Directions in the liturgy

This past week I had the opportunity to serve at two Masses, the first ad orientem, the second versus populum. I don’t have much experience serving at the former – I think, in fact, that this was only the second or third time I did – but the proximity in time to what I’m used to offers a great opportunity to compare them.

Both Masses were according to the Ordinary Form, so the direction the priest faces was really the only significant difference. And what the priest does to an extent dictates what the people assisting him do.

The above photo, which was taken by David Oostveen during last week’s Bootcamp, gives an idea of what the ad orientem Mass looked like. The priest, Father Martin Claes, is facing the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament – Christ – and the crucifix above it. All the parts of the Mass which are directed at God – prayers, the words of consecration, the offerings of bread and wine – are spoken and presented in this direction. Priest and congregation all face in the same direction: the priest truly leads the people in prayer. The homily and other parts of the liturgy of the Mass, which are directed at the congregation are of course spoken while the priest faces the people.

In his lecture a few days after this Mass, Fr. Harry van der Vegt spoke about reference points in the Mass. The liturgy of the Mass has such a reference point, one which is reflected in the very building it takes place in: Christ, truly present in the tabernacle, and the depiction if His sacrifice on the cross, in the form of the crucifix on the altar. Like a Renaissance painting, the lines of the church guide the eye to that point.

The versus populum Mass which I served at today breaks the eye away from that reference point. The priest stands behind the people’s altar (visible in the foreground of the above photo) facing the congregation for all parts of the liturgy: both for those parts aimed at the people as for those parts directed at God. That lends a very different atmosphere to the Mass, at least for me as an acolyte. Facing the congregation is a self-conscious job: you are aware that the things you do or don’t do are being watched (whether people really watch me is something I doubt, though, but the feeling remains). The awareness of the congregation does not vanish when I don’t see them , of course. I am very much aware that it is not just the priest and me at that Mass, but my attention, merely because of the fact that I look in His direction, is on Christ and so on His sacrifice on the cross, on the Eucharist, the unbloody sacrifice.

Of course, God is not dependent on the direction we face when it comes to hearing our prayers and seeing our offerings. Essentially, the orientation (a word which, in itself, seems to refer to the act of turning eastward – east being the traditional side of the apse in Catholic Churches) towards the Lord is for our own benefit.

In his address to the gathered clergy attending the Clergy Conference in Rome last January, Msgr. Guido Marini quotes Pope Benedict XVI on this matter:

“Let us listen to the words of his Holiness, Benedict XVI, directly, who in the preface to the first book of his Complete Works, dedicated to the liturgy, writes the following: “The idea that the priest and people should stare at one another during prayer was born only in modern Christianity, and is completely alien to the ancient Church. The priest and people most certainly do not pray one to the other, but to the one Lord. Therefore, they stare in the same direction during prayer: either towards the east as a cosmic symbol of the Lord who comes, or, where this is not possible, towards the image of Christ in the apse, towards a crucifix, or simply towards the heavens, as our Lord Himself did in his priestly prayer the night before His Passion (John 17.1). In the meantime the proposal made by me at the end of the chapter treating this question in my work ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’ is fortunately becoming more and more common: rather than proceeding with further transformations, simply to place the crucifix at the center of the altar, which both priest and the faithful can face and be lead in this way towards the Lord, whom everyone addresses in prayer together.””

As all parts of the liturgy, the direction we face and the things we gaze upon have the function of leading us towards the Lord. Giving Him due attention is not only an act of gratitude and loving worship, but also a step towards understanding, both spiritually and intellectually. God has come down towards us, has loved the world so much that He gave His only Son (John 3:16) for our salvation. This is something unheard of. God needn’t have done anything of the kind, but He did it all the same. That understanding of the sacrifice He was willing to make for us is, in my opinion, a basic cornerstone of our participation in the liturgy of the Mass.

Back to versus populum and ad orientem. This ‘leading us towards the Lord’ is possible with both of these (if done correctly, of course), but the means by which they achieve it is different. In a Mass versus populum the sacrifice of Christ is approached via the people, the community, the mystical body of Christ which is the Church. This grounds the Eucharistic sacrifice in the people, the recipients of the salvation Christ won for us. In a Mass ad orientem we first look at He who made the sacrifice. Since we believe that Christ is truly physically present in the Eucharist it seems almost impossible not to look at Him – or at least in His direction – when we address Him.

The immediate difference, at least for one who has the honour to be kneeling in front of the altar where the sacrifice on the cross is made present again, is very clear. The sacrificial character of the Mass retakes its rightful place in the liturgy, a place that in the recent past has often been overshadowed by that other important element: the communio, the sense of community of the gathered faithful.

Although ad orientem worship is often misrepresented as ‘the priest turned away from the people all the time’, the reality is more intricate. The liturgy has a structure which fits the people of God gathered before the Lord. Some parts (the readings, the homily, the invitations to prayer) we share as a community; we listen together, we pray together, we answer together. Other parts are about the community as a whole – faithful and priest – turning to the Lord, to speak to Him, to ask Him things, to offer Him our whole being. This is an inner attitude reflected and strengthened by outward gestures. And we need these gestures, as means to learn, to understand and often simply to get into the right mood.

Back from Bootcamp

I am back from a week (which seemed to go by far too quickly, as all such things do) at the Credimus Bootcamp. I enjoyed the hospitality of Father David van Dijk, and the company of good, intelligent and faithful friends. Many topics were discussed, both in interactive workshops and in lectures, and some may find their way into this blog in due time. But for now I will make do with a selection of photos I took over the course of the week.

My breviary lies ready for Lauds.
Decoration on the ceiling where the nave crosses the transept
Shadowplay in the north transept of the church
Our first guest speaker was Father Marc Heemels. He spoke about the Benedictine monastery of Le Barroux in France
Another workshop was about Gregorian music and its history. Here, diocesan hermit Brother Hugo takes a look at some examples of medieval music notation
Later, Brother Hugo taught us, or tried to teach us, the very basics of Gregorian singing
We had Masses in both forms of the Latin rite. Here Father Harry van der Vegt, cathedral administrator in Utrecht, offers Mass in the Extraordinary Form
Fr. David van Dijk was our host. Here he delivers the homily during the week's first Mass (in the Ordinary Form)
The thurible is lit, ready to incense the Blessed Sacrament
A nightly returning ritual: at the end of an hour of Adoration and Compline, Fr. David gives Benediction
A day trip on Wednesday included a viewing of many religious artifacts, including this medieval manuscript of Gregorian music
A vibrant stained glass window in the church of the Immaculate Conception in Oss, another stop on our trip
The interior of the church of St. James the Greater in the town of Zeeland
A barbecue on the penultimate night, with the weather cooperating exquisitely.
One of Fr. David's two cats says hello

Credimus Bootcamp, edition 3

For the third time I’ll be attending the so-called Credimus Bootcamp, this year from 17 to 23 July. It’s been suggested I should advertise it a bit here, and I gladly do so.

So, what is this Bootcamp thing? On the website it is described as a ‘Catholic catechesis camp for young people who want to learn more about their faith’, and that’s as good a description as I can think of. Whereas conventional catechesis in most parishes is necessarily general and superficial, the Credimus Bootcamp wants to delve into the depths of the Catholic faith, to answer the difficult questions and come up with all manner of treasures from the wealth of our faith.

In my experience it is not only a learning experience where you’re made to think and learn, both intellectually and spiritually, but also a pleasant week spent with like-minded people. Serious Catholics can have fun too, and Bootcamp offers plenty of fun.

During most days, guest speakers (priests, religious and lay people) will come and speak about subjects in their field of expertise, we will have Mass in both forms of the Latin rite, we will pray the Liturgy of the Hours together and of course sit down for meals and a drink or two in the evenings.

Of the guest speakers there have already been three confirmed for this year: Father Marc Heemels, parish priest in the parish of St. John the Baptist/Holy Curé of Ars in Eygelshoven in the Diocese of Roermond; Brother Federico of the Institute of the Incarnate Word; and Father Harry van der Vegt, cathedral administrator of the cathedral of St. Catherine and priest of the church of St. Willibrord, both in Utrecht.

Past speakers (who have included Father Tim Finigan, Father Cor Mennen, Deacon Peter Vermaat and Brother Hugo) discussed all manner of topics, ranging from the liturgy to the saints to ecclesiology. Anyone with a functioning brain should be able to follow the lectures and meetings, even if they go deeper than what you’re used to.

This years edition will take place in the parish of St. Mary Magdalen in Geffen, in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, where Father David van Dijk will host us for the second time.

For more information you can hop over to the Bootcamp website and sign up. Bootcamp will be in Dutch, although many attendees will speak English too.