In the majority of ancient religious ideologies, the tradition of worship taking place and facing a certain direction has been preserved throughout history. Ad orientem (meaning ‘to the east’ in Latin) is a term used by Catholics to distinguish the orientation of a priest as he celebrates Mass with his congregation. Use of this term symbolizes that a priest face an eastern direction during Mass service; although, many times this did and does not happen. Why not? Because many times alters were not always built to accommodate an eastern-facing tradition. Throughout the various centuries, some of the churches were built with alters facing towards the west and others were built with alters facing the rising of the sun. As a result of this, it was not always practical for priests to follow in the ad orientem tradition.
In more modern times and especially after the Vatican II Council (held between 1962 and 1965) the Catholic Church promoted that priests facing the alter during Mass should change this practice. The council promoted that priests should now begin to face the congregation whenever possible. The Latin term for this is versus populum. It was said that this would foster a more rewarding experience for the people attending church and that they would become more vested with the actual Mass. Although the church does not forbid the ad orientem position if a priest chooses to do so when conducting Mass, it does state that in the more new or renovated churches he should make an effort to face the congregation whenever possible.
Before Vatican II, things were different. Tradition was that all Priests faced the alter and their backs were to the congregation – sometimes they faced east and sometimes they didn’t as it all depended on how the church was initially built. In some early Christian traditions of celebrating Mass, priests were required to face east no matter what. This tradition still continues in eastern versions of Christianity such as in Byzantine Catholicism.
For many experts in Christianity, the tradition of facing the east to celebrate Mass in the Catholic Church has its roots in Judaism where the Church leader faces Jerusalem with the congregation during church services. This tradition was continued by the apostles as they led the first versions of Mass facing the new Jerusalem created by God and Jesus Christ. During this early version of Mass, both the leader of the service and the congregation faced Jerusalem in order to be ready for the second coming of the Messiah.
Today, the tradition of the Catholic Mass is celebrated with the priest turning to face the congregation and this is now widely accepted. In addition, reorientation of the alter to face the congregation also changed due to Vatican II. In some churches, alters were reconstructed to allow this new direction. Instructions for the celebrating of a Catholic Mass introduced by Pope Paul VI in 1970 has often been interpreted as calling for all Priests to face the congregation during the celebration of the Eucharist. Many experts claim this was Pope Paul VI’s instructions as an outright ban to facing the alter rather than the people.
For many Church leaders the reorientation of the alter broke the link between priest and parishioner. Some priests believed this caused them to be seen as more of a performer than a leader taking the congregation on a spiritual journey. In turn, the church felt that with both priest and congregation facing each other, members of the Church could be more involved and vested with the Mass service. This was instrumental to the church, because it placed the priest as simply the leader of a community of the people of God celebrating the Mass as a whole. The church does not set the priest apart from the congregation and this was an important distinction. There are, however, priests who will continue to differ with this new mindset and believe all must face east together. Again, this is just another example of the many differences of opinion and the many traditions that exist within the Catholic Church today.