Cardinal Sarah suggested that, beginning this Advent, all priests say Mass ad orientem (“to the East”), which often is not literally to the East, but symbolically, such that the priest faces with his back to the people: “It is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation…. I ask you to implement this practice wherever possible.” [Catholic Herald].
This request has been portrayed by some commentators as a continuation of the liturgical vision of Pope Benedict XVI. Oh, really? Then why didn’t this change begin during his Pontificate? And since Pope emeritus Benedict is still alive, I have to ask: Is he involved in this push to change the way that priests say Mass? No, he is not. Did Pope Benedict XVI ask all priests to face East? No, he did not.
And why is this suddenly “very important”? It is not important. “Christ did not establish the Mass in immutable specifics.”  In other words, when our Lord and Savior established the Mass and the priesthood and the Eucharist, He absolutely did NOT establish one specific liturgical form, as an unchangeable dogma. Instead, Jesus gave the Church the authority over liturgical form. So the Church can decide all questions of liturgical form, and can change those decisions as She sees fit. The claim that facing East is very important, and that all priests must do so, regardless of proper authority in the Church, is a call to schism.
What is happening here is that traditionalists and some conservatives have rejected Pope Francis in their hearts and minds because he is liberal. And so they are seeking to pick a fight with him over any matter that distinguishes liberals from conservatives. Traditionalists prefer a liturgical form, on every point, that is in accord with traditional practices. Cardinal Sarah’s suggestion that priests face with their backs to the people is a way to distinguish conservatives from liberals. It is also a way for priests to pick a side in the fight between a liberal Pope and conservative Catholic leaders.
The expression “chip on the shoulder” refers to the practice of placing a chip of wood on one’s shoulder, literally, and then daring another person to knock the chip off, thereby starting a fight. It is a way to pick a fight with someone. Cardinal Sarah is inviting all priests worldwide to choose sides, to use the Ad Orientem point of liturgical form as a way to show that they side with conservatives against the Pope.
Cardinal Sarah made this public suggestion to all priests on July 5th, 2016. A few days later, on July 9th, Pope Francis met with Cardinal Sarah and rebuked him for making this suggestion:
“Pope Francis has made it clear no changes are planned to the Ordinary or Extraordinary Mass Forms, contrary to the speech delivered by Cardinal Sarah last week.”
“However, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, issued a statement yesterday clarifying the situation and indicating Pope Francis met with Cardinal Sarah on 9 July to indicate no liturgical directives will begin in Advent.” [Pope Francis issues directive contradicting advice of Cardinal Sarah]
And yet Cardinal Sarah has not withdrawn his suggestion, and his conservative supporters have continued to trumpet this call to rebellion.
What would happen if, under a conservative Pope, a liberal Cardinal suggested a liberal change to the Mass, and then the Pope met with him to contradict his suggestion? Conservatives would say that we must obey the Pope over a non-official suggestion by a Cardinal, especially a suggestion rejected by the Pope. But when the Pope is liberal, they side with every conservative position, on doctrine and discipline, regardless of the manifest will of the Supreme Pontiff.
If a priest has been celebrating Mass facing toward people, and this Advent he changes so that he faces away from the people (to the East, literally or symbolically), he is indicating that he sides with Cardinal Sarah and other conservatives against the Vicar of Christ. How can this be, when Ad Orientem has been used by the Church for centuries as a legitimate point of liturgical form? There is nothing wrong, per se, with Ad Orientem; it is intention and circumstances that makes this change a rebellion against the Vicar of Christ.
Consider that, under the Old Law, Jewish males were circumcised. At the time, if a Jew rejected circumcision, he was rejecting his faith. But when the New Law was established by Christ, circumcision was no longer used. So then, if a Christian becomes circumcised, as a religious practice, he is rejecting his faith. The issue is not whether circumcision is good or bad, but what it represents. A certain party among early Christians were teaching the heresy that Christians must be circumcised and must keep all of the disciplines of the Old Testament. For them, circumcision was an indication that they accepted this false teaching on discipline and were members of this heretical group.
Similarly, the use of Ad Orientem — specifically with the intention of expressing a rejection of the authority of Pope Francis — is sinful. But if a priest has been using Ad Orientem all along, with the approval of his Bishop and the Holy See, then he can continue to do so. Of course each priest and each member of the faithful is DIRECTLY under the authority of each successive Roman Pontiff. No Catholic can disobey the Pope on the basis of a claim that he prefers to obey a Bishop or Cardinal instead.
If the Pope tells you to face West while saying Mass, then you face West. And if he says East, then you face East. Doing so, whether West or East, pleases God, for it is an expression of obedience to Christ by obedience to the Vicar of Christ. Do you think that Jesus wants each priest to obey Cardinal Sarah and to ignore his Bishop and the Pope? Certainly not. And why is Jesus so seldom mentioned in this types of disputes? Traditionalists are too focused on discipline and liturgical form, so much so that they taught about that topic more than they talk about Christ.
The first Sunday of Advent is 27 Nov 2016, just seven days after the year of Mercy ends (Nov. 20th). Then we will see if this call to Ad Orientem is simply a suggestion to follow one approved rubric of the Mass, or a symbolic rejection of a liberal Pope.
Is it ever faithful and reasonable for a Catholic to disagree with a decision of the Pope on discipline or doctrine? See my post: Faithful disobedience from temporal authority of the Church. Is the Ad Orientem issue an example of faithful disobedience? Not when the intention is to reject the authority of the Pope over discipline or doctrine, or to side with a schismatic Cardinal against the Pope.
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 Franz Jozef “Joep” van Beeck, S.J., professor of Christology.