pick a direction and get started.

    He shall extend his propagated sway
    Beyond the solar year, without the starry way.

    That said, I prefer a church that is oriented. But it’s only a matter of good architecture, location permitting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The location of the apse is definitely a practical point. My point is that “ad orientem” practically means “with both the priest and congregation facing the apse,” regardless of its location. Some people get very fastidious and/or sentimental and/or literal about us all praying toward the east when, in my recent experience, “ad orientem” almost always means “toward the geographical west.” For all the counter-intuitive talk about why Masses in Roman basilicas were “versus populum,” nobody proposes doing that in modern churches when “versus populum” actually is “ad orientem.”


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