Conversi ad Dominum! More thoughts on facing east and a practical solution

What we share with the other Abrahamic faiths, and what to do about those pesky mid-century round churches.


People, Look East:
A series on ad orientem worship

Part I
The sun comes forth like a bridegroom leaving its chamber: Mass facing the east

Part II
Conversi ad Dominum! More thoughts on facing east and a practical solution

Part III

Facing the light: how we got here and a big exception


First, a minor correction. In my last post I inaccurately stated when the celebrant would ideally face the people or turn with the congregation. Cardinal Sarah said:

I [have] proposed that the priests and the faithful turn toward the East at least during the Penitential Rite, during the singing of the Gloria, during the Propers and during the Eucharistic Prayer.

If this idea of facing east for worship sounds similar to the practices of Jews and Muslims, well, it’s more or less the same idea. As you know, Muslims turn towards Mecca for their daily prayers. At the airport here in Omaha, many of the taxi drivers are Muslim, and if you drive past at certain times of day it is neat to see many of them prostrate in prayer, facing the Missouri River, next to their parked cabs.

Art and Liturgy - Our Lady of Walsingham Cathedral Altar and Tabernacle Houston Texas Granda Liturgical Arts
High altar and tabernacle at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston, Texas. Custom work realized by Granda Liturgical Arts.

Since ancient times, Jews have also looked east to prayer, towards the Temple of Jerusalem which was regarded as God’s dwelling place among men. Today, of course, the Temple is no more* but the Jewish faith continues this tradition. For us moderns, it is easy to forget that our own faith sprang from Judaism and so this practice has even deeper roots than we might originally suspect.

* sort of †
† it’s Jesus now

I was going to add a few more thoughts about the historical context of this tradition, but just read this article:  Facing East Toward the Rising Sun of History by Fr. Dennis Kolinski, SJC. It’s way better than anything I would have written.

Art and Liturgy - Cardinal Ratzinger Pope Benedict Drinking BeerMaybe you are wondering: what are we supposed to do with churches that are already built and face another direction? Circular churches that don’t really “face” anything? Card. Ratzinger tells us in Spirit of the Liturgy:

Facing east, as we heard, was linked with the “sign of the Son of Man,” with the Cross, which announces the Lord’s Second Coming. That is why very early on the east was linked with the sign of the Cross. Where a direct common turning toward the east is not possible, the Cross can serve as the interior “east” of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community. In this way we obey the ancient call to prayer: Conversi ad Dominum!,  Turn toward the Lord! … Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomena of recent decades. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than the Lord? This mistake should be corrected as quickly as possible; it can be done without further rebuilding.

In the final post on this topic, some common objections to ad orientem worship and how our current situation came to be.

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