The Catholic Sanctuary
and the Second Vatican Council


 by Michael Davies

The Catholic Sanctuary and 
the Mass Facing East

 "A real change in the contemporary perception of the purpose of the Mass and the Eucharist will occur only when the table altars are removed and Mass is again celebrated at the high altar; when the purpose of the Mass is again seen as an act of adoration and glorification of God and of offering thanks for His blessings, for our salvation and for the promise of the heavenly life to come, and as the mystical reenactment of the Lord's sacrifice on the Cross."

-----Msgr. Klaus Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, 1993, p.175 

In the Traditional Mass of the Roman Rite the Catholic priest offers Mass in a sacred place, a sanctuary, set apart from the rest of the church for sacrifice, as was the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple, to which the celebrant refers explicitly in the silent prayer Aufer a nobis as he ascends to the altar of sacrifice: "Take away from us our iniquities, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that with pure minds we may enter the Holy of Holies." As he recites this prayer the celebrant is filled with the thought of the holiness of God and the awesome nature of the mysteries that he is about to celebrate.

   Throughout the centuries the Catholic people have spared no effort and no expense to build sanctuaries which provided a worthy setting for the awesome Sacrifice, sanctuaries which provided a foretaste of the true Holy of Holies, Heaven itself. In the Eastern Churches the faithful are not even permitted to witness the most solemn moment of the liturgy as it takes place behind the ikonostasis. However, in the past three decades tens of thousands of exquisite Catholic sanctuaries have been destroyed-----in obedience, it is claimed, to the requirements of the Second Vatican Council. Before examining this claim it is necessary to make a brief examination of liturgical development in the Church.

   The early Christians assembled for Divine worship in the house of one of their number who possessed a large dining room. The reason was, of course, that as a persecuted minority the Christians could erect no public buildings. A number of present-day churches in Rome bear the name of Christians in that locality who had dwellings where Mass was celebrated in the first centuries. Mass was also celebrated in the Roman catacombs on the tombs of the Martyrs, which gave rise to the practice of imbedding the relics of Martyrs in the altar when Christians were eventually allowed to build churches.

   Our knowledge of the way Mass was celebrated increases with each succeeding century, since there is a gradual and natural development, with the prayers and formulas and eventually the ceremonial actions developing into set forms. The only liturgical book used up to the fourth century was the Bible, and we have no actual copies of liturgical books extant prior to the seventh century.

Historical factors played a crucial role in the manner in which the liturgy was celebrated. During times of persecution, brevity and simplicity were its principal characteristics, for obvious reasons. The toleration of Christianity under Constantine I [324-337] and its adoption as the religion of the Empire under Theodosius I [379-395] had a dramatic effect on the development of Christian ritual. Congregations increased in size, and benefactions for the building and furnishing of churches resulted in the enrichment of vessels and vestments. Those presenting such gifts would naturally want them to be the richest and most beautiful possible. In a parallel development, the liturgical rites became more elaborate, with solemn processions and stress upon the awesome nature of the rite. This elaboration of the liturgy during the fourth century came about throughout the Christian world as the result of the liturgy's change from an illegal and private ritual into a state-supported and public one.


   The most important consideration in the building of churches and the construction of sanctuaries was the fact that, in the East and in the West, Mass was always celebrated facing eastward. The rising of the sun in the East each day was seen as a symbol of the Resurrection of the Saviour and of His Second Coming. St. John Damascene 
[c. 675-c. 749] wrote:

       At His ascent into Heaven He went to the East, and so do the Apostles pray to Him; He will come again as the Apostles saw Him going, and so the Lord Himself says: "As the lightning comes forth from the East and shines even to the West, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be." Since we wait for Him, we pray toward the East. This is the unwritten tradition of the Apostles.
   The Second Coming was awaited with great eagerness by the early Christians; whereas today, alas, it is something to which the typical Catholic rarely if ever devotes a moment's thought. The East was also seen as a symbol of Heaven, the Jerusalem above, in contrast to the Jerusalem below, toward which the Jews turned in worship.

   An erroneous argument put forward by proponents of Mass facing the people is that "Christ, Whom the priest represents at Mass, did not sit with His back to the Apostles at the Last Supper." Quite true, but neither did He face them across a table. They all reclined on the same side of the table, facing Jerusalem, just as for nearly 2,000 years of Christian history priest and people have offered or assisted at Mass on the same side of the altar, facing the East. Nor, incidentally, was the Last Supper a vernacular celebration. The liturgical language of Hebrew was used, which was as different from the everyday Aramaic used by the Jews at that time as Latin is from contemporary French.

   Archaeological research proves that from the moment the Christians were allowed to build churches, they always did so along an east-west axis. By the end of the fourth century, it was an invariable rule in the East that churches should be built with the apse [the semicircular end which houses the altar] at the east end, and the same procedure had been adopted in the West by the second half of the fifth century.

   A small number of the more ancient churches in the West, in Rome in particular, still had an apse at the west end. But where this was the case, the altar would be constructed so that the celebrant could stand on the west side of it and thus offer the Sacrifice facing the East. He would indeed be facing the people; however, his purpose would not be to celebrate Mass toward them but rather to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy facing the East. During the first part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Catechumens, the people would face the altar to hear the readings and the homily. At the end of the Mass of the Catechumens, the celebrant would say, "Conversi ad Dominum" -----"Turn toward the Lord"-----which meant "Turn to face the East." Then, for the duration of the Eucharistic liturgy, the people would turn to face the East, men on one side of the church and women on the other, and hence they would have their backs to the altar.


HOME-------------------------------ROMAN MASS