So it was interesting to hear them all gushing about the beauty of the Mass. “What did you find beautiful?” I asked one of them. She couldn’t say precisely, just that it lifted her from the cares of this world. It may have been the music; it may have been generous lighting on new marble or sun through stained-glass; it may have been the preaching or the measured reverence of the priest (not me) or the incense or vestments or vessels—but of course it was all these things.
Even more interesting was the comment of the young adult funeral director’s son. He too was raised Catholic but has not been to Sunday Mass in a month of Sundays. “Father,” he explained energetically when I gently reproached his absences, “I’m in church every day—Catholic, Buddhist, Protestant, Jewish….”
“What did you think of our Mass?” I asked him rather laconically. He replied with the same energy: “You’ve changed something…. Something’s different. Did you move the altar?” We haven’t, but eventually he put his finger on it: the priest turned to face the altar when he said the prayers. “We call that ad orientem worship” I explained. “What did you think?”
“Oh, it seemed so …. inclusive!” he answered. “Instead of talking at us, the priest was praying with us. We were praying all together, the way all the other religions do it. In a Buddhist temple, or Islamic mosque, or Jewish synagogue, the priest prays with the people, not at them.”
It amazed me that this young man, who hasn’t participated in a Mass for a long time, immediately grasped the essence of worship, something most of us who attend Mass regularly miss. Worship is the work of both priest and people, and the priest excludes the congregation by facing them in communal prayer. He does not include himself in the people’s prayers, nor does he include the people in his prayers when he prays “at them” rather than with them. Facing the congregation, he prays alone. He alone faces “west” while everyone else is facing “east.”
I am a little embarrassed when people refer to my parish as “counter-cultural.” Why is "ad orientem" worship counter-cultural anyway? At least according to my young funeral director friend, it is “inclusive,” and that doesn't sound so counter-cultural to me. May inclusion reign in San Francisco!