Versus populum (Latin for "towards the people") is the liturgical orientation in which the priest celebrates Mass facing the people. The opposite orientation, whereby the priest faces in the same direction as the people (thereby having his back to them), is called ad orientem ("towards the east" − even if the priest is not facing eastward) or ad apsidem ("towards the apse" − even if the altar is unrelated to the apse of the church or even if the church or chapel has no apse).
From the middle of the 17th century, almost all new Latin-rite altars were built against a wall or backed by a reredos, with a tabernacle placed on the main altar or inserted into the reredos. This meant that the priest turned to the people, putting his back to the altar, only for a few short moments at Mass. However, the Tridentine Missal itself speaks of the option of celebrating versus populum, and gives corresponding instructions for the priest when performing actions that in the other orientation involved turning around in order to face the people.
It is clear that the early Christians were accustomed to pray facing the geographical east.
Earliest churches in Rome
It has been said that the reason the Pope always faced the people when celebrating Mass in St Peter's was that early Christians faced eastward when praying and, due to the difficult terrain, the basilica was built with its apse to the west. Some have attributed this orientation in other early Roman churches to the influence of Saint Peter's. However, the arrangement whereby the apse with the altar is at the west end of the church and the entrance on the east is found also in Roman churches contemporary with Saint Peter's (such as the original Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls) that were under no such constraints of terrain, and the same arrangement remained the usual one until the sixth century. According to Klaus Gamber, in this early layout the people were situated not in the central nave but in the side aisles of the church and, while the priest faced both the altar and east throughout the Mass, the people faced the altar (from the sides) until the high point of the Mass, when they would turn to face east, the direction in which the priest was already facing. This view is strongly criticized on the grounds of the unlikelihood that, in churches where the altar was to the west, they would turn their backs on the altar (and the priest) at the celebration of the Eucharist.
Later pre-twentieth-century churches in Rome
It was only in the 8th or 9th century that the position whereby the priest faced the apse, not the people, when celebrating Mass was adopted in the Roman Rite. The new usage was introduced from the Frankish Empire and later became almost universal in the West. However, in several churches in Rome, it was physically impossible, even before the twentieth-century liturgical reforms, for the priest to celebrate Mass facing away from the people, because of the presence, immediately in front of the altar, of the "confession" (Latin: confessio), an area sunk below floor level to enable people to come close to the tomb of the saint buried beneath the altar. The best-known such "confession" is that in St Peter's Basilica, but many other churches in Rome have the same architectural feature, including at least one, the present Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, which, although the original Constantinian basilica was arranged like St Peter's, is oriented since 386 in such a way that the priest faces west when celebrating Mass.
The present (2002) General Instruction of the Roman Missal says, in the official English translation: "The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible." Where practicable, the church altar should be built in such a way that the priest can easily walk around it and can celebrate Mass versus populum, but the text does not oblige the priest to avail of these possibilities.
In practice, after the Second Vatican Council, altars that obliged the priest to have his back to the people were generally moved away from the wall or reredos, or, where this was unsuitable, a new freestanding altar was built closer to the people. This, however, is not universal, and in some churches and chapels it is physically impossible for the priest to face the people throughout the Mass, as before 1970 some churches, especially in Rome, had altars at which it was physically impossible for the priest not to face the people throughout the Mass.
The present Roman Missal prescribes that the priest should face the people only at six points of the Mass:
- When giving the opening greeting (GIRM 124);
- When giving the invitation to pray, Orate, fratres (GIRM 146);
- When giving the greeting of peace, Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum (GIRM 154);
- When displaying the consecrated Host (or Host and Chalice) before Communion and saying: Ecce Agnus Dei (GIRM 157);
- When inviting to pray (Oremus) before the prayer after communion (GIRM 165);
- When giving the final blessing (Ordo Missae 141).
The Tridentine Roman Missal requires the priest to face the people, without looking at them, since he is directed to have his eyes cast down to the ground (Ritus servandus, V, 1; VII, 7; XII, 1), and, if he is at the same side of the altar as the people, to turn his back to the altar, eight times:
- When greeting the people (Dominus vobiscum) before the collect (Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, V, 1);
- When greeting the people (Dominus vobiscum) before the offertory rite (Ritus servandus, VII, 1);
- When giving the invitation to pray, Orate, fratres (Ritus servandus, VII, 7);
- Twice before giving Communion to others, first when saying the two prayers after the Confiteor, and again while displaying a consecrated Host and saying Ecce Agnus Dei; (Ritus servandus, X, 6);
- When greeting the people (Dominus vobiscum) before the prayer after communion (Ritus servandus, XI, 1);
- When saying Ite, missa est (Ritus servandus, XI, 1);
- When giving the last part of the final blessing (Ritus servandus, XII, 1).
The Tridentine and the Vatican II editions of the Roman Missal expressly direct the priest to face the altar at exactly the same points. His position in relation to the altar and the people determines whether facing the altar means also facing the people.
Tabernacle on the altar
In the second half of the 17th century, it became customary to place the tabernacle on the main altar of the church. When a priest celebrates Mass at such an altar with his back to the people, he sometimes necessarily turns his back directly to the Blessed Sacrament, as when he turns to the people at the Orate fratres. This seeming disrepect is absent when the priest stands on the side of the altar away from the people; but locating so large an object on the altar is arguably inconvenient for a celebration in which the priest faces the people. Accordingly, the revised Roman Missal states:
- [I]t is preferable that the tabernacle be located, according to the judgment of the Diocesan Bishop,
- a. Either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in a form and place more appropriate, not excluding on an old altar no longer used for celebration;
- b. Or even in some chapel suitable for the faithful’s private adoration and prayer and which is organically connected to the church and readily visible to the Christian faithful. (GIRM 315)
The Missal does, however, direct that the tabernacle be situated "in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer" (GIRM 314).
Historically, priests in the Church of England and other churches of the Anglican Communion celebrated the Holy Eucharist ad orientem, including the praying of the Gloria Patri, Gloria in Excelsis and Ecumenical creeds in that direction. However, over "the course of the last forty years or so, a great many of those altars have either been removed and pulled out away from the wall or replaced by the kind of freestanding table-like altar", in "response to the popular sentiment that the priest ought not turn his back to the people during the service; the perception was that this represented an insult to the laity and their centrality in worship. Thus developed today’s widespread practice in which the clergy stand behind the altar facing the people."
The United Methodist Book of Worship mandates that:
In our churches, the Communion table is to be placed in such a way that the presider is able to stand behind it, facing the people, and the people can visually if not physically gather around it. The table should be high enough so that the presider does not need to stoop to handle the bread and cup. Adaptations may be necessary to facilitate gracious leadership. While architectural integrity should be respected, it is important for churches to carefully adapt or renovate their worship spaces more fully to invite the people to participate in the Holy Meal. If altars are for all practical purposes immovable, then congregations should make provisions for creating a table suitable to the space so that the presiding minister may face the people and be closer to them.
Here [in Wittenberg] we retain the vestments, altar, and candles until they are used up or we are pleased to make a change. But we do not oppose anyone who would do otherwise. In the true mass, however, of real Christians, the altar should not remain where it is, and the priest should always face the people as Christ doubtlessly did in the Last Supper.
In discussing the Divine Service, Lorraine S. Brugh and Gordon W. Lathrop write that "Many Lutherans, in concert with many other Christians, think that the time of which Luther spoke has indeed come, and that the pastor should preside at the table facting the people, i.e., versus populum. The assembly needs to have a sense that it is gathered around that table, sees and hears what happens there, has a promise of Christ clearly addressed to it, participates in the thanksgiving, and is made into a community through God's gift." Thus, in the Lutheran Church, many altars are now built to be freestanding. In churches where the former altar attached to the wall cannot be moved, it has often been converted to be used as a credence table, as a "significant new table is set up, closer to the people and standing free".
Edward Slattery, from 1993 to 2016 Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, argued that the change towards versus populum has had a number of unforeseen and largely negative effects. First of all, he said, "it is a serious rupture with the Church's ancient tradition. Secondly, it can give the appearance that the priest and the people were engaged in a conversation about God, rather than the worship of God. Thirdly, it places an inordinate importance on the personality of the celebrant by placing him on a kind of liturgical stage".
- "When Christians in fourth-century Rome could first freely begin to build churches, they customarily located the sanctuary towards the west end of the building in imitation of the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. Although in the days of the Jerusalem Temple the high priest indeed faced east when sacrificing on Yom Kippur, the sanctuary within which he stood was located at the west end of the Temple. The Christian replication of the layout and the orientation of the Jerusalem Temple helped to dramatize the eschatological meaning attached to the sacrificial death of Jesus the High Priest in the Epistle to the Hebrews", The Eschatological Dimension of Church Architecture: The Biblical Roots of Church Orientation The Institute for Sacred Architecture, volume 10, 2005
- Latin versus does not mean "against", as does English versus; it means "turned, toward, from past participle of vertere, to turn" (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000 Archived 2007-04-10 at the Wayback Machine)
- Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, V, 3
- Lang, Uwe Michael (2009). "2". Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. pp. 35ff. ISBN 978-1586173418.
- "For whatever reason it was done, one can also see this arrangement (whereby the priest faced the people) in a whole series of church buildings within Saint Peter's direct sphere of influence", The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer Adoremus Bulletin, Vol. VI, No. 3: May 2000
- "Msgr. Klaus Gamber has pointed out that although in these early west-facing Roman basilicas the people stood in the side naves and faced the centrally located altar for the first portion of the service, nevertheless at the approach of the consecration they all turned to face east towards the open church doors, the same direction the priest faced throughout the Eucharistic liturgy", The Eschatological Dimension of Church Architecture: The Biblical Roots of Church Orientation The Institute for Sacred Architecture, volume 10, 2005
- Remery, Michel (2010-12-20). Mystery and Matter. Books.google.com. Brill. p. 179. ISBN 978-9-00418296-7. Retrieved 2017-06-20.
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3), article "westward position"
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3), article "eastward position"
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal (with adaptations for England and Wales), 229
- Father John Zuhlsdorf says the official translation is inaccurate and that the Latin original text, Altare exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit, should be translated as: "The main altar should be built separated from the wall, which is useful wherever it is possible, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration toward the people can be carried out". His translation includes the word "main" (in Latin, maius), found in the 1969 edition of the General Instruction but absent from the 2002 edition. He changes the order of the phrases in the Latin sentence, making the relative clause quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit ("which is desirable wherever possible") refer not to the immediately preceding phrase, in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit ("can celebrate Mass versus populum"), but to the distant phrase Altare exstruatur a pariete seiunctum ("The altar should be built separate from the wall").
- Russell, Bruce (24 September 2006). "Gestures of Reverence in Anglican Worship". The Diocese of Saskatchewan. Retrieved 22 June 2014.
In subsequent centuries the practice was clearly understood as rooted in Scripture and tradition and survived the Reformation in the Church of England. According to Dearmer: The ancient custom of turning to the East, or rather to the altar, for the Gloria Patri and the Gloria in Excelsis survived through the slovenly times, and is now common amongst us. (The choir also turned to the altar for the intonation of the Te Deum, and again for its last verse.) We get a glimpse of the custom after the last revision [i.e. 1662] from a letter which Archdeacon Heweston wrote in 1686 to the great Bishop Wilson (then at his ordination as deacon), telling him to ‘turn towards the East whenever the Gloria Patri and the Creeds are rehearsing’: of this and other customs he says, ‘which thousands of good people of our Church practice at this day.’ The practice here mentioned of turning to the East for the Creeds was introduced by the Caroline divines, and has established itself firmly amongst us, though it is not embodied in a rubric at the last revision as were some of the other ceremonial additions of the Laudian school. It thus rests upon a common English custom three centuries old, and it is in every way an excellent practice. But it may well be doubted whether there is any reason for turning to the East to sing that ’Confession of our Christian Faith’ which is ‘commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius’… the proper use is to turn to the altar only for the Gloria Patri at its conclusion. [p. 198-199] It should be made clear that showing reverence to the altar or holy table, (historically Anglicans have used these terms interchangeably with varying emphasis over the centuries), when passing it, or in coming or going from the church etc. are indications of reverence for what occurs upon it, and not to be confused with turning to the East for the Creed, or when expressly addressing the Blessed Trinity in praise. This is admittedly slightly confusing, especially in churches which do not have an actual Eastward orientation. In such cases the direction of the church is presumed to be symbolically Eastward, and facing the direction of the principal altar is taken as East-facing, but Anglicans do not, as is sometimes supposed, face the altar for the Creed etc., rather it is the altar is aligned with our actual or symbolic orientation. The Hierurgia Anglicana records that the ancient practice of Eastward recitations were still retained at Manchester Cathedral in 1870, and Procter and Frere record that the custom at Salisbury, for recitation of the Nicene Creed only, “was for the choir to face the altar at the opening words, till they took up the singing, to turn to the altar again for the bowing at the Incarnatus, and again at the last clause to face the altar until the Offertory.” [p. 391] J. Wickham Legg observed: "It will be noticed how persistent has been the custom in the Church of England of turning to the East at the Apostles’ Creed. Toward the end of the nineteenth century certain persons, hangers onto the High Church school, though unworthy of that honored name, discovered that the custom was only English, and they discontinued it in their persons.” However Legg points out that it was recorded in seventeenth century France and it would seem to have been rather more widely observed than the Anglo-papalists he decries could have known. This would seem to be another instance of the liturgical conservatism of the English Church preserving a distinctive and once more universal expression of popular devotion otherwise abandoned. Another instance of orientation was the now much rarer custom of turning to the East for the Doxology at the conclusion of the recitation of each Psalm, particularly by those in choir. This was the custom at Probus in Cornwall in the early years of the nineteenth century, as it was in rural North Devon long before the influence of Puseyism: “all the singing time they used to face West, staring at the gallery, with its faded green curtains; and then; when the Gloria came, they all turned ‘right about’ and faced Eastward.” [Legg, p. 180]
- Liles, Eric J. (2014). "The Altar". St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church.
Many Episcopalians remember a time when the altars in most Episcopal churches were attached to the wall beyond the altar rail. The Celebrant at the Eucharist would turn to the altar and have his back – his back, never hers in those days – to the congregation during the Eucharistic Prayer and the consecration of the bread and wine. Over the course of the last forty years or so, a great many of those altars have either been removed and pulled out away from the wall or replaced by the kind of freestanding table-like altar we now use at St. Paul’s, Ivy. This was a response to the popular sentiment that the priest ought not turn his or her back to the people during the service; the perception was that this represented an insult to the laity and their centrality in worship. Thus developed today’s widespread practice in which the clergy stand behind the altar facing the people.
- The United Methodist Book of Worship. United Methodist Publishing House. November 1992. p. 36. ISBN 0687035724.
- Lund, Eric (2002). Documents from the History of Lutheranism, 1517-1750. Fortress Press. p. 130. ISBN 9781451407747.
- Brugh, Lorraine S.; Lathrop, Gordon W. (9 December 2008). The Sunday Assembly. National Book Network. p. 179. ISBN 9781451478204. Retrieved 22 June 2014.
- Brugh, Lorraine S.; Lathrop, Gordon W. (9 December 2008). The Sunday Assembly. National Book Network. p. 179. ISBN 9781451478204. Retrieved 22 June 2014.
Some altar-tables have been built freestanding, with this kind of celebration in mind. But also some currently wall connected altars can be carefully moved to a new position, can be made to be freestanding. In yet other places, the old wall-altar cannot be moved but can be de-emphasized, become perhaps a place of flowers or a table for the vessels for holy communion (a "credence table"), while a significant new table is set up, closer to the oleo and standing free.
- Oklahoma bishop explains return to ad orientem worship Catholic Culture, August 18, 2009
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