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Facing the wall for Mass is not the norm

HONG KONG (SE): An announcement came from Robert Cardinal Sarah during an address given in London, England, on July 5, that he is appealing to priests around the world to go back to celebrating Mass facing the wall, or with their back to the people.

The prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments reiterated his call for priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem (facing east—a church built according to strict recommendations puts the eastern wall at the back of the altar).

He appealed to the authority of the pope in his call, saying, “I can say that when I was received in audience by the Holy Father last April, Pope Francis asked me to study the question of a reform and of how to enrich the two forms of the Roman Rite.”

However, the local Church was quick to distance itself from his remarks, with the archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Cardinal Nichols, urging priests not to follow the suggestion of the cardinal from Ghana in an advisory released on July 11.

Cardinal Nichols said that the current liturgical guidelines assume that the priest will celebrate Mass facing the people, adding that it would be inappropriate for a priest to inflict personal taste or preference on the people by turning away from them at the celebration.

While Cardinal Nichols did acknowledge that the congregation for the sacraments does allow Mass to be celebrated facing the wall, he also noted that the same congregation also says, “The position toward the assembly seems more convenient, inasmuch as it makes communication easier.”

However, the Catholic Herald reported that the after the applause for Cardinal Sarah had died down, Bishop Dominique Rey, from Fréjus-Toulon in France, said that although he was only one bishop of one diocese, he would celebrate Mass ad orientem in his cathedral and address a letter to his diocese encouraging his priests to do the same.

While the appeal from Cardinal Sarah was not exactly a directive, he stressed that it is at least his strong opinion that priests and the assembly should return as soon as possible to the practice of facing in the same direction when addressing God.

He added that this is permitted, without saying it is compulsory or officially recommended, but urged that it be used wherever possible and Advent this year might be a good time to start.

UCAN pointed out that during his talk, Cardinal Sarah introduced a complete red herring into the subject by quoting scripture as saying, “We should listen again to the lament of God proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah; ‘they have turned their back to me’. Let us turn again towards the Lord!”

Although the retiring Vatican press officer, Father Federico Lombardi, said in stepping down from his job last week that his office is not a spin doctor for the pope, its tweaking finger was hard at work on July 12 spinning out a graceful clarification of what Cardinal Sarah may or may not have accused the pope of saying in his heartfelt appeal, which it noted does not represent Pope Francis’ wishes.

Its press release says, “Some of his expressions have, however, been incorrectly interpreted, as if they intend to announce new indications different to those given so far in the liturgical rules and in the words of the pope regarding the celebration of Mass.”

Without the spin, it simply means that he was wrong.

It was also quick to point out that Pope Francis said during a visit to Cardinal Sarah’s office that the ordinary form of the celebration of the Mass is found in the missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI, while the ad orientem form the cardinal was talking about only has the status of permitted.

It suggests that Cardinal Sarah may have been flying a kite, as it says that the expression “reform of the reform” that he used in London is not an appropriate way in which to interpret the wishes of Pope Francis and is, in fact, misleading.

It adds that it is useful to remember that the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (General Instruction of the Roman Missal), which contains the norms relating to the Eucharistic celebration and is still in full force, recommends that altars should be built in such a way that they can be used facing the people or the wall.

All up, a bit of a storm in a teacup, which can be the most divisive of all.

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