Pope Benedict celebrated the 1970 missal Mass "ad orientem" in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Chapel a couple of days ago. There are two very interesting facts about this. First, it is the 40th anniversary of the 1970 missal becoming official (Advent of 1969) and second, the altar in the newly restored chapel is free standing and Mass can be celebrated either toward the Liturgical East or toward the people. The pope choose "ad orientem" which is toward the east or in the same direction as the laity.
Popes teach by the written word, by proclamation and by symbolic action. In terms of the "reform of the reform" of the liturgy, this pope has taught three things more by symbolic action rather than rhetoric or written mandates. This is rather fascinating and makes me wonder if written mandates are not too far off in the future. And to celebrate the "new Mass" ad orientem on its 40th anniversary is quite stunning.
The first thing that many laity and clergy have noticed the pope teaching by example is that at all papal Masses in St. Peter's and elsewhere, the Vatican Master of Ceremonies insists that the altar be decorated in the traditional manner even for Masses facing the laity. This means six candle sticks with the crucifix dead center and the corpus facing the pope. This is done even if the candlesticks and crucifix "obstruct" the view of what is happening at the altar. The pope has written prior to becoming pope that one solution to making sure both clergy and laity understand that the Mass is always offered to God, is that the priest-celebrant face the Lord symbolically with the crucifix dead center, regardless of which way the celebrant is actually facing. This seems like a fair compromise. Here too, the pope teaches by example that the priest may celebrate Mass facing the laity as long as the focus remains on Jesus Christ crucified by the powerful symbol of the crucifix directly before the celebrant.
However, when the pope offered Mass ad orientem in the Pauline chapel which has a free standing altar, he also modeled his second teaching that this form of celebration is absolutely acceptable in the revised 1970 Mass. Everyone in the Church, especially bishops, need to hear and see this truth.
Of course the third thing the pope teaches by example is that for the past three years he gives Holy Communion to those who receive from him kneeling and on the tongue. He requires this, not because he is pope and it is more of an honor to receive from him than from anyone else, but it is because the One we receive is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ, one Divine Person, who has two natures, divine and human. Why wouldn't we kneel believing this awesome reality? This is certainly the powerful symbolic message the pope is sending. And yes, it looks more reverent than standing and grabbing the host or having it "dropped" into the hands of the communicant. And it reduces the threat of desecration of the the host by communicant taking the Host home as a good luck charm or for more sacrilegious purposes such as a "black mass." As well the particles of the host remaining adhered to the hands of the communicant are then wiped off on clothes or something else. To not care about these intentional or unintentional desecrations certainly indicates a lack of piety and reverence to say the least.
Will we get more specific "rubrics" in a future revision of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal as to how the altar is to be specifically decorated (in the 1962 missal there is a visual chart) and that the Mass can be celebrated facing "ad orientem?" Will Catholics be allowed to receive kneeling and kneelers provided for this and to receive our Lord on the tongue without being made to feel like a second class Catholic? I am not clairvoyant, but I suspect so.
Finally, the pictures that I see with the Pope celebrating Mass "ad orientem" just confirms what I think is the healthiest aspect of this form of celebration. By healthy, I mean psychologically and spiritually for both the priest and the laity. From the pictures of this Mass, one would never know it was the pope celebrating this Mass, all you saw was the "priest" at the altar, not his face. There was no "cult of the personality" present. Rather all that was present was the "High Priest" and "Bridegroom of the Church" Jesus Christ offering His acceptable sacrifice to His Heavenly Father. The priest with his back to us shows the other part of our High Priest, His Humanity which is also represented by the ministerial priest joining the laity in facing the same direction. The ordained priest, because he "represents" Jesus Christ in a sacramental way, also represents the entire Church, Head and members through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The clergy and laity are represented in the one Divine Person Jesus Christ who has two natures, human and divine, who alone suffered and died for us and continues to offer this one sacrifice in an unbloody way at every Catholic Mass throughout the world for the salvation of souls. While the laity certainly join the ordained priest in offering their gifts at the altar, the ordained priest alone offers the sacrifice on behalf of all, clergy and laity, but in the "Person" of Christ. Seeing the face of the priest is not necessary. The pope himself became just another humble servant like every other ordained priest in offering the one sacrifice. There is no need to look at the face of the pope when he prays or offers this sacrifice of praise. In other words at the Holy Mass, we are all reduced to the same class, clergy and laity alike, we are all sinners in need of the saving sacrifice of Jesus. This is also true of the different ranks of laity in the congregation. No matter if you are king, queen, surf, or peasant, all stand, sit and kneel as equals before the Lord and so does the pope, bishop, and priest who offer the sacrifice. No egos, no class system and no cult of the personality please at the Holy Sacrifice!
I am all in favor of ad orientem Masses and the crucifix dead center on the altar, but I would like more specific rubrics from the Holy Father because this will validate this form of praying and believe me it needs validating because so many both in the clergy and laity think it is outdated and Pre-Vatican II. Keep in mind, for them, calling something pre-Vatican II is the greatest insult. But not for the pope! Are new rubrics far off? I hope not! Holy Father write them down now and mandate them! Of course, I sign this, "your humble servant?" (in other words, who am I to tell the pope what to do!) Unfortunately, humility is not necessarily the sign of someone who blogs! YIKES.