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July 18, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – Recent official statements from the Vatican and United States bishops' conference on the Catholic Church's chief liturgist Cardinal Robert Sarah’s call for priests to offer Mass facing the apse have been misleading, Catholic liturgists and experts say.

Earlier this month, Sarah spoke at a London conference on sacred liturgy and asked priests and bishops to offer Mass ad orientem — that is, facing the tabernacle with the congregation rather than facing the people. This is the manner in which Mass was offered historically until the post-Vatican II reforms.

In the same talk, Sarah lamented abuses of the liturgy “in recent decades” that elevate “personalities and human achievements … almost to the exclusion of God.” He also encouraged the faithful to receive Holy Communion kneeling and for the restoration of the use of sacred music like Gregorian Chant.

Sarah has said on numerous occasions that Pope Francis has asked him to continue the liturgical work of Pope Benedict XVI.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi swiftly responded to Sarah’s remarks by issuing a statement warning that Sarah’s words were “incorrectly interpreted” “as if they were intended to announce new indications different to those given so far in the liturgical rules and in the words of the Pope regarding celebration facing the people and the ordinary rite of the Mass.”

The full official statement from the Vatican read:

It would appear opportune to offer clarification in the light of information circulated in the press after a conference held in London a few days ago by Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Cardinal Sarah has always been rightly concerned about the dignity of the celebration of Mass, so as to express appropriately the attitude of respect and adoration for the Eucharistic mystery. Some of his expressions have however been incorrectly interpreted, as if they were intended to announce new indications different to those given so far in the liturgical rules and in the words of the Pope regarding celebration facing the people and the ordinary rite of the Mass.

Therefore it is useful to remember that in the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (General Instruction of the Roman Missal), which contains the norms relating to the Eucharistic celebration and is still in full force, paragraph no. 299 states that: “Altare extruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit. Altare eum autem occupet locum , ut revera centrum sit ad quod totius congregationis fidelium attentio sponte convertatur” (“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 facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. Moreover, the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the centre toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns”

Pope Francis, for his part, on the occasion of his visit to the Dicastery for Divine Worship, expressly mentioned that the “ordinary” form of the celebration of the Mass is that expressed in the Missal promulgated by Paul VI, while the “extraordinary” form, which was permitted by Pope Benedict XVI for the purposes and in the ways explained in his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, must not take the place of the “ordinary” one.

Therefore, new liturgical directives are not expected from next Advent, as some have incorrectly inferred from some of Cardinal Sarah’s words, and it is better to avoid using the expression “reform of the reform” with reference to the liturgy, given that it may at times give rise to error.

All the above was unanimously expressed during a recent audience granted by the Pope to the same Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

Lombardi’s statement and the similar statements of other clerics misrepresented the instructions in the GIRM, several liturgists said, and made irrelevant points unrelated to the matter at hand.

Father Hugh Somerville-Knapman, an Australian Benedictine monk and priest in England, wrote that the “propaganda of reaction” was evident in Lombardi’s and others’ responses to Sarah.

“When far more informal and spontaneous exhortations come from Pope Francis’ mouth, the same people fall over themselves to apply the same to all and sundry,” Somerville-Knapman wrote. “Remember ‘Whom am I to judge?’ Yet [Cardinal] Sarah’s is to be dismissed as ‘unofficial’, and ‘opinion.’”

Liturgist and blogger Father John Zuhlsdorf wrote on his popular website that Father Thomas Rosica, another Vatican spokesman, further misconstrued reality by doubling down on Lombardi’s statements and implying irrelevantly and incorrectly that the Traditional Latin Mass may only be offered in “certain specific cases.” The Church's law allows “pretty much whenever and wherever any priest whosoever wants to say the older form of Mass” to do so, Zuhlsdorf wrote.

‘Flawed English translation’ of GIRM contributes to confusion

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, made two “errors of judgement” in his recent letter to priests instructing them to ignore Sarah’s advice, Somerville-Knapman wrote. First, Nichols equated ad orientem with “personal preference or taste.”

“To support this misjudgment he uses the flawed English translation of #299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal which asserts that Mass facing the people is ‘desirable,’” the monk continued. “However, this is not what the Latin (and thus normative and ‘official’) text of #299 says.”

The actual Latin of #299 of the GIRM does not imply that Mass should be celebrated facing the people rather than ad orientem, Somerville-Knapman wrote.

Zuhlsdorf echoed Somerville-Knapman’s statements on the Latin.

“The GIRM does NOT favor versus populum celebration of the Ordinary Form,” Zuhlsdorf wrote. “But you have to have recourse to the Latin to see that.”

Zuhlsdorf has explained on his blog that the Latin in the GIRM indicates that it is desirable for the altar to be separated from the wall, not that it is desirable for Mass to be celebrated facing the people.

GIRM #299 is frequently translated as, “The altar should be built apart 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.”

But according to Zuhlsdorf, a more proper and precise translation of the Latin would be, “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.”

Thus, the GIRM seems to indicate that Mass facing the people is permissible, but not necessarily the norm.

“The Latin does not say that celebrations versus populum are desirable,” Zuhlsdorf maintains.  “It says that separation of the altar from the wall is desirable (or useful or fitting) wherever possible.”

U.S. Bishops’ Conference: Listen to Father Lombardi rather than Cardinal Sarah

The Committee on Divine Worship of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sent a letter to bishops on July 12 pointing to Lombardi’s statements on the matter as definitive.

“No changes to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal are expected at this time, nor is there a new mandate for the celebrant to face away from the assembly,” wrote Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli, committee chairman and head of the Paterson, New Jersey diocese.

Serratelli echoed the claim that GIRM 299 says it is desirable for priests offering Mass to face the people “whenever possible.”  

However, Serratelli did acknowledge that in no way is Mass celebrated ad orientem prohibited and “there are rubrics within the Order of Mass which reflect the real possibility that the celebrant might be facing away from the assembly.” The Congregation for Divine Worship has clarified this on previous occasions, Serratelli conceded.  

“Although permitted, the decision whether or not to preside ad orientem should take into the consideration the physical configuration of the altar and sanctuary space, and, most especially, the pastoral welfare of the faith community being served,” Serratelli wrote. “Such an important decision should always be made with the supervision and guidance of the local bishop.”

Rubrics lay out clear instructions for celebrating Mass of Vatican II

Those who contend that ad orientem is “foreign to the new Mass and its Missal” have “clearly never read the rubrics,” Somerville-Knapman wrote. “The rubrics assume without thinking twice that the priest is, at the relevant times, facing East!”  

The monk pointed to the following rubrics from the GIRM:

At the beginning of Mass— 1. “… while the Priest, facing the people, says…”

After the offertory— 29. “Standing at the middle of the altar, facing the people, …”

At the Kiss of Peace— 127. “The Priest, turned towards the people, …”

At the “Behold the Lamb of God…”— 132. “The Priest genuflects, takes the host and, holding it slightly above the paten or above the chalice, while facing the people, says aloud:…”

At the priest’s Communion— 133. “The Priest, facing the altar, says quietly:…”

For the Post-Communion prayer— 139. “Then, standing at the altar or at the chair and facing the people, with hands joined, the Priest says: Let us Pray.”

Before the dismissal— 141. “Then the dismissal takes place. The Priest, facing the people and extending his hands, says: The Lord be with you…”

At the dismissal— 144. “Then the Deacon, or the Priest himself, with hands joined and facing the people, says: Go forth…”

“These constant reminders to the celebrant to face the people at the appropriate time only make sense if the priest’s default position for ritual action is not facing the people,” Somerville-Knapman continued. “The only time the rubrics feel the need to remind the celebrant to face the altar is at his own Communion, which follows immediately after his showing the sacred species to the people. Versus populum is clearly not the default position for the ritual action the Mass of Vatican II. Clearly, the Missal assumes the ancient and consistent logical position of facing God when talking to God, and reminding the priest (and this is new and sensible) to face the people when talking to them.”

Jeff Ostrowski, a Catholic organist and musician, dissected Lombardi’s statement piece by piece on the blog CC Watershed.

“Fr. Lombardi’s statement ‘clarifies’ that no new legislation on ad orientem will be released in Advent,” Ostrowski wrote. “My response would be, ‘That clarification is not needed because Cardinal Sarah said absolutely nothing — not one word — about new legislation coming in Advent.’”

“Fr. Lombardi’s statement ‘clarifies’ that Pope Francis ‘mentioned’ that the Extraordinary Form must not eradicate the Ordinary Form,” but no one is arguing that that could happen anytime soon, he wrote.

“Fr. Lombardi should have quoted the statement from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, which put an end to discussion on this point,” Ostrowski continued. “Cardinal Sarah’s congregation was responsible for creating the 2000 (2002) GIRM and they provide its definitive interpretation. On 10 April 2000, addressing this very question, the congregation stated: ‘This Dicastery [i.e. the Congregation for Divine Worship] wishes to state that Holy Mass may be celebrated versus populum or versus apsidem. Both positions are in accord with liturgical law; both are to be considered correct.’”

The dicastery’s statement also clarified, “It should be borne in mind that there is no preference expressed in the liturgical legislation for either position. As both positions enjoy the favor of law, legislation may not be invoked to say that one position or the other accords more closely with the mind of the Church.”

Those who decry close readings of law suddenly ‘strict rubricists’

“It is amazing to me that the Holy See Press Office suddenly has this 'quick reaction force' capability to dispel confusion when it arises,” Creative Minority Report blogger Patrick Archbold told LifeSiteNews, when “this capability has been conspicuously absent” during the past three years.

“Equally amazing is how those who daily decry the 'Doctors of the Law' have suddenly morphed into strict rubricists unwilling to brook even the slightest perceived deviation from the GIRM,” he continued. “This sudden reactionary rubricism seems limited only to false interpretations of the GIRM for anyone who has spent more than five minutes looking at the question understands that the 'wherever possible' of GIRM 299 applies to the placement of the altar and not the orientation of the priest…[and] the Vatican shows no signs of giving a hoot about any of the other daily violations of the GIRM so commonplace at the empty masses of today.”

It appears that Lombardi’s response to Sarah was among his last acts as a Vatican spokesman. Lombardi just retired and has been replaced by American journalist Greg Burke.