Face-to-Face or Facing East

TURNING TOWARDS THE LORD. Orientation in Liturgical Prayer. By U. M. Lang (Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 1339, Ft. Collins, Colo. 80522, 2004), 156 pp. PB $12.95.

The debate about the position of the priest at Mass, whether facing the people or facing ad orientem (east) is not going to go away. The essence of the Mass is that it is a sacramental sacrifice directed to the heavenly Father through Christ and in the Holy Spirit. So the priest celebrant, at least in the canon of the Mass, is praying to the Father and not dialoguing with the congregation. It makes sense, therefore, that both priest and people should be facing God, facing in the same direction during the most sacred part of the Mass.

In this small book Dr. Lang, a member of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London, makes a strong case for “turning towards the Lord” during liturgical prayer. With great scholarship he presents an historical and theological argument for the traditional direction of liturgical prayer, now often referred to as “facing east.” He does not, however, completely rule out facing the people for certain parts of the Mass, especially the Introductory Rites, the Liturgy of the Word and parts of the Communion Rite. But the overwhelming weight of historical research, both literary and architectural, points to a solid tradition of liturgical prayer during which both priest and people face the same way —usually to the east, if the church building allows for that.

There are four chapters in the book. The first one deals with the question of the proper position of the celebrant at the altar. The second one discusses what we can learn about the direction of prayer from the architecture of early church buildings.

In the third chapter our author presents theological arguments for the common direction of liturgical prayer. Here he makes the important point that “the paramount principle of Christian worship is the dialogue between the people of God as a whole (including the celebrant) and God, to whom their prayer is addressed” (p. 107). On the same page he concludes by saying, “The face-to-face position of priest and people is fitting for catechesis but not for the celebration of the Eucharist.” In the last brief chapter Dr. Lang summarizes the reasons for turning towards the Lord in liturgical prayer.

The book is easy to read, even though it is heavily documented with footnotes. The author avoids all name-calling and polemics. He has made a positive contribution to the debate about the orientation of priest and people during the holy Liturgy. Priests and laypersons interested in the liturgy will find this book enlightening and stimulating.

Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Ramsey. N.J.

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