A common but misleading expression is the phrase “Mass facing the people.” Equally misleading are the words “Mass with back to the people” or “Mass facing the wall.” Regardless of the architecture of a church or the interior design of a sanctuary, Mass is always, or always should be, offered facing God.
The Father is the one toward whom the celebrant is directing his prayer and the Father is the one toward whom the priest’s mind, heart and eyes should be directed. This paternal orientation is a mandate not only for the ordained clergy but also for the baptized assembly. The Mass, in fact, the church’s entire liturgical activity consisting of the sacraments and the Divine Office, is a service rendered to God by priest and people. No matter how justifiable the contemporary emphasis on the active participation of the assembled community might be, the Father, not the congregation, is the focus of divine worship. Parishioners might leave Sunday Mass fortified, reconciled, consoled and even enlightened. Mass, however, is not offered primarily for people’s edification; Mass is offered chiefly for the praise of God. The authoritative definition on the Mass and the liturgy offered half a century ago by Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei has never been surpassed: “The sacred liturgy is, consequently, the public worship which our Redeemer as head of the church renders to the Father, as well as the worship which the community of the faithful renders to its founder, and through him to the heavenly Father. It is, in short, the worship rendered by the mystical body of Christ in the entirety of its head and members.”
Mass begins with a symbolic procession through the nave into the altar area where the activity of worship will have its focus. The celebrant is seated after the brief introductory rite and a reader proceeds to the ambo to proclaim the readings from the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures in the presence of the people. The deacon or priest then mounts the pulpit and continues to proclaim the Word of God through a Gospel passage. A deacon or priest then extols the “magnolia Dei,” the wonderful works of the Lord recounted in the Scriptures, through the homily which is not so much an instruction on God to the people as a celebration of God in the presence of the people.
The Service of the Word is not chiefly a catechetical exercise, as Cardinal Ottaviani wisely, if vainly, observed decades ago. The Service of the Word is primarily an act of worship just as the eucharistic prayer and the Communion service are. The Service of the Word is the first step in orienting the assembled community away from secular concerns and toward sacred matters. Having reflected on the wonderful works of God, the assembly reaffirms its faith with the words of the Creed, vocally and pointedly centering on God honored through his Word and about to be honored through the eucharistic sacrifice.
After the Service of the Word, the action of the Mass shifts to the altar. Now that priest and people appear to be facing one another over the altar, God seems to be squeezed out of the picture. This is not the situation. Priest and people in the old days faced God “out there,” somewhere beyond the main altar. Priest and people can still face God by lifting their hearts to God who is “up there.” The priest is not facing the people nor are the people facing the priest. They are both oriented toward God who is certainly present above in heaven and who will be shortly present below through the sacrifice. The procession with the gifts of bread, wine and the offerings from the pews up to the altar is a graphic gesture by which the people direct their attention, not at themselves as a community, but toward God as their supreme Father and subject of their worship. The prayers at the preparation of gifts are clearly addressed to God, not to the people. “Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation. …” The slight elevation of the prepared bread and prepared wine assists in drawing the assembly’s attention to the altar rather than to themselves. The prepared gifts are suitably incensed at this point in the Mass inviting the people to raise their minds and hearts to God above as the incense gently floats to loftier heights.
Even the largely symbolic washing of hands indicates the leaving behind of worldly preoccupations as the priest enters more deliberately into the eucharistic presence of God. The Eucharistic Prayer is clearly addressed to God the Father and its concluding Great Amen affirms that all glory and honor should be directed toward God. The subsequent Our Father leaves no doubt in what direction the hearts and minds of the worshipping community should be directed. Indeed Mass is always facing God.