A senior New Zealand priest has questioned the idea that celebrating parts of the Mass towards the east is “essential”, as has been advocated by the Vatican’s liturgy head.

Msgr Brian Arahill of Auckland told NZ Catholic he finds it difficult to understand Cardinal Robert Sarah’s comment that facing the east is essential.

The Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments made the comments in a recent interview with a French magazine, Famille Chretienne.

Cardinal Sarah said Vatican II did not require priests to celebrate the Mass facing the people.

This is a “possibility, but not an obligation”.

The cardinal said readers and listeners should face each other during the Liturgy of the Word.

“But as soon as we reach the moment where one addresses God — from the Offertory onwards — it is essential that the priest and faithful look together towards the east,” he said.

“This corresponds exactly to what the council fathers wanted.” Cardinal Sarah said this does not mean the priest is turning his back “against” the faithful.

Rather, all are “turned in the same direction, towards the Lord who comes”. Msgr Arahill said that celebrating the Mass towards the east “means the priest celebrant has to have his back to the people, especially during the Eucharistic Prayer”.

“Which means, to give one example, those gathered do not see the most important gesture in the whole of the Mass when the priest holds his hands over the bread and wine and calls upon the Father: ‘Make holy these gifts (of bread and wine) by sending down your Spirit upon them . . . so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ’.”

Msgr Arahill said that after the words of consecration, the celebrant is directed to “show” the sacred host and chalice to those gathered”.

“Not so easy if the priest is getting on in years and tries to lift the sacred host and chalice above his head,” he said.

Msgr Arahill said the “essentials” that govern the present rite of the Mass are: “That there be a table of the Word facing the congregation where the Scriptures are proclaimed in the local language and those present are nourished by that Word and a table of the altar where we ‘remember’ and ‘give thanks’ (‘Eucharist’) and are in communion with Christ and those gathered with us by receiving the One Bread and One Cup, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

“The celebrant ends the gathering with those challenging words: ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’” “But ‘essential’ that the priest celebrant face ‘the east’? I think not,” Msgr Arahill said.

Cardinal Sarah’s words echo those of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, writing in The Spirit of the Liturgy in 2000.

Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that a “face to face” exchange between proclaimer and hearers is appropriate in the Liturgy of the Word.

“On the other hand, a common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential . . . Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote.

He noted the similarity with Judaism and Islam which “take it for granted that we should pray towards the central place of revelation, to the God who has revealed himself. . . ”.

“The cosmic symbol of the rising Sun expresses the universality of God above all particular places and yet maintains the concreteness of divine revelation.

In his magazine interview, Cardinal Sarah said that celebrating the Mass towards the east (ad orientem) is authorised by the current rubrics.

These specify times when the celebrant “must turn to the people”.

“It is therefore not necessary to have special permission to celebrate facing the Lord,” he said.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) spoke of the Church’s desire that “all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations, which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy”.

It was stated that “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else. . .”. (SC14).

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