Ad Orientem and Music

By Mahrt, William | Sacred Music, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Ad Orientem and Music

Mahrt, William, Sacred Music

In our discussion of the American bishops' document on music, Sing to the Lord, anthropocentric and theocentric emphases in liturgy were contrasted: anthropocentric, man-centered, focusing upon the congregation's actions; theocentric, God-centered, focusing upon God as the object of worship. It is not a question of an exclusive choice of one or the other, but a proper balance and priority between them. There is, however, a center which transcends the contrast--Christ: the liturgy is Christocentric; it is the action of Christ offering himself to the Father. As the action of the Body of Christ, the whole church offers it, it is in that sense anthropocentric; but, being offered to the Father, it is more importantly theocentric. The synthesis of the two poles is centered upon Christ, true man and true God.

As sacred liturgy, the Mass has a transcendent object--almighty God--and an ultimate goal--happiness with him. But since the liturgy takes place in the here and now, these aspects of transcendence must be expressed in human terms, using human means. Two of the means, space and time, give rise to two important aspects of liturgy--the stance of the priest at the altar and sacred music.

Traditionally churches were "oriented"; they faced East. The priest stood before the altar, facing East as well. This was because the rising sun in the East was seen as a symbol of Christ--the direction toward which he ascended and from which he will come again. This direction was East, no matter where in the world the church was located; thus, in contradistinction to Jerusalem or Mecca, which were geographic directions of prayer, the Christian direction was a transcendent one, not being focused upon any earthly focal point.

After the Second Vatican Council, priests often faced the people, thus facing West in such churches. It is true that documents prescribed that when new churches were constructed, altars should be placed so that it was possible to celebrate Mass facing the people; still, this was not required. Indeed, the language of the Roman Missal, even the edition of 2002, seems to assume the opposite as a norm, since at several points it directs the priest to turn around and address the people.

The posture facing the people has often been justified by the apparent precedent of the Roman basilicas, including St. Peter's, where the pope has always faced the people at Mass, even in the rite of Trent. However, this stance is not a precedent for facing the people elsewhere, but just another instance of facing East, for these basilicas followed classical Roman custom and faced West. Louis Bouyer, Klaus Gamber, and others have questioned this precedent, conceding that at prayer the priest did face the people, but contending that the people also faced East, turning away from the priest.

Pope Benedict, when he wrote as Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote about the posture ad orientem. He spoke about addressing the symbol of Christ, but he added another forceful rationale: Early Christian churches frequently had great apses with prominent mosaics of Christ upon their upper reaches. Thus, when the priest faced East, he also faced this monumental image of Christ, and even if the church did not face East, the orientation upon this image was truly Christocentric. Pope Benedict thus reasoned that when it was not practical to face East, a similar image of Christ could be faced when a crucifix was placed before the priest at the center of the altar. This "Benedictine order" is now what he consistently follows when he celebrates Mass. These days we have easy access to papal Masses, since they are frequently broadcast on EWTN, and there the Benedictine order can be observed; His Holiness can be seen intently looking at the cross as he celebrates Mass.

This is a striking alternative to the widespread practice of the priest engaging the attention of the congregation and cultivating his own personal presidential style, which often has the undesirable effect of focusing attention on the priest or on the interaction of priest and people, rather than focusing the attention of both priest and people upon Christ whose work is the principal action of the Mass. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Ad Orientem and Music


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.