Saturday, September 18, 2010

A new perspective on the Mass

Having come of age in the era just post Vatican II, I never experienced the "old" Mass. Although my parish did have a Communion rail in its chapel, where I received Communion often, my general experience of the Mass growing up was of the groovy variety, with lots of Kumbayas and felt banners. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

So when I got to Rome, I was in for a little spiritual culture shock. Because the churches are so old, the altars are built into the wall under the tabernacle. What does that mean? It means the priest has no choice but to celebrate Mass with his back to the congregation. If you had asked me before my recent pilgrimage to Rome how I would feel about this change of positions, I probably would have expected it to be a little off-putting. Turns out it was anything but.

At the risk of setting myself up for a wave of comments, I have to say that I LOVED attending Mass this way. Why? Because I felt it was a great equalizer. Rather than seeing the priest in a position of power, facing me, almost as if performing for the congregation, I saw him as praying with me. He was facing God as I was facing God. We were in it together, looking heavenward as one rather than looking at each other.

I was fortunate enough to attend multiple Masses in Rome, but the ones with the most impact and where the priest-facing-away situation felt the most powerful, were in St. Peter's Basilica and in Chiesa Nouva at a Mass celebrated in front of the body of St. Philip Neri. Both had an intimate feel -- the Mass at St. Peter's was in a side chapel to Our Lady of Perpetual Help -- and both made me feel as though the priest was one with the congregation, even when the congregation was just me and an OSV colleague (as in St. Peter's).

So that's my new perspective on an old tradition. Let's hear how you feel about this in the comment section?


Janette Dolores said...

I attended a mass in this fashion--with the priest's back to the congregation--once. It felt different, and I liked it. It felt more unifying--as in a congregation of worshipers praying together, versus a shepherd leading his flock in prayer to the ultimate shepherd. While I appreciate the beautiful structure of the usual order of mass--with the priest facing the parishioners, the heightened feeling of community I felt during that one particular mass has stayed with me years later.

FrMike said...

Mary, there's a strong movement in the Church these days to return to this way of celebrating--for the reasons you and Janette give. The proponents refer to it as Mass "ad orientem" (toward the East), from the customary orientation of our churches (congregation facing eastward). Maybe you've got a future column here.

Fran said...

Mary, as always I am grateful for your perspective.

I remember the pre-conciliar rite from my earlier years. It is not something that I have missed. I left as things were changing, as a disenfranchised and angry 14 year old- angry with a lot of things that church got lumped into. As a result, I missed pretty much all the kumbiyah years.

Fast forward to late September 1990 and my return to church. I was really taken with the liturgy as something that I was participating in in a new way. (I should point out that the first mass I was present at after 18 years was in Medjugorje, hardly a bastion of liberal Catholicism)

In any event, I am skeptical of a return to this, but your words, as are so often the case, cause for me to pause before rushing to judgment. I am very involved in liturgy and liturgical planning, so all of the impending change are important to me in many ways.

Thank you for your perspective always and for your wise and prayerful presence in the world. You have given me something to ponder as I consider this all.

Mary DeTurris Poust said...

Thanks for the comments on this. I actually feel like I want to respond in a longer post rather than a comment, so watch for that. As soon as I can find time to think and write about it...