At this time of year the focus of our devotions turns ad orientem, that is to say eastwards, to the scene at the Manger in Bethlehem. Perhaps this provides a good opportunity to address a question sometimes posed by visitors to our church: Why, they ask, do the fathers of the London Oratory say Mass with ‘backs to the people’? The answer the Provost usually gives, at least on a good day, goes something like this: “The priest celebrates Mass in union with the congregation, all facing towards God.”

The truth, of course, is that the Holy Mass is always the same Sacrifice of Calvary whether celebrated over a wooden box in a communist prison or on a marble altar in a cathedral. The direction in which this Sacrifice is offered does not change that. In an age when unity amongst the Faithful is one of the most urgent needs of Christendom, fisticuffs over the direction in which different congregations celebrate Mass are best avoided. The purpose of this letter is not to graze anyone’s sensibilities, but rather to explain our practice at the Oratory.

A first look at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome might seem to favour Mass versus populum, or facing the people, as more ancient and liturgically correct. The Papal Altar at St Peter’s is situated over the tomb of the Apostle near the west end of the building, and so arranged for the celebrant to offer the Holy Sacrifice facing down the nave of the basilica towards the main doors. Closer examination of the situation in St Peter’s, however, actually lends support to the practice that is maintained to this day at the Oratory. If you are ever blessed with the chance of a pilgrimage to Rome, go to St Peter’s and see for yourself.

The most edifying time of day to visit the basilica is in the early morning, when most of its altars are occupied by priests celebrating Mass. Amongst them you will see weary-eyed curial functionaries on their way to work under the neon lights of Vatican offices, and fresh-faced pastors leading pilgrimages from parishes all over the world. As the hum of quiet prayer builds up and fills the basilica, St Peter’s takes on the atmosphere of a beehive of pious industry. If you exit the building via the main doors at the right time on a clear morning then you will be greeted by the sun rising over the Apennines directly ahead. This is because St Peter’s is almost perfectly ‘oriented’. Ever since the basilica was built by the Emperor Constantine in the first half of the 4th century, any pope celebrating Mass over the tomb of St Peter at the Papal Altar around dawn has faced the sun rising in the East.

Fr Louis Bouyer, respected scholar and priest of the French Oratory, suggested that the congregation in ancient times would not actually have faced the celebrant from the nave of the original Constantinian basilica. Instead, for the most solemn part of the Mass at least, the Faithful would have turned to face the same direction as the celebrant, i.e. eastwards. The rising sun seen through the open doors would have put celebrant and people in mind of the Resurrection of Our Lord in Jerusalem, and of His glorious return at the Second Coming. Fr Bouyer’s thesis has been challenged. An alternative theory is that the congregation would have faced the altar which was screened or veiled. Either way, opportunities for celebrant and people eyeballing each other would have been severely restricted.

If you wish to consult something more heavyweight on this subject than the Provost’s amateurish meander into liturgical history, by the way, then you should read The Reform of the Roman Liturgy by Monsignor Klaus Gamber, an important liturgical scholar greatly admired by Pope Benedict XVI. Another indispensible study is Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, by the talented Franconian polymath Uwe Michael Lang with a preface by one J. Ratzinger. And there is, of course, Cardinal Ratzinger’s own work, The Spirit of the Liturgy.

Away from Rome, the custom developed of building churches with the sanctuary at the ‘east end’ of the building, so that the celebrant would lead the congregation up at the front rather than from behind. East was considered the ideal direction for all to face, at least from the western point of view, because it was in the Orient that Our Lord lived, died, rose and ascended into Heaven. It is also from the East that we expect His return in glory at the Second Coming: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (Mtt 24:27).

Such ‘orientation’ is by no means unique to Christian liturgical practice. Jewish synagogues have traditionally been built to facilitate worship towards the site of the Temple in Jerusalem. And if an itinerant priest journeying through Hyde Park were ever wondering in which direction to set up his travelling altar, he should not have to go too far before finding a devout Muslim with his body bowed eastwards in prayer.

On sites where an east-west configuration has not been possible to achieve physically (e.g. the London Oratory, which faces north), we Catholics are still able to celebrate Mass adorientem in a liturgical sense, by means of priest and people facing in the same direction towards what is known as ‘liturgical east’, i.e. towards the altar on which Our Lord comes to us at Mass.

At each and every Mass that is celebrated, those central mysteries of our Faith that occurred in the Holy Land are made present in a mystical way as the Sacrifice of Calvary is renewed. The Word made Flesh Who came into the world in Bethlehem and was crucified in Jerusalem returns to us on the altar, so that we may adore and receive His Risen and Living Body. And it is surely reasonable that when we say “Thy Kingdom come” in the Pater Noster we should all stand united, as the Bride of Christ awaits the arrival of the Groom Who will come in glory from the East.

Whichever way Mass is offered, it is important to understand the symbolism of celebration ad orientem and to know the reasons for it, if only for the light it casts on the deeper meaning and nature of the Mass itself. For this reason, those places that maintain this tradition offer a service to the whole Church by keeping ad orientem worship alive.

During the season of Christmas especially, try to remember as the celebrant reads the Canon of the Mass that we stand and kneel united facing the Holy Land, liturgically even if not physically. Please offer petitions for our beleaguered Christian brethren in the Middle East. The Christian presence in the ‘Cradle of Christianity’ is in danger of being squeezed out of existence. In this season of joy, we must not forget those for whom the Calvary of anxiety and fear is a daily reality even at Christmas. United ad orientem, let us pray for them, as we await His Return.