By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Christus Versus Populum ("Christ Toward the People")

In the interminable liturgical "wars" (which, by the way, Screwtape is happy to encourage), there is a continual debate as to whether the priest should face the people during the consecration (celebration versus populum or toward the people) or toward the liturgical east (ad orientem). Some of this debate is, at times, tied to the idea that somehow the Extraordinary Form (commonly mislabeled the "Tridentine Mass") of the Roman Rite is superior to the post-Vatican II or ordinary form of the Roman Rite, because in the Extraordinary Form the priest consecrates while facing away from the people. Let me be clear that in my view both forms of the one Roman Rite are perfectly appropriate, although I personally favor the Ordinary Form as an appropriate and welcome renewal of the liturgy as envisioned by the assembled bishops of Vatican II and by the subsequent General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

Having said all of that by way of meticulous introduction, let me get to my point today: there is a tendency to mischaracterize celebration toward the people (versus populum) as if the priest and the people are turning away from the Lord. I submit that this tendency is a theologically baseless (and unfairly tendentious) description of celebration versus populum. To be fair to one's "opponents," one should try to follow the example of Aquinas in generously presenting the views of the other side. A fair, theologically serious presentation of celebration versus populum would point out that what we are really talking about is Christus versus populum ("Christ toward the people"). Too often, in liturgical discussions, we neglect to ask the "who" question--in this case, the "who" question is: Who is turning toward the people? Christus. Christ. (In a similar way, some who love to talk about the "Spirit of the Liturgy" fail to ask who is the Spirit of the liturgy. Answer: the Holy Spirit, an answer that usually introduces an entirely new and invigorating dimension to such, often tiresome discussions.)

Contrary to the usually trope of attack used by some, the people are not interested in looking at the face of the celebrating human priest nor in having that same merely human priest look at them. Rather, devout Catholics are looking at the Eucharistic elements, the host and the chalice, when celebration is versus populum--and, once the elements are consecrated, Jesus, under the appearances of bread and wine, is facing them. So a proper theological understanding of celebration toward the people is not a matter of an allegedly enclosed circle in which the ordained priest and the congregation supposedly enjoy looking at each other's faces. Celebration versus populum is rather a matter of the Eucharistic Jesus turning toward the people so that the mutual gaze between Him and His people takes place in the liturgy (recall the famous anecdote from the Curé d'Ars recounted in footnote 12 of the Pope's recent June 16th Letter proclaiming a Year for Priests.). Viewing celebration versus populum in this deeper theological way is a good way to escape the dead end of liturgical arguments and of thus disappointing Screwtape's hopes for further division and distraction in a very challenging world.