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Symbolism and Ad Orientem Worship

Symbolism and Ad Orientem Worship

By Fr. Enan Zelinski, Parochial Vicar

As of July, at St. Maria Goretti, we began celebrating the 6:30 a.m. daily Mass with a slight change to how the priest stands during the Mass, especially during the Eucharistic Prayer. Instead of the priest and the congregation facing each other with the altar in between, the priest now faces the same direction as the congregation at Mass. This orientation of the priest at Mass is typically called “ad orientem”, which means “to the East”, and refers to the direction that is faced while the Mass is being offered.

Because this change may be something that some have not experienced before at Mass, I think it very important to express the value and benefit that we, your priests, see in making this change in orientation at Mass. There are many diverse and significant arguments and points that can be made on this topic, but that would take a book to cover (if interested, see Turning Towards the Lord by Uwe Michael Lang). In the space available here, I would simply like to highlight the symbolic value that the ad orientem celebration of Mass – where the priest and the congregation face the same direction - brings to our worship of God in the sacrifice of the Mass.


When we speak of symbols as Catholics, we do not mean symbol in the way it is commonly understood these days as something with no real meaning or importance. In fact, we mean something almost exactly the opposite. The Catholic understanding of symbols is that they can communicate truth and knowledge to us – especially truth and knowledge about invisible or spiritual things that we cannot see or perceive with our senses.

This is why we can speak – in a certain sense – of the Sacraments of the Church as symbolic liturgical celebrations (with the correct understanding of the meaning of a symbol). This quotation from the Vatican Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff touches on the use of symbols in liturgical prayer:

Recognizing that “human nature is such that it does not come easily to meditation of divine things without external devices”, the Church “uses lights, incense, vestments and many other elements transmitted by the Apostolic teaching and tradition, which put in evidence the majesty of such a great Sacrifice [the Holy Mass], and the minds of the faithful are attracted by these visible signs of religion and piety, to the contemplation of lofty things, which are hidden in this Sacrifice” (Council of Trent, Session XXII, 1562, Doctrina de ss. Missae Sacrificio, c. 5, DS 1746).

Symbols are useful to us because they are things we can see that help us to understand hidden realities – especially the Mysteries of our Faith and the things of Heaven toward which we are moving.

So, how does ad orientem celebration of the Mass play into the symbolism of the Mass? There are many ways that it helps the symbolic expression of the Mass and reminds us of the realities contained in the Mass and their purpose.

First, the priest facing the same direction as the congregation better expresses the role of the priest in the Sacrifice of the Mass. While the priest is the one ordained to specifically offer the sacrifice of the Mass, he is ordained to do so on behalf of the people who have assembled for Mass. Facing the same direction demonstrates that he is in communion with the congregation in worship and adoration of God, chosen – unworthily – to act in the person of Christ as a bridge between God and humanity. The gesture is not meant to separate the priest from the congregation, but rather to express his unity with them in prayer to Almighty God, to whom they all owe adoration as his fallen and redeemed creatures.

Secondly, worshipping “to the East” expresses what is called the eschatological nature of the Mass. Eschatology means “concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), and the eschatological nature of the Mass is that we celebrate constantly waiting for the Lord to return at the end of time. Think here of the Memorial Acclamation where we say “We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection, until you come again.” Early Christians saw this expressed in the fact that everyone faced East, the direction of the rising sun, as they waited for the dawn of the New Creation at the end of history – which is when Christ returns again. Thousands of years later, we still await the dawn of the next life, which is symbolized in the priest and people expectantly waiting in prayer facing the direction of the rising sun.

My hope is that these reasons highlighted above help to explain why this orientation of the priest can be beneficial to us in our participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

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