October 24, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — Pope Benedict XVI endorsed the reorientation of the priest toward the East in Mass as an ecumenical instrument, saying: “In the liturgy’s orientation to the East, we see that Christians, together with the Lord, want to progress toward the salvation of creation in its entirety.”
These words were in a reflection letter published by the L‘Osservatore Romano on October 12 as a tribute to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, for the upcoming 25th anniversary of his election.
The letter is part of a new book, prefaced by Pope Francis, called: “Bartholomew: Apostle and Visionary, 25 Years of Guiding the Christian East.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict went on to explain the solar meaning of the orientation of the priest in the liturgy: “Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, is at the same time also the ‘sun’ that illuminates the world. Faith is also always directed toward the totality of creation. Therefore, Patriarch Bartholomew fulfills an essential aspect of his priestly mission precisely with his commitment to creation.”
With these words, he effectively underlines the potential unifying element of the liturgical traditions of the East and West were orientation toward the East universalized in the Latin rite. Orientation also serves a symbolic purpose, as he explains: “A shepherd of the flock of Jesus Christ is never oriented merely to the circle of his own faithful. The community of the Church is universal also in the sense that it includes all of reality.” Facing towards the rising sun is fundamentally turning towards the whole world, not just to an enclosed circle: “It is on the way toward the redemption of all creation.”
This sort of speech is not new to the theology of the liturgy of Benedict XVI.
In 1966, Joseph Ratzinger told the German Catholics: “Is it actually that important to see the priest in the face or is it not truly healing to think that he is also another Christian like all the others and that he is turning with them towards God and to say with everyone ‘Our Father’?”
In the preface to Fr. Michael Uwe Lang’s book, Conversi ad Dominum (English Edition: Turning toward the Lord), then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “In the old Church it was common that the bishop or priest called to his faithful: 'Conversi Ad Dominum’ – turn towards the Lord – after the homily. That meant first of all to turn eastwards – the direction of the rising sun.”
He adds the plea: “Conversi ad Dominum – time and time again we must turn out of ourselves, out of the misguided directions which we try so often with our thoughts and actions. Time and time again we must face towards Him, who is the way, the truth and the life.”
And yet again in 2000 in his Spirit of the Liturgy, he repeats: “The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above but is locked into itself. The common turning toward the East was not a “celebration toward the wall.” it did not mean that the priest ‘had his back to the people.' The priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian Liturgy the congregation looked together ‘toward the Lord.’”
These words on the intention of the orientation of the liturgy are particularly striking when seen in connection with the recent appeal to priests by Cardinal Robert Sarah, highest authority on liturgical matters in the Church, to face East during their liturgical celebrations.
Benedict’s heartfelt letter to Bartholomew closes with kind words: “I feel it is particularly felicitous that, after my resignation, the patriarch has remained ever close to me personally and has even visited me in my little cloister. In many places in my apartment can be found memorable items from him. These items are not only endearing signs of our personal friendship, but also sign posts toward unity between Constantinople and Rome, signs of hope that we are heading toward unity.”