Those of you who during the past 15 days devoted your time to watching football, or lazing by the sea or cursing the English for Brexit, would have probably missed the stirring of the ecclesiastical pot as a result of the address given by Cardinal Robert Sarah during the opening of the Sacra Liturgia conference in London on July 5.

Sarah exhorted priests to start celebrating Mass facing the east while giving their backs to the congregation. Sarah is not an average Joe. As head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, his comments carry weight. More so since a couple of weeks earlier he took the same position during an interview with the French maga­zine Famille Chrétienne.

Social networks provided the battleground between those who were exultant or in shock at the proposal made by such an authoritative darling of the conservative wing of the Church. Our local brand of Tridentine conservatives, fuelled by several priests who were ordained during the past 15 years or so, were thrilled to no end.

Like conservatives overseas they form a motley bunch more than a monolithic block. Undoubtedly there are some mode­rate conservatives who have a right to their views and with whom one can dialogue. Others share the views of the extreme right, which consider the post-Vatican II Mass as ‘a protestant rite’. Sarah fell foul even with these ultra-traditionalists, so much so that the website askaCatholic describes Sarah as “a weak and incompetent neo-con hero”.

The practice of orienting both the liturgy – and Church buildings – toward the east is a very old tradition in the Catholic Church. It is still the norm for Orthodox Christianity and Eastern Catholic churches. John of Damascus wrote about it as far back as the seventh century. It is based on Matthew 24,27: “The coming of the Son of Man will be like lightning striking in the east. And flashing far into the west.” This practice also means that the priest celebrates Mass with his back to the people.

Sarah believes that if this practice becomes mainstream (instead of the exception it now is) the Church will be putting God back at the centre of the Church’s liturgical life. He quoted the “lament of God” proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah: “The people have turned their backs on me.” “Let us turn again towards the Lord!” he said.

I have no doubt that Cardinal Sarah has taken this position because he sincerely believes that it is for the good of the Church. However, he is intelligent enough to know that his use of this scriptural quote is, at best, very unfortunate, as it has nothing to do with the direction of one’s gaze or the position of one’s back while celebrating Mass.

Sarah exhorted priests to start celebrating Mass facing the East while giving their backs to the congregation

Looking towards the east (as he suggests) or the west or in any other direction will not in itself help people experience the beauty of the love that is celebrated during Mass, which is the community’s sacrificial meal par excellance. The Church’s celebration of the earthly liturgy will not give participants a better foretaste of the heavenly liturgy just by looking towards the east and by having the celebrant give his back to the congregation.

When congregation and celebrant face each other their communication and bonding is definitively much better. This bonding will then help them experience the presence of Christ that is guaranteed whenever people are gathered in his name. The presence of he who is the way to the Father will then help the community understand that “the liturgy is not about us but about God” (to quote Benedict XVI). There is absolutely no need to revert to yesteryear’s symbols to live this perennial reality.

Luckily, the Vatican immediately quash­ed all rumours that Sarah was flying Pope Francis’s kite. Many got this impression as Sarah himself had twice mentioned during his London address that he had the full support of Pope Francis in his quest to “reform the reform”.

Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, the Vatican spokesperson, said that the Pope met Cardinal Sarah two days after the London speech, making it clear that the “ordinary” form of celebrating the Mass is the one promulgated after the Second Vatican Council. He added that the “extraordinary” form, while accepted under the means expressed by Benedict XVI, should not become the norm.

Francis practices what he preaches about the possibility of celebrating Mass ad orientem in extraordinary and exceptional circumstances. Since his election, he has celebrated this rite at least once a year, for the annual tradition of the Pope baptising the newborns of Vatican employees in the Sistine Chapel.

Lombardi added that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that the altar should be built in such a way “that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible”.

Lombardi also said that “it is better to avoid using the expression ‘the reform of the reform’ (as Sarah did in his London speech), given that this has sometimes been the source of misunderstanding”.

Those using the expression form a spectrum ranging from those who would reasonably like to tweak certain exaggerations that some unfortunately indulge in, to those eager to throw the clock backwards, thus deforming the reform.

Pope Francis is of a different opinion. Last year he celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Mass offered in Italian. In his homily he said that:

“Let us thank the Lord for what he has done in His Church in these 50 years of liturgical reform… It was truly a courageous gesture for the Church to draw near to the people of God, so that they are able to understand well what they are doing.

“It is not possible to go backwards,” he said. “Always forward! Those who go backward are mistaken.”

My final comment to the good cardinal and to the local enthusiasts of the deforming the reform movement: thanks, but no thanks.

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