[I cannot assume that everyone is familiar with this issue, so some brief terms: “Versus populum” is when the priest is facing the congregation, with his back to the tabernacle (if, indeed, the sanctuary has a tabernacle), throughout the Mass. This is the posture that nearly all Catholics born subsequent to 1970 know. The vast majority think it is “the way it’s always been”.
“Ad orientem” or “to the East” (or, more correctly, “towards God”) is the form where the priest is not facing the congregation but facing God through most of the Mass. This has the secondary effect of the priest having his back to the people, although in fact everyone, priest and people, are facing God. Think of the postures of the airplane pilot and the passengers: all are facing the same direction, the direction where they are going, but it is also true that the pilot has his back to his passengers. Most passengers, I suspect, would prefer their pilot to be paying attention to where they are going, rather than talking and looking at them. Most Catholics today, if they are even aware of it, think ad orientem is arcane, ancient, and irrelevant. In fact, it was the way the Church worshiped throughout her entire history, up until the 1970s. Enough by way of introduction. let’s get on with it. - TC]
On the 22 of July, 2019, the Most Reverend James S. Wall, Bishop of Gallup, NM, issued a letter to his diocese. The letter is here. Snippets, with my emphases, are as follows:
“…There is, however, one particular practice that I would like to highlight here. It is about exercising the option to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass facing “toward the East” (ad orientem) or “toward God” (ad Deum) as distinct from “toward the people” (versus populum).
Let me say at the outset: I know this can be a contentious topic … By explaining and advocating for this, I am in no way trying to disrupt the way the people of this Diocese pray. Rather, I am trying to open the treasury of the Church’s patrimony, so that, together, we can all experience one of the most ancient ways that the Church has always prayed...
With that in mind, let me start with just a brief historical note. Essentially, we can say that celebrating Mass ad orientem is one of the most ancient and most consistent practices in the life of the Church—it is part of how the Church has always understood the proper worship of God… versus populum worship is extremely new in the life of the Church (1970’s – TC), and, while a valid liturgical option today, it still must be considered novel when it comes to the celebration of Mass…
Bishop Wall then goes on to give a concise, readable explanation of what, exactly, ad orientem (or ad Deum – towards God) worship involves. He also discusses the common assertion that this is all merely a matter of taste. His central point, however, is here (his emphasis, set off in bold as a separate paragraph):
For all these reasons, I have decided that, since the recent solemnity of Corpus Christi, the 11:00am Sunday Mass will henceforth be celebrated ad orientem at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Gallup…
… This is also a practice I would like to encourage throughout the Diocese of Gallup…”
I recommend you go and read his entire, very thoughtful (and, in my opinion, courageous) letter. Bishop Wall is in no way suppressing versus populum. It’s also important to note that the Bishop is implementing this in the context of the Novus Ordo Missae (New Order of the Mass, as it was originally known, now known as the “Ordinary Form”) He is, however, highlighting it – “which way the priest faces - as important, important enough for him to use it at a central (11AM every Sunday) Mass in his cathedral, and to clearly support and encourage it’s use by other parishes in his diocese.
Finally, MSGR Charles Pope, whom I have quoted a fair amount on this blog, has written extensively on the topic of ad orientem. A brief list:
Curate, ut valeatis.