Mass Facing the People:
Historical Fact or Fantasy?
The barbarians, the despisers of culture, who are responsible for the frenzy of destruction which has devastated the sanctuary of almost every Catholic church in the West, often attempt to justify their vandalism on the grounds that the practice has been mandated by the Second Vatican council, and constitutes a return to the custom of the primitive Church. Both these allegations are nonsensical, but we begin our examination with the second.
Those who claim that Mass has been celebrated facing the people as an act of conscious pastoral policy at any period in the history of the Church, prior to Vatican II, are influenced not by fact but by fantasy. Their understanding of the nature of the Mass is usually as defective as their knowledge of liturgical history. They tend to believe that the essence of the Mass is found in the coming together of the local community. The Mass, for them, is the assembly of the faithful over which the ordained priest does no more than preside.
Although they would not say so explicitly, in most cases they envisage this gathering as a mutual glorification of society. It is an assembly consecrated to the glory of man. Priest and people smirk at each other over the table; they exchange glances of mutual self-admiration; they are pleased with what they see.
This concept of the Mass is totally heretical, totally heretical, totally Protestant. The Mass, in its most profound reality, is the making present among us of the Sacrifice of Calvary. God the Son is made present upon the altar as a Sacrificial Victim to be offered to the Blessed Trinity by and for the Church, and the Church offers herself together with Jesus Christ, Who is her Head. Our Lord is the true High Priest of every Mass, as well as the Divine Victim. He won the grace necessary for our salvation upon the Cross and He mediates that grace to us through the Mass.
A sacrifice is offered upon an altar, and before Vatican II there was no doubt that the focal point in every Catholic church was an unmistakable altar of sacrifice. Nicholas Ridley, the Protestant Bishop of London, stated no more than the truth when he declared in 1550 that the purpose of an altar was to offer a sacrifice, while the purpose of a table was to serve a meal. 4 Because the Anglican sect repudiated the Catholic concept of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, it quite logically replaced altars with tables. How amused Ridley would be today to see that almost every priest in the West has either destroyed his altar or abandoned it in favor of a squalid table. "Do these priests believe in sacrifice?" he would ask. I fear that in many cases the answer would have to be "No".
Liturgical History: A Neglected Science
A few years ago I was invited to a discussion with the Cardinal Prefect of an important Roman Congregation, a man of unimpeachable orthodoxy. He had a mastery of theology which could not be faulted, and it was a privilege and an inspiration to listen to him. But then our discussion turned to the liturgy and, as the minutes passed, I discovered with growing incredulity that I knew more about liturgical history than he did. Some readers may consider me guilty of scarcely credible pride and arrogance for making this claim, but it is absolutely true. In order to prove my point I will mention that he thought traditionalists were making far too much fuss about the position of the altar. "The Mass is the Mass," he said, "whatever the direction the priest faces when he offers it." This, of course, is true. "In any case," he added, "Mass always used to be celebrated facing the people-----look at the altar in Saint Peter's."
I deemed it prudent not to contradict him, and nodded my head in a non-commital way. Some weeks later I wrote him a tactful letter outlining the facts which I shall be presenting in this pamphlet. But, first I had better explain the reason why not simply this cardinal but so many Catholic priests have such a limited knowledge of liturgical history.
The pre-conciliar seminaries gave excellent courses in the theology of the Mass and the rubrics of the Missal. The priests who emerged from them knew what the Mass was and how to celebrate it. Sadly, they often had only a very superficial knowledge of its history. They followed the rubrics because they were the rubrics, often without knowing how particular rubrics had developed. Then, when the rubrics were changed after Vatican II, they followed the new rubrics just as they had followed the old. When they were told to celebrate Mass facing the people, or saw most other priests celebrate Mass facing the people, they simply followed suit. Many were convinced that they had, somehow, been discourteous to their congregations by "turning their backs to them". We are often told today that it is a truly great blessing that the priest no longer celebrates Mass with his back to the congregation. Why, then, did the priest say Mass in this way before the Second Vatican Council?
4. The Catholic altar is, of course, also a table, as the Eucharistic banquet is served upon it after the Sacrifice, but the Mass is primarily a sacrifice and the function of the sacrificial altar takes precedence.