Ad Populum

I was trying to research into the priest standing ad populum. My goal is to present a defence for the practice. My problem is that I’m struggling to find information. All I know is that I’ve been told that it’s not mentioned by Vatican II (I haven’t seen anything on it from the parts I’ve read in the pertinent document). This leaves me with the assumption that it was mentioned elsewhere. I was curious if someone could provide me with this information. Also, I have heard that it was technically allowed in the extraordinary form. Was this true?


Honestly, I am not sure you will find much good historical evidence or support for it. It is true that there are several examples of historical altars at which celebration of Mass has been mostly or totally facing the people. Oddly, the most famous altar in all of Catholicism, that in St. Peter’s, is built in such a way as to all but necessitate versus populum celebration.

But for the majority of the Church’s history probably upwards of 99% of Masses have been celebrated with the priest not facing the people, that is, facing East, either literally or “liturgically,” even if the altar is freestanding.

Most of the modern infatuation with facing the people at Mass is just that, a modern aberration, all things considered, historically-speaking.

If you want to defend it, go right ahead. But to me it seems difficult to do so given the fact that versus populum celebration was an extreme minority for almost all of recorded Church history, both in the East and West, and randomly popped up in the latter half of the 20th century from pretty much nowhere. More than that, the reasons given for doing so have mostly been proven to be utterly false or, at best, half-truths.

My own theory as to why it suddenly became all the rage is that (1: freestanding altars–a genuine part of Western Catholic history that has been quite widespread in various parts of Church history–became fashionable again) combined with (2: the modern anthropocentric tendencies in society at large that were by no means excluded from liturgical circles in the last century) to produce a silly story in the 1960s that goes: “Gee, freestanding altars, those are a verifiable and widespread part of our history, and gosh golly, let’s make this more community-centered 'cause that’s just what’s the thing to do according to the latest research, so we’re going to trash the high altar, stick in a freestanding one, and put the priest on the opposite side of it.” It is true that there are 20th century examples of versus populum experiments before the 1960s, but these were just that, mostly experiments. However, I would like to do my own research on this.

If you or someone you know of has written or will write an original essay justifying this admittedly odd historical development, I would like to read it.

It is believed that this Protocol was the basis for the subsequent wording in 1983 issued in GIRM #299, with its final translation in 2011 that reads:

  1. The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.
    Moreover, the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The altar should usually be fixed and dedicated.

A questioner asked for clarification from the CDWDS, and this was their response.

[FONT=Arial]Prot. No 2036/00/L
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has been asked whether the expression in no. 299 of the Instituto Generalis Missalis Romani constitutes a norm according to which, during the Eucharistic liturgy, the position of the priest *versus absidem *[facing towards the apse] is to be excluded.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, after mature reflection and in light of liturgical precedents, responds:
Negative, and in accordance with the following explanation.
[size=2]What this “negative” means, is that the position of the priest “ad orientum” is allowed. Both positions are lawful, although we note that the GIRM does call for “facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.”

Here is a quote from a great little document that I came across when writing a paper for my Sacramental Theology class a couple years ago.


  1. The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there.

The document, Inter oecumenici was written at the direction of Paul VI to help implement the reforms called for after VII.

Versus (or Ad) Populum was licit for celebration; if it was not, then every priest and bishop who celebrated Mass at the altar of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran celebrated an illicit Mass. For many centuries, there was no possibility for ad orientem worship at that altar - just look it up, and see how close the canopy/baldachino is to the steps leading down to the Crypt. Now, if Ad Populum was good enough for the Mother Church of the entire Body of Christ, then it’s good enough for your average parish. :slight_smile:

There is not much to quote, in terms of honourable mentions. Even the traditional Anglican practice, for many centuries, was to celebrate at the north end of their holy table - i.e. in profile, with the right-hand side of the minister’s body facing the people.

As for history, we can see from the remains of St. Mary’s Church in Ephesus, as well as many old 5th & 6th century churches spread across Turkey, that altars were free-standing and table-like. There is no way to tell exactly how they were used, but they certainly would have allowed for Ad Populum worship. See Basilica of San Vitale, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, and Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna for existing examples of this. San Vitale (built around AD 500) had a freestanding altar beneath the steps leading up to the apse, which contained the Archbishop’s throne. The same throne is still embedded in the wall, looking over the altar down into the nave. Ad Populum would’ve been a natural way to worship, in this particular case.

Fr. Z has some interesting takes on the GRIM 299 translations.

IIRC, the basilicas (including St. Peter’s) oriented in that way have the priest facing East, and there is reason to believe the congregation did as well.

Quoting from a past post:

A little something.

In Roman churches, the altar was freestanding and the design and the orientation of the church was such that the officiating cleric faced the doors of the church towards the East during the Liturgy (the facade was to the east and the apse with the altar being to the west), but it was not versus populum due to the simple fact that the congregation is not in front of him. Instead, the congregation, segregated into men and women, stood in opposing halves of the nave and the adjacent aisles - the men were at the southern side aisle(s), while the women were on the opposite side. They were not standing in the central nave facing the sanctuary front-and-center like we do at church today.

One can actually see a possible vestige of this orientation in the churches of Ravenna. In the basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, from what would have probably been the men’s side (here the northern side aisle) you can see the mosaic of Christ and male saints on the opposite southern tier, and from the women’s side (the southern side aisle) you can see the Virgin and female saints.

In some churches (especially in the East), the ambo was located at the center of (or slightly off-center) the nave, which was connected to the sanctuary proper by a kind of raised walkway (a solea), so directly facing the altar front-and-center would have been out of the question. Other churches (for example San Clemente in Rome), meanwhile, had two ambos on both sides of the nave. The center of the church was probably left free when possible to make space for processions and other comings and goings of the ministers, although certain architectural features - such as the solea - might make this moot. In fact, it is possible that in some places the altar was actually located more or less in the middle of the central nave: a 4th-5th century mosaic of a basilica from Tabarka (Roman Thabraca) in modern Tunisia apparently portrays this orientation.

Thanks for the info patrick457.

This is true. It is interesting that whether they faced east was more important than whether they looked at each other. Something other than “horizontal vs. vertical” was their main consideration.

Let’s remember, folks, that the Bishop is the only authorized individual who may direct what takes place in the liturgy in every diocese. It is not Fr. Z, or anyone who happens to have an opinion that differs from what is authorized … and by the way, lawful.

Thanks for the replies. You all provided me with good information. So why did the use of ad populum become more encouraged than it had been? Also, is there any symbolism in this orientation that would be good to point out?

That is true, but my understanding is that the Latin is still the authoritative text. Otherwise, as it is seemingly implied, Fr.Z’s blog on this topic has no value.

:confused: Are you speaking about the position of the priest during liturgy, or something else? How does his blog and latin have anything to do with this topic?

If there is a problem with a vernacular translation of a rubric, we can fall back to the Latin original. Many people contend that the “which is desirable wherever possible” in the Latin does not refer to the “Mass facing the people” part, but rather the freestanding altar part. IE, the English of that rubric is imprecise, and the Church makes no value judgement on the direction of Mass in that rubric; the value judgement is on the location of the altar itself (detached).

And the wording in the new translation in the GIRM #299 was not essentially changed, which could have been done, particularly due to all the correspondence with regard to the original GIRM.

Interestingly, though, Fr. Z. translated the original from Italian to English and this is the wording he gave us as it is recorded in Notitiae 332, Vol. 29, No. 5, May 1993,
pp. 245-249:

“10) The option for celebrations is coherent with the foundational theological idea discovered and proven by the liturgical movement: “Liturgical actions are celebrations of the Church. . .which is the holy people of God gathered and ordered under the bishops” (SC 26). The theology of the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, “distinct in essence, and not in degree” (<essentia, non gradu>) and nevertheless ordered to each other (LG 10) is certainly better expressed with the arrangement of the . “

I realize it means everything to traditionalists to prove the posture wrong, but as I stated earlier, it is the Bishop who is in charge of liturgical matters, not the trads in the pews who would love to see this changed.

EDITED to ask a silly question. Why is it generally true that those who attend the Of never make the overt suggestion that trads adopt the VP posture in their liturgies? Yet most trads come here to persuade those who attend the OF to change the priest’s posture to AO, as if our priests are doing something illicit or inferior. Even though the Bishops have directed that VP is to remain the norm. :confused:

Nevertheless, it does not matter that it was not changed.

I am not sure what you mean in saying that “Fr Z. translated the original from Italian to English…” Do you mean to say that he translated the original (Latin) to English, or the Italian to English, or the original to Italian to English, or what?

This is the Latin: “Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit.”

People contend that the quod refers back to the first clause, and not to the second and that, therefore, any translation that implies that facing the people is to be preferred–not just possible but preferred–is flawed.

To your question, because this is not simply a game of, “Look here, you should do what I do.”

Using the bishop here is a cop-out, because we cannot possibly make an argument like that; it is far too broad. “The bishop” of what? The diocese? We are not talking about any particular diocese. We are talking about the translation of a very specific and discrete area of one document. Using the specific to refute the general seems not to work here.

Well, young trad man, I suggest that you gather your resources and announce to Rome that they are wrong and should listen to you guys who got it right. I listen to the Bishops who are the only ones to whom I owe my religious assent. :wink:

From the conclusion in Protocol No 2036/00/L referred to earlier:

There is no need to give excessive importance to elements that have changed throughout the centuries. What always remains is the event celebrated in the liturgy: this is manifested through rites, signs, symbols and words that express various aspects of the mystery without, however, exhausting it, because it transcends them. Taking a rigid position and absolutizing it could become a rejection of some aspect of the truth which merits respect and acceptance.

It simply is not worth arguing about, IMO. It is what it is.

I think you have extrapolated my posts to apply far beyond the content of this limited discussion. :wink:

Nevertheless, to the OP, I apologize for any side-tracking that I may have participated in.

Rome is not wrong. Why would you suggest this? In fact, it appears that they chose the Latin wording and modification carefully, something which would be harder in the English to do, like the example in this sentence. :slight_smile:

:confused: Rome has re-issued Article 299 in the 2011 G.I.R.M. with the same wording:

  1. The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. Moreover, the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns.[115] The altar should usually be fixed and dedicated.

As for the interpretation, I believe the CDWDS made it perfectly clear in their Protocol, and whether it was stated in English or latin makes little difference. ** Point in fact**, the Bishops have decided to maintain VP, so there is no point in debating their decision.

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