If a typical parishioner is asked, “What is the high point of the Mass?” he or she would likely provide any of a variety of responses: reception of Holy Communion, the homily, the consecration, the dismissal. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) indicates that the high point is the Eucharistic Prayer in its entirety. Aside from personal sensitivities and individual preferences, the Eucharistic Prayer, beginning with the Preface dialogue to the Great Amen is the central focus of the Mass. By it, we affirm our belief and our conviction that what is said by the priest who recites the prayer is true and certain: that Christ has died and is risen and we who are in Christ have the promise of eternal life. Through the Eucharistic Prayer we give thanks to God for the works of creation and redemption. With all the angels and saints and in union with all of God’s people in time and beyond time, we beseech the Holy Spirit to transform simple elements of bread and wine into Christ and are thus joined with Christ in an eternal offering to his Father. Understanding this plays a vital role in how liturgy is celebrated as envisioned by the Second Vatican Council.

This past summer, Pope Francis spoke at a conference on liturgy in Rome. He stated that the liturgical reform since the Second Vatican Council is “irreversible” and that more work needs to be done to implement it, including the “mentality of the people.” Of the three main points he offered, one is particularly important: “The liturgy is the life through the whole people of God. By its nature, the liturgy is “popular’ rather than clerical: it is an action for (italics Pope Francis) the people, but also by (italics pope Francis) the people.” His emphasis reflects a teaching of the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that the members of the assembly are to be fully, consciously and actively involved in the act of worship. This does not mean that everyone is supposed to have particular ministry at Mass such being a lector, a cantor or a Communion minister. And it doesn’t eliminate the importance for reverence, adoration, silence and contemplation. These are important dynamics for worship. It does mean that all are to be engaged and involved in the act of worship.

The operative pronoun in all the Eucharistic Prayers is “we.” It is not solely the priest who prays but all the members of the assembly who pray with him. A perspective by which the members of the assembly merely watch the priest pray for them is inconsistent with the nature of the Eucharistic Prayers and foreign to communal worship. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church affirms this: “Acting in the person of Christ, [the priest] brings about the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. For their part, the faithful join in the offering of the Eucharist by virtue of their royal priesthood” (LG #10).

In my judgement, as moderator of the liturgy for this diocese, it is important to highlight the role of parishioners as they gather for Mass. I believe many understand that they are to be engaged in an active way at Mass, but in some parishes, I have witnessed some very passive participants who just watch the priest as he says Mass. For most engagement will mean greeting other members of the assembly, listening attentively to the readings and the homily, joining in the singing and various postures and responses and then receiving Holy Communion. It means being available to what is happening.

In light of this, I believe it is important for the members of the assembly to be able see what is taking place on the altar throughout the Liturgy of the Eucharist as well as clearly hearing the words of the Eucharistic Prayer as recited by the priest celebrant. The Eucharistic Prayer announces the core conviction of Christian faith: the Paschal Mystery. The sacred matter for the Mass are the elements of bread and wine placed on the altar and transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Given the dialogical character of the liturgy as well as the communal nature of the prayer, it makes good sense for the members of the assembly to know what is occurring. An unintended consequence of not being able to hear or see is frequently a passive assembly. Parishioners deserve more than becoming passive observers who merely watch the priest as if he has been delegated to pray for them rather than they also being involved in the prayer. The operative pronoun truly is “we.”

In recent years, some parishioners have experienced Mass at their parishes being said by the priest “ad orientem,” which means facing toward the East. The rationale is that all face the same direction because the priest and the people together are offering worship and sacrifice to God. The intention is not that the priest is turning his back on the people to exclude them. As a Christian community, all face ad orientem (i.e. toward the East) waiting in joyful expectation for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ who will return to judge the living and the dead. It is a valid posture for Mass and was common in the early Church. Churches were constructed so as to position the altar so that it faced Eastward. It is unlikely that churches being constructed today consider or appreciate such an Eastward focus. History, however, demonstrates the theological element for doing so. To quote St. Augustine: “When we rise to pray, we turn East, where heaven begins. And we do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from the other directions on earth…, but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God.”

While there is an historical element to the “ad orientem” posture for worship, it is not always so helpful now days. Many parishioners actually feel as if the priest is turning his back to them. And while it is allowable and legitimate for occasions in which a priest may choose to utilize it, it is not the best posture for our day and age. Likewise, people no longer think in terms of facing the East in expectation of the Second Coming of Christ.

There are occasions for a priest to utilize the “ad orientem” posture for the celebration of the Mass, but the better posture and normal posture, for our day and age, noting the dialogical character of the new order for the Mass, is standing behind the altar facing toward the people with the people facing toward the altar. Whichever is the case, our gaze is not on the priest, but on the altar and the elements of bread and wine place on the altar to be transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood.