rising sun & ‘ad orientem’

Aug 9, 2010


This morning I celebrated Mass at the Altar of the Transfiguration in St. Peters. Each morning at 7.00am a number of priests arrive to celebrate Mass at different altars in and beneath the basilica.

There is a powerful sense that the real work of God is happening here. This is not surprising since the ultimate ‘work of God’ (opus dei) in our time is the Mass. Many mornings I am on my own for Mass. Other mornings a group of English speaking pilgrims will join me. This morning one elderly man prayed with me. Always my prayer is for the people of OLV parish Sockburn and St Therese of Lisieux Chatham Islands.

It was a special privilege for me to by chance be at this altar of the Transfiguration this morning. You may recall my blog entry on the Feast of the Transfiguration last week.

And then later this morning I picked up a copy of the Vatican newspaper (L’Osservatore Romano) and read an article on Raphael’s Transfiguration which is behind the altar. Actually the original is in the Vatican Museum and the mosaic copy here was installed in the late 1700’s.


After Mass I followed my usual routine of heading to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the basilica to spend some time in prayer. On my way there this morning I was struck by the light coming through the windows above the main doors. This reminded me of an interesting fact about the ‘ad orientem’ form of the priest celebrating Mass according to the Tridentine Rite.

Most people think that the priest simply celebrated Mass with his back to the people. However the original purpose was that priest and people would together face the rising sun, that is ‘the east’ (literally “ad orientem”). There are not too many churches in NZ built according to this ideal. The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament is one of the few in our diocese.

The interesting fact is that because St. Peters in Rome was built on the tomb of the apostle Peter, it was built on the Vatican hill. This made it impossible to be built towards the east since people could not enter from the heart of the hill. It was therefore built with the doors rather than the altar facing the east. This meant that while throughout the world priests were facing east with their back to the people, in St Peters the pope always celebrated facing the people and facing east.

However since ‘facing the east together’ was so central to the Catholic celebration of the Mass, it seems that the people also turned to face the east meaning that the pope at the altar was now behind the people. (This (people turning to the East) cannot be verified and certainly did not happen in recent history, but the possibility that it did happen does emphasise the importance of the ‘eastward’ orientation. Certainly the pope has always faced the doors in St. Peters.)

Pope Benedict accepts fully that for many good reasons churches are now not usually constructed to face East. However he does suggest that an unexpected negative consequence of the priest turning to face the people for the Mass has been that inadvertently the priest becomes the visible centre of the action in a way that he never was before. Pope Benedict suggests that placing a crucifix at the altar to be the ‘eastward orientation’ of priest and people together might be a helpful consideration.

I understood the importance of priest and people facing the rising sun together for Mass in a new way this morning as I made my way across the basilica. The church was flooded with direct sunlight. Had the main doors been open, the altar would have been fully illuminated by the rising sun.






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