In defense of “versus populum”

(No pics today)

So, Catholic topic, and one that isn’t even high on a list of things to get mad about.  I happen to have had an experience/thought on this today at mass and decided, you know what, I’m gonna say it!  I’m a fan of versus populum.  To those not knowing, it means that at the mass the priest at the altar is oriented toward the people, versus, oriented toward the tabernacle at all times (also known as “ad orientem”).

Traditionally, the Catholic Church faced “ad orientem”.  We are talking at least 1500 years.  That’s a long time, and it’s not got anything wrong with it – tradition (small t) speaks of facing the east to the rising sun as the symbol of the universality of God, and other reasons I’m too lazy to look up.  So let’s just lay it out there that ad orientem is good and beautiful and great.

So why did the priests turn around?  I don’t know.  Some will say because the Vatican did it.  Some will say that people that aren’t really Catholic did it.  All those people might be right and my thought might be wrong, but I’m here to propose another thought.  And I KNOW there are people well versed in theology that can eat me up on this, so please keep me out of heresy!

The church, the pope, the hierarchy – their job is to catch up to the Holy Spirit and align the church to God’s will.  In concrete terms, look at the Acts of the Apostles and the “Pigs in a blanket” reading (Acts, 10).  Peter, surprised that the Holy Spirit came down on unbaptized Gentiles, was like, “whoa, we better baptize now because the Holy Spirit is working!”  (My paraphrase.)  This is the life of the church – to better understand where the Spirit is leading us and conform us to it.  (Shout out to the Lanky Guys podcast for this.  Check the sidebar).

Why do I bring this up?  Am I saying that turning the priests around is the will of the Holy Spirit?  I have no idea.  All I can share with you are stories from my perspective.

I don’t like the priest with his back to me, mumbling something in Latin for many minutes at a time.  Sorry to put it so bluntly.  I am removed, a spectator, someone who watches the players play.  And in the mass, the priest is the one doing the actions, sure.  So… why does it matter?

I then go to a story from a retreat I went to, where I heard a phenomenal talk on what the mass is, and what our role in the mass is.  Not the priest’s role, the people’s role.  I’m not going to repeat everything Fr. Schmitz said, but what he said was that we are not spectators.  We are on the field, we are playing in the match, we are in the play – we are participants, not fans.  We are in the church, at mass, to worship God.  Not to watch the priest offer a sacrifice, not to wait to share in the eucharistic meal.  We are there to worship God through the sacrifice, doing what Jesus said to do: “Do this, in memory of me”.  POWERFUL STUFF!

Which brings me to my second story.  After that talk, I look at the mass a little differently.  I find it easier to offer my sacrifice on the altar with The Sacrifice, and I find it easier to be a worshipper, not just a spectator (oh, I’m a failure at it, yes.  but it’s a lot easier to try!)  I’ve gone to mass my whole life and NEVER have had the same understanding of what it was for before now.

You know what helps me even more?  Not having someone facing the other way speaking in mumbles for minutes at a time.  What if, what if the Holy Spirit was guiding the church to turn the priest around not so that the priest could be the centerpiece of the liturgy or so that “we could dance if we want to” or all the other liturgical abuses – what if He wanted us to understand better what the mass is, and why we were there?  What if we were losing our understanding of what the mass was, and didn’t realize it?  What if we needed to get to the next level of understanding and turning around is the first step, like Peter’s “Pigs in a blanket” dream?  What if turning around was an inspired thing to help us understand the humanity of Jesus that we all share, that has been so desecrated over the last century and more?  (And seriously, while we have been so self-centered about how awesome humans are, we have killed, maimed, tortured, etc. humans and babies.)   I don’t know the answer, that’s why I’m saying “what if”.

I’m not going to argue one is better than the other, I just have my thoughts and preferences.  I welcome your thoughts and comments, and if I’m not theologically sound, fraternal correction is welcome.

4 thoughts on “In defense of “versus populum””

  1. Great post! do you have a link to the Father Schmitz retreat you mention? if so please post in “versus Populum 2”


  2. You mention that “we are part of the Mass”, but we don’t have to be there for Mass to happen. The priest can say Mass by himself (as some priests in prison have done) and the miracle still happens, so while we can participate, we are not essential for Mass to happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes, that is correct. I am referring to when we gather on the Lord’s day, or any public mass. We are called to take active part in the mass, as small p priests by baptism. The priest is essential, but if we are just going to go watch him or only put the onus on him, why do we go to mass at all?


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