Someone showed me a bulletin from his parish. The pastor was announcing that he had decided to offer Mass on the "High Privileged Altar" rather than at the altar facing the people.
He explained that this orientation is more reverential and keeps the priest from taking center stage. He wants to prevent the priest's personality from getting in the way of the Liturgy.
He wrote that from the start Christians faced east when they prayed. This posture, he said, is the time-honored ad orientem.
This facing eastward has been explained as a witness to the rising of the sun which in turn symbolized the universality of God and the source of salvation. For this reason, in some places, churches were built with the altar against the eastern wall.
History, however, muddies this seemingly simple explanation.
In the fourth century Christians in
Rome built churches with the altar at the
west end of the church, in an apse, and the people sat facing the altar, facing
west. The priest, however, stood on the west side of the altar facing east,
facing the people.
This architectural arrangement, putting the sanctuary at the west end of the building, was in imitation of the sanctuary of the temple in
Writing in The Journal of the Institute For Sacred Architecture (vol. 10, 2005), Helen Dietz, PhD, explains that in some places the congregations in these west-facing Roman churches would turn and face east at the time of the consecration, the same direction the priest was facing.
Dietz writes, "Quite obviously, the importance of the people's facing east in the Christian church was that this posture signified they were 'the priesthood of the faithful,' who in this way showed that they joined in the sacrifice offered by the ministerial priest in his and their collective name."
Thus in some architectural arrangements, even when the priest faced east, he was facing the people (ad populum).
By the 8th or 9th century, again depending on the architecture of the church and the placing of the sanctuary, the priest's position changed and he faced the apse or wall when he stood at the altar, with the people standing behind him.
The meaning of ad orientem changed from "to the east" to "to the wall" or "to the high altar fixed against the wall." The altar whether on the north end or the south end of the church, whether on the east or the west, became ad orientem.
Priests who today want to celebrate Mass facing ad orientem do not necessarily mean they are facing east; they may mean they are facing the altar which is against the wall.
It was in the light of the liturgical renewal ordered by the Second Vatican Council that liturgists and architects were advised to create a worship space which allowed the presiding priest to face the congregation.
As many liturgists noted, the first Mass was not celebrated with Jesus facing a wall. The first Eucharist was celebrated at table with the disciples gathered around. Such was the custom of the early church.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (as included in the Roman Missal, third edition, 2011) maintains this revision of church architecture and the arrangement for celebrating the liturgy.
Article 303 says, "In building new churches, it is preferable for a single altar to be erected, one that in the gathering of the faithful will signify the one Christ and the one Eucharist of Christ.
"In already existing churches, however, when the old altar is so positioned that it makes the people's participation difficult but cannot be moved without damage to artistic value, another fixed altar, skillfully made and properly dedicated, should be erected and the sacred rites celebrated on it alone. In order that the attention of the faithful not be distracted from the new altar, the old altar should not be decorated in any special way" (GIRM 303).
A pastor's decision to celebrate Mass ad orientem can find some basis in history, but history shows that ad orientem is open to more than one interpretation.
Whether a liturgy celebrated on a high altar fixed against the wall with the priest's back to the people is more reverent and prayerful is a matter of varying spirituality, ecclesiology, and even taste.
At this time in the Church's history, the positioning of the priest and people around the altar is the norm. It has been adopted to emphasize community (Christ is present in his people), exercise the common priesthood (all the baptized share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ), and promote the active participation of the people (a primary goal of Vatican II's liturgical renewal).
The ad orientem of today is orientation to Christ with, in and through the people.
That is the germ of the matter.