THE recent televised Mass from Notre Dame, Paris, followed by the eloquent
plea of Jotter and of sundry
correspondents in THE CATHOLIC HERALD Who favour the celebration of Mass facing the people would seem to sender opportune an examination of claims for this practice.
What is to be said of it from the point of view of history and Canon Law ?
Beyond doubt it has a sound historical foundation. But it should be emphasised at the outset that those who advocate it are not doing so just because it was done in the past. That would be mere archaeologism.
Their reasons are chiefly that it is an expression and a practical realisation of the unity of the worshipping community hierarchically gathered about the altar; it fosters the closest union of the celebrant and people, makes the leadership of the priest in the communal sacrifice more apparent, holds the attention of the people. and has a great teaching value and a powerful psychological impact.
Even if it had never been done till recently, all these arguments would stand. I3ut when there can be added the claim that it was the normal practice for several centuries, the case for celebrating Mass facing the people becomes stronger than ever.
In old Rome
FOR the first three centuries we
have no indisputable evidence about the position of the celebrant, From the nature of things it is probable that he faced the people, and there are certain pictures in the catacombs which suggest it as normal; moreover whatever we do know of primitive liturgy confirms it.
But if must be admitted that we know very little. At Masses celebrated in the catacombs themselves the celebrant must have had the congregation behind him because the relics over which he offered the Mass were in niches hollowed out from the walls. But catacombMasses, contrary to popular belief. were exceptional.
There is much more evidence from the fourth century onwards. The developments within Italy and outside Italy were different. In Italy there were always martyrs' tombs over which altars could be built; that the tombs might be accessible to the people the celebrant invariably functioned from the far side. that is. facing the people.
The idea of " Orientation" (praying facing the East) exercised practically no influence whatever in Italy at that time It was. in fact. regarded as rather a pagan idea.
A research by Fr. Grisar has established that of mediaeval Roman churches 43 faced East, 45 faced South and 53 faced West. but in all of them. because of the position of the martyrs' tombs. the celebrant faced the people over the altar. Whenever he did face Fast. this was fortuitous and iiccasioned by the fact that the entrance to the church faced East Another factor was the position of the Bishop's throne, which was placed in the apse whence he presided over the assembly. When he