Well, what a kerfuffle! An Eminent Lord of the English Church publicly contradicting an Eminent Lord of the Roman Curia on what direction the celebrant should (or might) face when offering the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
An interesting, but not particularly edifying debate ensues on the precise meaning of the General Instructions of the Roman Missal in order to prove (or disprove) the point that the "normative direction" is ad orientem and versus populum is the "exception". Despite little victories of textual meaning, the reality is that - so far as the practice of the Church is concerned - the "normative" direction is versus populum. It had been so increasingly in Papal Rome from the moment Pope Paul VI offered Mass versus populum on the occasion of his Coronation in Saint Peter's Square on 29th June 1963. Throughout the rest of the 1960's leading up to the publication of the new Roman Missal in 1970 * Pope Paul increasingly offered Mass versus populum, signifying that he wished to establish this as the normative practice for the Roman Church.
|Pope Paul VI offering Low Mass|
Saint Peter's Square in 1963.
Versus populum celebrations increasingly became
the usual form of Papal Mass during his reign.
We might regard the introduction of this practice as being the product of a particular (dated) liturgical philosophy, or as being based on imperfect scholarship. We might object to the notion that the practice of the Papal Liturgy defines how Mass is to be celebrated throughout the Latin Church. We might regard the introduction of versus populum as a Grand Mistake which has been productive of a loss of the Sacred. We might think many things about it. But it did happen and to argue fifty years later that versus populum is now "exceptional" based on an exegesis of the General Instructions is just silly and not helpful. The fact remains that the majority of celebrants and the Faithful are quite comfortable with versus populum celebrations of the Mass and do not see any reason to change.
Cardinal Sarah - and many others - obviously wishes that the Church becomes increasingly aware of an alternative : the merits of offering the Mass ad orientem. Equally obvious is that there are some well-placed in the Church who do not wish such an alternative even to be discussed. Some further considerations will follow in the second part of these musings.
* Leaving aside that the traditional usage at the Patriarchal Roman basilicas was "versus populum" because of their ancient orientation.