It would appear our little parish of Saint Anselm’s, Pembury is cutting edge trendy! For our beautification project saw an intentional shift in liturgical approach so that all main services are now celebrated ‘ad orientem’- a position encouraged within the Ordinariate; that is with priest facing East when addressing God and turning West, to face the people, when addressing them.
This week the man in charge of liturgy at the Vatican, Cardinal Sarah, underlined the benefit of this ancient approach. He suggested readers and listeners might face each other during the Liturgy of the Word but that change should occur when moving to the liturgy of the Sacrament. At that sacred moment, when the priest addresses the Almighty, Cardinal Sarah says ‘it is essential the priest and faithful look together towards the east. This corresponds exactly to what the Council Fathers wanted.” He suggests it should become the norm in places of excellence and especially within the world’s Cathedrals.
Cardinal Sarah went onto say “It is legitimate and complies with the letter and spirit of the Council. As prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, I wish to recall that the celebration versus orientem is authorised by the rubrics, which specify the times when the celebrant must turn to the people. It is therefore not necessary to have special permission to celebrate facing the Lord.’
I applaud these comments having witnessed how Eastward celebration re-orients Mass, infusing it with a greater sense of mystery and awe. It makes space for God by shifting the focus beyond the gathered assembly; thereby emphasising that vital supernatural aspect; one that is too often missing in modern celebrations. Which is not to suggest Westward Mass cannot be celebrated with dignity, it can, but that where the supernatural aspect has vanished- and it often is amidst Westward celebrations- there Mass has grown overly chummy and informal; a celebration of the community by the community. A problem more widespread than it should be.
For nearly 2000 years, of course, ad orientam was normative. It only fell out of vogue in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. At that time when enthusiasm for modernity encouraged a whole generation of sandal wearing clerics to ignore the written instruction of Rome and spark, instead, a mini revolution. Dissent was in the air, altar rails ripped out, high altars abandoned, sacred images vanished and the creation of de-sacrilised space championed.
We witnessed a deliberate, and often politically motivated, shift away from ornate sanctuaries to brutalist concrete structures- an ever greater emphasis on man not God. And statistics now make the conclusions unavoidable. Jaw-dropping decline has plagued the church since this experiment began. The revolutionaries promised growth, through greater relevance, but ushered in an age of decline never before witnessed in history! And the unity of the church was damaged also as a tussle has emerged in recent time between the revolutionaries and those who oppose them.
Hence today we witness calls from Rome to reverse the decline through a renewed understanding of the council and the new evangelisation. Hence the introduction of new Missal and reform of the reform. Hence a revival of the Extra-Ordinary form. Hence the intended emphasis within the new liturgy of the Ordinariate where ad orientem worship is encouraged to place emphasis on beauty, tradition and holiness. Voices are calling then for a new approach but will they be heeded? I think three main issues make this difficult.
Firstly the problem of intransigence. Certain prelates and clergy will resist the call for change at any cost- because it is their baby! Never will they abandon the tired revolution for they are children of it. And having spent a lifetime as architects of modernity, sincerely believing the church was in need of their “greater relevance”, they cannot now bring themselves to join up the dots, ponder the evidence and accept that Cafeteria Catholicism has proved a disaster.
Understand this group will deny the need for change should they be the last Catholic standing! Yes even in the face of the latest shocking news; that for every new Catholic today – ten have left the church! The modernists will never accept that a kum-by-ah approach has largely scared off men, emptied seminaries and left most Catholics too ill educated to defend the faith, at least with any intellectual credulity, leaving them floundering and confused amidst a hostile secular culture. No this intransigent group are ideologues and far too rigid to change!
Then there are the overly timid clergy. Who know in their hearts that change is needed but are too afraid to take control of their sanctuaries and congregations. Those who would never dream of rocking the boat or standing up to modernist hierarchs and laity. Their hunger for popularity and the quiet life means that they might agree in private but will never act in public. For they dare not endure the short term pain that leads to change and long term gain. Until the majority move in the right direction they will continue to collude in what does not work for fear of the consequence of daring to be different.
And finally there is the problem of ignorance. The revolution is not new and poorly formed clergy and laity now exist who have no memory at all of all that went before. This generation were raised to fear tradition; it has been drummed into them (by the ideologues) that the very notion of ad orientem or tradition is unhealthy.
Alas this group, having only ever worshiped in a modernist way, have almost no sound appreciation of liturgy or sacred music. They bought the lie that anything other than dumbed down entertainment is elitist. And so they wouldn’t know a nurse and veil if it hit them in the face. And without extra education -they are going to struggle as regards to a revival of lost ways. They will remain limited by the gaps in their knowledge. More comfortable to stick with what is known, without thinking, than admit you need much help to move on.
Yet despite these various challenges before us hope exists. Because the influence of the modernist ideologues is waning, despite a recent bounce under the current papacy. The reality is that the open minded clergy are coming to see, in increasing number, a value in restoring what was lost. Across the Catholic world, like the first shoots of spring in winter, orthodoxy is found flourishing. And people are increasingly drawn to that which authentically exudes both beauty and holiness whilst respecting the traditions of the past.
Realising a need to leave behind the old fashioned approach of the last Century- this group is working instead for a restoration of the sacred. And I am delighted that the Ordinariate finds itself a small but precious part of this group! Let us who embrace the new evangelisation become children of a new revolution- not of dissent but fidelity! Not of rupture but continuation! A group to restore lost treasures to the church, to combat shoddy liturgy and point again to God not man. A people rooted in the past but growing in the present. That we might open a door to the Holy Spirit and rid ourselves at last of that fascination, instead, with the Spirit of the age…