Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Response to dubium Concerning the Position of the Priest During Mass, 25 September 2000.
The question was proposed to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments whether what is stated in n. 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal establishes a norm whereby, during the Eucharistic liturgy, the position of the priest facing the apse (versus absidem) is to be considered excluded.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, after mature consideration and taking account of liturgical precedents, replies:
Negative, and ‘ad mentem’.
The mind includes various elements that one must consider.
Above all one must recall that the word expedient (expedit) does not constitute an obligatory norm, but a suggestion which refers to the construction of the altar separate from the wall (a pariete sejunctum), or to celebration facing the people (versus populum). The phrase where possible (ubi possibile sit) refers to different elements, such as, for example, the layout of the place, the availability of space, the existence of a previous
altar of artistic value, the sensibility of the community which participates in the celebrations in the church in question, etc. One confirms that the position facing the assembly seems more appropriate in as much as it renders communication easier (cf. Editorial in Notitiae 29  245249), but without excluding the other possibility.
All the same, whatever the position of the priest celebrant may be, it is clear that the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered to God one and three, and that the Principal, High, and Eternal priest is Jesus Christ, who works through the ministry of the priest who presides in a visible manner, using him as his instrument. The liturgical assembly participates in the celebration by virtue of the common priesthood of the faithful, who have need of the ministry of the ordained priest in order to be involved in the Eucharistic Synaxis. One must distinguish between the physical position, relative especially to communication among the various members of the assembly, and the spiritual orientation. It would be a grave error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is the community. If the priest celebrates facing the people (versus populum), which is a lawful and and often advisable, his spiritual disposition must always to be towards God through Jesus Christ (versus Deum per Jesus Christum), as representative of the whole Church. Even the Church, which takes concrete form in the participating assembly, is totally turned towards God (versus Deum) as its first spiritual movement.
As far as we can tell, the ancient tradition, albeit not unanimous, was that the celebrant and the community in prayer were turned to face east (versus orientem), the place whence came the light which is Christ. It is not uncommon to find ancient churches, where the construction was “oriented” so that both the priest and the people were turn to face east (versus orientem) at the time of public prayer.
One can conceive that when difficulties of space or other problems arose, the apse represented an idealized east. Today the expression facing east (versus orientem) frequently signifies facing the apse (versus absidem), and when one speaks of facing the people (versus populum), one is thinking not so much of facing east as the community present.
In ancient church architecture, the place of the Bishop or the priest celebrating was located in the centre of the apse and, seated there, hearing
the proclamation of the readings turned towards the community. This presidential position was not attributed to the human person of the Bishop or the priest, nor to his intellectual gifts, still less to his personal sanctity, but rather to his role as the instrument of the unseen High Priest, who is the Lord Jesus.
When one is dealing with ancient Churches or those of great artistic value, one must also take account of civil legislation regarding changes and restructuring. A second altar cannot always be a worthy solution.
One ought not to give excessive importance to elements that have undergone changes over the centuries. What will remain forever is the event celebrated in the liturgy: this is manifested by means of rites, signs, symbols and words, which express various aspects of the mystery, but, at the same time without exhausting it, because it transcends them. To be unbending on one position and to make it an absolute could be to reject some aspect of the truth which merits respect and acceptance.
Vatican City, 25 September 2000.
Jorge Arturo Cardinal Medina Estévez
Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino
Prot. No. 2036/00/L, Comm 32 (2000): 171-173; CLSGBI Newsletter, 126 (2001): 47-48.