|Pope Francis celebrating Mass ad orientem|
“Five times does the priest turn round towards the people, to denote that our Lord manifested Himself five times on the day of His Resurrection.” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica III, q.83, a.5, ad 6)
Commenting on the rites of the Mass, the Angelic Doctor provides a spiritual interpretation of the priest’s turning to face the people at certain moments of the Mass. In order to “turn to face the people” at certain moments, it is clear that the priest must not always be “facing the people” – that is, the spiritual commentary presupposes the practice of ad orientem worship (when the priest faces in the same direction of the people for certain portions of the Mass, most notably, the Eucharistic Prayer).
While any season of the Liturgical year is a fine time to re-introduce the practice of ad orientem, Easter Season is a particularly fitting time.
The Five Apparitions on Easter Sunday
In the Gospels, we read of five different moments on the first day of our Lord’s Resurrection when he appears to his disciples:
1) To Mary Magdalene at the tomb.
2) To the women as they were leaving the tomb.
3) To St Peter
4) To Cleophas and the other disciple
5) To the Apostles (minus Thomas)
Now, there is no reason to suppose that there were the only times our Lord appeared on Easter Sunday. Indeed, it is probable (as St Anselm first proposed, and Pope St John Paul II has also maintained) that the Lord also appeared to his Holy Mother. However, only these five times are recorded in Scripture during that first day in which Jesus rose from the grave.
The Five Times the Priest Faces the People in the Traditional Latin Mass
Although there are numerous times in which the priest faces the people during the Traditional Mass, we may say that there are only five essential moments in which the priest turns to the people, commemorating the five appearances of the risen Lord on Easter:
1) Before the opening oratio
2) Before the offertory antiphon
3) At the orate fratres before the Secret Prayer and the preface
4) Before the post Communion prayer
5) At the ite missa est dismissal
Now, even as we can be sure that Jesus appeared more than just those five times on Easter Sunday, the priest does face the people at other times as well. However, moments like the homily or the distribution of communion are not truly essential parts of the Mass, at other moments like the final blessing the priest is not really “facing” the people but only is turned toward to perform the liturgical act (in this case, of blessing).
The Five Times the Priest Faces the People in the Novus Ordo
In the Mass of Vatican II, it is not so clear when the priest should face the people if the Mass is offered ad orientem. Certain moments are specified in the General Instruction for the Roman Missal (which is the official liturgical document governing the celebration of the Mass), and from these we propose the following five moments:
1) The opening dialogue (up to the Kyrie)
2) The orate fratres (“pray brethren”) before the Prayer over the Offerings
3) The Pax in which the priest says, “The peace of the Lord be with you always” prior to the fracture of the Host
4) Before the post Communion prayer
5) At the final blessing and ite missa est dismissal.
Again, there are many other times in which the priest will face the people during the Novus Ordo (at the Gospel, the homily, communion, etc), but the essential moments in which the priest truly “faces” the people as part of the liturgical action of the Mass may be numbered as these five.
An argument for ad orientem
Even as Jesus did not continuously live with his disciples after his Resurrection, but only appeared to them in certain moments; so also it is far more fitting that the priest should not continuously face the people throughout the Mass, but should rather turn only at certain moments to face the people. When the Mass is celebrated entirely in the direction of the people, the significance of “facing” the people is obscured – just as the moments in which Jesus appeared to his disciples would have had much less effect if he had chosen to be present to them always after his resurrection.
Precisely because the priest often faces the people for the entirety of the New Mass, the significant moments (which the “turning to face the people” would signal) are lost amidst the general flow of the liturgy. Happily, a great renewal is underway in which the younger clergy are reintroducing this practice as a normal part of parish life.
[the relevant portion begins at 3:30, the practical part at 13:30]