Facing East and the Altar/Novus Ordo


My parish has a very traditional and pious and beautiful Novus Ordo Mass with some Latin mixed in. In our diocese we have just finished the long reign of a very controversial Modernist bishop who blazed unwelcome changes all over the place here over a long time, but now have a normal one (and that’s not-so-normal for us!).

Some weeks back, our Priest told us work would begin replacing broken floor tile up by the altar and with the Bishop’s permission he would have to move the altar table back and face it for Mass while the work is carried on. Now, I have not been to that parish for Mass regularly so he might have told others about things I did not here. The thing is, this week it appeared to me that the work was done, but our dear priest was still reverently facing east, toward the altar; his back to us for the Consecration. I actually love it. It feels more right. Less like a performance for an audience and more like we are all in this together with the same intent, the same focus…

Now, I know our priest would not do anything disobedient; he knows what is right and what his ecclesiastical superiors have the authority to ask of him and he does it, like it or not. So I am wondering, is it possible he got permission from the new Bishop to keep facing this way to celebrate the Mass?? Is this a thing the bishop could grant permission for? I am wondering…


There is no permission needed to celebrate either way. The Church recognizes both as equally valid.


Oh, I hope you are right! If your really are, I am so glad!




Thank you for that very informative link! I can only guess that our priest would have asked our new bishop permission, being the kind of man he is, and that the bishop, being the kind of man I think he probably is, gave permission. Just guessing! For so many years the pious in this diocese have been denied reasonable requests and have had changes forced on them even when large groups beg against them. They were callously ignored and minimalized. As a convert in 2000, I was scandalized to see such widespread weary discouragement among the faithful here. Now to let a priest follow his conscience about what is best for celebrating Mass when it is all in order with Church teaching even though its not what everyone is doing is such a refreshing change! And I do think all of us at this parish welcome it.

From your link, I like this:

… January 25, 1966, Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, the president of the Consilium, states that regarding the renewal of altars “prudence must be our guide”. He goes on to explain:
Above all because for a living and participated liturgy, it is not indispensable that the altar should be …[facing the people]: in the Mass, the entire liturgy of the word is celebrated at the chair, ambo or lectern, and, therefore, facing the assembly; as to the eucharistic liturgy, loudspeaker systems make participation feasible enough. Secondly, hard thought should be given to the artistic and architectural question, this element in many places being protected by rigorous civil laws.

This is so true! I thought of this today, as I marveled what might be our new Novus Ordo Mass protocol. I think our priest has already done such an excellent job mixing plenty of Latin (much chant, many of the prayers) with English language, and yes, the majority of the Mass faces people. And yes, we have a microphone that works fine so when he faces away from us it still feels exactly like we are all included.

Truly, having the priest face the altar for that one significant key central part of the Mass brings such attention to the reality of what is happening and the importance of it. (Better than the bells! But we need those, too!) It is truly a picture of the priest leading the people in worship, and that is the most worshipful part of Mass! Its just so right.I hope soon more parishes all over follow this.

Pray for our Bishops and Priests!


Both are equally valid options. If Father choses to celebrate Masses ad orientem and he’s willing to put up with the sass that comes from a few parishioners and visitors for doing so, go for it. I think it’s an under-used, but very reverent mode of celebrating the Mass.


My pastor tried it one year at the Christmas midnight Mass, got a lot of complaints, said “What’s the point?” and since has decided to say the EF instead at the midnight Mass. No complaints since.


I sort of like the symbolism of the priest facing liturgical East, though I have not seen it done. I can see where there would be blow back, but such changes often prove the best teaching moments, as most of the criticism is from ignorance of what is happening.


But thank God the vast majority of Masses are celebrated as it was initially , with the presbyter facing the rest of the assembly gathered for the celebration of the Eucharist .


A priest always faces east because the altar itself is liturgical east.

It does not matter what direction on the compass the priest is facing or whether he is ad orientum or versus populum. The altar is where the Son of God rises at each Mass. The altar is where the Light of the World enters creation. As long as the priest is facing the altar, he is facing liturgical east.

You have seen it hundreds of times. You see it at every Mass.



Depends on whether they had a free-standing altar or not, I would think. And weren’t many of the early Masses said in catacombs, where there may not have been much room to begin with?


Actually, the act of the priest facing the laity is a new invention of the 20th century. The only precedent for it may be found in certain monastic/religious communities, in the Middle Ages, but even then it was not really what we do today I’m told.

This is a quote from Pope Benedict’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy, chapter 3 (italics mine):

Misunderstanding the Meaning of the Meal

This is, of course, a misunderstanding of the significance of the Roman basilica and of the positioning of its altar, and the representation of the Last Supper is also, to say the least, inaccurate. Consider, for example, what Louis Bouyer has to say on the subject:

The idea that a celebration facing the people must have been the primitive one, and that especially of the last supper, *has no other foundation than a mistaken view of what a meal could be in antiquity, Christian or not. *In no meal of the early Christian era, did the president of the banqueting assembly ever face the other participants. They were all sitting, or reclining, on the convex side of a C-shaped table, or of a table having approximately the shape of a horse shoe. The other side was always left empty for the service. Nowhere in Christian antiquity, could have arisen the idea of having to ‘face the people’ to preside at a meal. The communal character of a meal was emphasized just by the opposite disposition: the fact that all the participants were on the same side of the table (Liturgy and Architecture, pp. 53-54).


It is not a new invention.

You correctly state that monastic communities celebrate Mass gathered around the altar facing each other. The practice is as old as monasticism. Many ordinary Christians got their Mass from Abbey Churches during the middle ages so it would have been all many Christians had ever known.

The practice is widespread today. I have not only witnessed it but have been invited into the sanctuary to gather around the altar with the Brothers at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia.

People are confusing facing toward/away from the people with facing east. They have nothing to do with each other. The priest always faces east because the altar is east and the priest always faces the altar.



I think it depends on the layout of the building. There is nothing worse than a priest celebrating eastward facing at a forward altar. But in those few Catholic churches where a high altar has been retained, it seems foolish not to celebrate as originally intended. There is something about integrity of liturgial space that often gets missed.


What does “eastward facing at a forward altar” mean? I don’t understand.

Do you mean that a priest celebrates Mass facing toward literal, physical east with his back turned to the altar?



It is a new invention, as far as I know.

I’ve been to a traditional Latin Mass at a religious community, which is probably closer to how it was done in the Middle Ages.

Sure, all the brothers were in choir, so they were “around” the altar in a sense and were not looking at the priest’s back, but he wasn’t exactly facing them, either. Most of them were looking at him from the side. Furthermore, the laity (I mean not religious members) were not invited into the sanctuary, so from where we sat, we were indeed looking at father’s back. As far as I know, this is how it was practiced in the Middle Ages, not what you describe, which is why the way most parishes celebrate it today truly is something new.

As to whether father always faces east theologically, I’ll take your word for it, but it’s a fact he also faced east geographically until recently, at least during the “Mass of the Faithful” (what we now call the “Liturgy of the Eucharist”).

Sorry, I didn’t mean to derail this thread. Only on a place like CAF where mutual learning and encouragement is the purpose, I thought it was worth dispelling the myth that early Masses were all versus populum since someone stated it.


Yes but the PERCEPTION is that the priest is praying to the people where the prayers are between him and God. He’s not even asking for a response during the EP, take away the acknowledgement of the mystery of faith, when there it would make a little sense turning to the people if at all.

Churches are built differently so that’s why they had to put a distinguishing “liturgical east” in there; it probably would have been more correct to use the expression “cum populo” instead of some derogatory “back to the people.”


No. He stands in front of Nave altar which is not at the most easternmost point in the building - as opposed to a high altar which almost always was built into the eastern wall.


The monks at the Cistercian monastery were I was on vocation retreat all left the chior, walked into the sanctuary, gathered around the altar and the priest said the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This is common. It is not new and was done with both freestanding and high altars.

The laity was not invited into the sanctuary because of the idea of enclosure. The monks are an enclosed, monastic community, and the priest serves their needs in the same way as the monk who does the dishes or sews the habits serves their needs. Although it does vary from community to community, it has been done this way for centuries. It is common, and not correct to call it new.

People think that the freestanding altar is Protestant, that it was an invention of Martin Luther. Luther was an Augustinian Monk who simply brought the monastic freestanding altar into the Churches he founded so even the protestant freestanding altar has Catholic monastic roots.



Here is a nice article about the place and meaning of the altar, if anyone cares to read it.


You guys fuss too much about the placement of the altar and which way the priest faces. Priests, religious and theologians don’t fuss about it as much as you guys do. You guys are worse than AM radio talk show hosts are with politics. :shrug:

I argue the point only because I am a fan of truth and don’t like it when someone says something very old is a new innovation. I don’t care which way the priest faces or whether the altar is a shelf attached to the wall or a table in the middle of the floor. I just like truth, that’s all.


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