Comments by St. Joseph Foundation

Statement by St. Joseph’s Foundation on Bp. Foley Decree

Statement by The Saint
Joseph Foundation on Bishop Foley Decree

11107 Wurzbach, Suite 601B
San Antonio, Texas 78230-2570
(210) 697-0717 (Voice)
(210) 699-9439 (FAX)

Charles M. Wilson
Executive Director

The following general commentary on the subject
of celebrating the Mass ad orientem

was prepared by the Saint Joseph Foundation’s staff and is the
property of the Foundation. Permission is hereby granted to use, reproduce and distribute
this commentary in whole or in part provided due credit is given to the Foundation.


Ad Orientem Prayer

The reform of the liturgical books after the Second Vatican Council conceded to the
celebrant of the Liturgy a wider application of the practice of the versus populum
posture. While the Missale Romanum of Pope Paul VI continued to embrace the immemorial
tradition of the ad orientem posture the alternative posture received a strong
endorsement as well. Indeed, it became popular to such an extent that some observers have
concluded that the ad orientem position of the priest has been discarded. Sadly,
undue criticism has sometimes emerged in regard to two lawful practices. Although the
universal law foresees little conflict some local authorities have attempted to abnegate
some of these provisions. Wherein lies the authority to regulate the Sacred Liturgy?

Codex Iuris Canonici

Canon 838 – §1. The supervision of the sacred liturgy depends
solely on the authority of the Church which resides in the Apostolic See and, in accord
with the law, the diocesan bishop.

§2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church,
to publish the liturgical books, to review their translations into the vernacular
languages and to see that liturgical ordinances are faithfully observed everywhere.

§3. It pertains to the conferences of bishops to prepare translations of the
liturgical books into the vernacular languages, with the appropriate adaptations within
the limits defined in the liturgical books themselves, and to publish them with the prior
review by the Holy See.

§4. It pertains to the diocesan bishop in the church entrusted to him, within the
limits of his competence, to issue liturgical norms by which all are bound.

Canon 839 – §2. Local ordinaries are to see to it that the prayers and other
pious and sacred exercises of the Christian people are fully in harmony with the norms of
the Church.

Canon 135 – §2. Legislative power is to be exercised in the
manner prescribed by law … a law which is contrary to a higher law cannot be validly
enacted by a lower level legislator.

The ad orientem posture of the celebrant during Mass dates to the earliest
centuries of liturgical development. It has enjoyed a consistency throughout history
enshrined both in immemorial custom and in law. Numerous scholarly studies have been
undertaken which confirm the validity of this practice not only in the Latin Rite but in
the Eastern Rites as well. The ad orientem posture is sometime referred to as the ad
posture. The terms are nuanced and the reader is referred to other studies
which examine the underlying meanings. A fallacy exists among many observers who regard
the versus populum posture as entirely new to the Church and that it was first
introduced in the reform of Vatican II. On the contrary, the historical proof for its
prior existence is substantial although the interpretation of the data is somewhat
controverted. The Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae which compiles the
rubrical directives for the 1570 Missal of Pius V countenanced the possibility of Mass versus
. Conversely, the Institutio generalis Missalis Romani (IGMR)
which compiles the rubrical directives for the 1970 Missal of Paul VI presume the time
honored discipline of Mass ad orientem or ad altare. Consistent with the
provisions of the Ritus servandus the Institutio generalis continues to
countenance and, indeed, to expand usage of the versus populum orientation of the

The reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council have allowed for a variance in the
posture of the celebrant. Although the former tradition continues and is in no way
abrogated, the celebrant is now permitted to turn towards the people for the entirety of
the liturgy. Of this there can be no doubt and the optional practice has been widely and
warmly received. Still the ad altare posture remains the forma typica and
the versus populum posture exists as a lawful option. Indeed the altar ideally is
envisioned to be free standing for two reasons: so that the celebrant may walk around it
especially during incensation and to allow Mass versus populum. Many churches, of
course, have an altar that is designed otherwise and often times this altar possesses such
an extraordinary beauty that no one could rightfully destroy this patrimony. And since it
does not seem desirable to have two altars it is also evident that the optional versus
posture would be difficult to accommodate in those churches with beautiful
high altars at least during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The question of a diocesan bishop’s authority to regulate the liturgy is not in
doubt. Canon 838 §4 empowers the Bishop to enact norms; however, these norms must accord
with the universal law. Canon 135 §2 expressly declares any attempt by a lower level
legislator (e.g., plenary or provincial councils of bishops, diocesan bishop) to establish
a law contrary to a higher law (e.g., papal law) as invalid.

The legal sources which provide the foundation for canon 838 §4 are found in the
following texts:

1917 Codex Iuris Canonici

Can. 1261 §2. Si loci Ordinarius leges pro suo territorio hac in re tulerit, etiam
religiosi omnes, exempti quoque, obligatione tenentur easdem servandi; et Ordinarius
potest eorundem ecclesias vel publica oratoria in hunc finem visitare.

Vatican Council II, Constitutio Sacrosanctum concilium, 4 Dec 1963, AAS 56
(1964) 97-138.

22. (1) Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church,
that is, on the Apostolic See, and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.

(3) Therefore no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything
in the liturgy on his own authority.

SC Rites (Consilium), Instructio (prima) ad exsecutionem constitutionis de Sacra
Liturgia recte ordinandam Inter Oecumenici, 26 September 1964, AAS 56 (1964)

22. It is for the bishop to regulate the liturgy in his own diocese, in accordance with
the norms and the spirit of the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, the decrees of the Holy
See and of the competent territorial authority.

Vatican Council II, Constitutio dogmatica Lumen gentium, 21 Nov 1964, AAS 57
(1965) 5-71.

26. Moreover, every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the bishop,
to whom is confided the duty of presenting to the divine majesty the cult of the Christian
religion and of ordering it in accordance with the Lord’s injunctions and the
Church’s regulations, as further defined for the diocese by his particular decision.

Vatican Council II, Decretum Christus Dominus, 28 Oct 1965, AAS 58 (1966)

15. It is therefore bishops who are the principle dispensers of the mysteries of God,
and it is their function to control, promote and protect the entire liturgical life of the
Church entrusted to them.

35. (4) All religious, whether exempt or non-exempt, are subject to the authority of
the local ordinary in the following matters: public worship, without prejudice, however,
to the diversity of rites.

Whether a diocesan bishop, in the exercise of his moderatorial responsibilities, may
restrict the use of options for the sake of uniformity throughout his diocese has been
debated. One such doubt was proposed and given a response by the Apostolic See.

Query: When the rubrics provide several options, may the competent territorial
authority for the whole region or the bishop for his diocese direct all to observe a
single way of doing things, for the sake of uniformity?

Reply: Strictly speaking (per se) this is lawful. But always to be kept in mind is the
preservation of that freedom, envisioned by the new rubrics, to adapt the celebration in
an intelligent way to the particular church and assembly of the faithful in such a way
that the whole rite is a living reality for living people.


It must be remembered that this opinion which was given almost 35 years ago in 1965 was
applied directly to the interpretation of n. 22 of the instruction Inter Oecumenici.
At that time the revision of the liturgical books had barely commenced. Since the
principle of Sacrosanctum concilium 22 has been reiterated in several conciliar
documents and provides the language for canon 838 § 4 the response to the aforementioned
dubium remains relevant and bears somewhat on the present discussion. However, it must be
said again that the ad altare posture is the forma typica of the Ordo
of 1970 as it was in the Ordo Missæ of 1570. In both ordines the
priest is required to turn to face the congregation at certain brief moments during the
Mass. The notable difference lies in the expressly permitted option in the Ordo Missæ
of 1970 to turn and face the congregation for the entirety of the Mass. The only posture
which is presented as an option is the versus populum posture.

To further illustrate the point one might examine the penitential rite of the Ordo
of 1970. Form A, the Confiteor, is the forma typica while Form B,
and Form C (with its 9 paradigmatic formulas in the NCCB Sacramentary) are ad libitum, i.
e., they are options.

An example of the way in which the dubium relative to n. 22 of Inter Oecumenici
might be applied practically is found in the following scenario. The competent territorial
authority or a diocesan bishop, "strictly speaking (per se)" could restrict the
penitential rite to use of only Form B or Form C since these are the optional texts. That
same authority, however, could not disallow use of Form A, the forma typica. The
illustration applies similarly to the competent authority’s moderation of the
celebrant’s posture at Mass. The competent ecclesiastical authority "strictly
speaking (per se)" could restrict the celebrant’s posture to one of the optional
postures. Since, a sole option is countenanced and a range of options is non-existent, in
fact, the competent authority mentioned in canon 838 § 4 could not place any
restrictions. And he certainly could not disallow the typical ad altare posture.

The discretion to celebrate ad orientem or versus populum is exercised by
the celebrant. Prudence and circumstances compel him to consider those who are touched by
his decision if he is going to depart from local usage. Common sense will dictate whether
the physical environment of the presbyterium and the altar place any constraints. Respect
for local de facto or de iure custom demands sensitivity. Clearly, the
rector of a church or the caretaker of the oratory or chapel can grant or deny access to
the sacred place to all the faithful or to specific individuals based on the willingness
of the persons to conform to established customs of the place. Indeed, the rector or
caretaker would be obligated to deny egress to a sacred minister who bore certain
ecclesiastical penalties.

In reference to the posture of the priest during Mass the prescriptions differ for
Masses with a congregation and for Masses without a congregation.

In a Mass with a congregation the rites and rubrics provide that during the
Liturgy of the Word the celebrant sit or stand at the celebrant’s chair however it
may be situated in the presbyterium. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, i.e., from the
Preparation of the Gifts until the Dismissal is pronounced, the priest faces the altar,
turning to the congregation for specified brief moments and then returning to face the
altar. As an option the celebrant may turn towards the congregation for the entire Liturgy
of the Eucharist.

In a Mass without a congregation the rites and rubrics require the priest to
face the altar during the entire Mass, turning to the minister or server only for
specified brief moments and then returning to face the altar. The celebrant’s chair
plays no role.

The permissiveness for the priest to celebrate Mass versus populum is mentioned
in the 1964 decree Inter Oecumenici, the first instruction on the orderly carrying
out of the Constitution on the Liturgy. However, the concession is found not in Chapter II
which outlines the changes to the Ordo Missae rather it is mentioned in Chapter V
which relates certain principles on the design of churches and altars:

91. The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and
celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly
central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there.


The suitability of a free standing altar contained in Inter Oecumenici 91 (and
repeated in n. 95) is reiterated several times in subsequent documents. While the aptness
of an altar versus populum is certainly fostered the Consilium also declared:

We wish to emphasize, however, that the celebration of the whole Mass facing the people
is not absolutely indispensable for pastoral effectiveness. The entire liturgy of the
Word, in which the active participation of the faithful is amply achieved through dialogue
and song, already proceeds facing the people and is all the more intelligible now that it
uses the people’s own language

Above all because for a living and participated liturgy, it is not indispensable that
the altar should be versus populum: in the Mass, the entire liturgy of the Word is
celebrated at the chair, ambo or lectern, and, therefore, facing the assembly.

Most recently the ad altare question was revisited and the Congregation for
Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments published the following commentary:

3. The arrangement of the altar "versus populum" is certainly something
desirable in the current liturgical legislation. Nonetheless, it is not an absolute value
over every other one … It is more faithful to the liturgical sense in these cases to
celebrate at the existing altar with the backs turned to the people than to maintain two
altars in the same sanctuary. The principle of the oneness of the altar is theologically
more important than the practice to celebrate turned towards the people