From Sancta Missa:
Why does the priest not face the people for most of the Traditional Latin Mass?
The priest offers Mass facing the same direction as the people, because he and the people together are offering worship and sacrifice to God. He is not turning his back on the people to exclude them. Rather, as a Christian community, are all facing ad orientem (i.e. toward the east) waiting in joyful expectation for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ who will return to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire (Rite of Baptism, 1962).
What in the early Church determined the position of the altar was that it faced Eastward. To quote St. Augustine: “When we rise to pray, we turn East, where heaven begins. And we do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from the other directions on earth…, but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God.”
This quotation shows that the Christians of those early days, after listening to the homily, would rise for the prayer which followed, and turn towards the East. St. Augustine always refers to this turning to the East in prayer at the end of his homilies, using a set formula, Conversi ad Dominum (“turn to face the Lord”).
Why does the priest not face the people in the celebration of the Extraordinary Form (and, at times, the Ordinary Form)?
Because he is offering the Mass in Christ’s name and in His Person, in persona Christi, to God the Father and is leading his people in adoration and worship. He is facing east, the rising sun, which is symbolic of the ‘New Jerusalem’ and he is leading his flock as the Good Shepherd does. When he needs to address the congregation he turns to face the people and says, for example, “Dominus vobiscum” (“The Lord be with you”) or “Orate fratres” (“Pray, brethren”).
Does this mean that the people do not participate in the Rite of Mass?
Catholics should have a sincere, intense, interior participation in the Mass, raising their minds and hearts to God, uniting themselves with the priest offering the Divine Victim at the altar and offering themselves in unison with Him. Singing at Mass, making the Sign of the Cross, kneeling and other physical forms of participation are important to our worship, because God gave us a body, made in His image and likeness, so that we might worship Him in our bodies. But the ultimate participation is achieved in the spiritual participation of the Mass, which finds its culmination in the worthy reception of Holy Communion.
Vatican II, in its decree on the Sacred Liturgy, envisaged the preservation of Latin in the Mass. We cannot conclude that Latin is a barrier to full, conscious, and active, participation. The documents of Vatican II clearly give evidence to this fact. Nor did the fathers of Vatican II did not consider Mass offered ad orientem (i.e. toward the East) as an obstacle to the full and active participation which they advocated. Even the General Instruction in the 2003 Roman Missal (G.I.R.M.) indicates that the priest is only required to face the people at specific moments in the Mass and not throughout.
Deep profundity in the Mass requires spiritual participation that transcends all other forms of external participation.
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