Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Response Concerning the Lawful Position of the Priest Celebrant During Mass and the Use of Eucharistic Prayers, 2000. Private.
Two questions were posed to the Holy See concerning the celebration of Mass. One question addressed the correct position of the priest celebrant while at the altar. Is it more appropriate for him to face the people (versus populum), or face the apse, away from the people (ad orientem)? Both positions are acceptable according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. The second question concerned the three Eucharistic prayers approved for liturgical use by Pope Paul VI. Some assert that only the Roman canon be used because these three Eucharistic prayers are theologically inadequate. What follows are the Bishop’s letter and a response by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments.
Office of the BishopHis Eminence Jorge Cardinal Arturo Medina Estévez, Prefect
The Congregation for Divine Worship and The Discipline of the Sacraments
Piazza Pio XII 10
00193 Rome, Italy
In the course of my episcopal ministry as Bishop, I have encountered some difficulty with a number of assertions which appear to me to be seriously misleading to priests and laity alike. I would be grateful if the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments would provide some clarification on these matters.
The first question regards the orientation of the priest celebrant when he is at the altar celebrating Mass. Certain individuals and groups have maintained that, of the two positions which are permitted to the celebrant by current liturgical law: facing the people (versus populum), or facing the apse, away from the people (ad orientem), the second (ad orientem) is a theological preferable or a more orthodox choice for a priest who wishes to be true to the Church’s authentic tradition. I disagree with the arguments advanced in support of this stance, which has been thrust upon my diocese.
The second question regards the four Eucharistic Prayers introduced into the Roman Rite by Pope Paul VI. The assertion has been made that only the Roman Canon is really orthodox. They assert that the other Eucharistic prayers are heterodox, or at least of dubious theological, liturgical or ecclesial value. They urge that, in the light of the perceived inadequacy of the other Eucharistic Prayers, the priest celebrant always use the Roman Canon, whether he celebrates in Latin or in the approved vernacular. Once again, I have serious questions and concerns regarding this assertion.
I would be grateful if Your Eminence could provide an authoritative clarification on these most contentious matters.
Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the SacramentsYour Excellency:
Thank you for the letter of _________ asking this Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments for clarification of certain questions regarding liturgical celebration and the various options permitted by the Roman Missal. Thank you also for the confidence that Your Excellency has shown toward this Congregation.
As regards the position of the celebrating priest at the altar during Holy Mass, it is true — as Your Excellency indicates — that the rubrics of the Roman Missal, and in particular the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, foresee that the priest will face the body of people in the nave while leaving open the possibility of his celebrating towards the apse. These two options carry with them no theological or disciplinary stigma of any kind. It is therefore, incorrect and indeed quite unacceptable that anyone affirm, as Your Excellency sums up this view, that to celebrate towards the apse “is a theologically preferable or more orthodox choice for a priest who wishes to be true to the Church’s authentic tradition.”
Your Excellency’s second question concerned the three Eucharistic Prayers introduced into the Roman Rite by Pope Paul VI by means of a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites on 23 May 1968. In answer to the assertion that “only Roman Canon is really orthodox...the other Eucharistic Prayers are heterodox, or at lest of dubious theological, liturgical and ecclesial value,” and that “in the light of the perceived inadequacy of the other Eucharistic Prayers, the priest celebrant [should] always use the Roman Canon, whether he celebrated in Latin or in the approved vernacular”, it must be said firmly that such a view is in direct conflict with the position of the Holy See, as Your Excellency has rightly understood. The three Eucharistic Prayers in question are each to be considered lawful and the liturgical law of the Church establishes no gradation with respect to their orthodoxy. There is, therefore, no question of the First Eucharistic Prayer or Roman Canon being “more orthodox” than the others and such an idea is without any foundation.
A distinction could be made rightly between the different Eucharistic Prayers with respect to their appropriateness for pastoral use in different circumstances and in the setting of different liturgical celebrations. As is clear to Your Excellency, the varying length of the Eucharistic Prayers, the fact that the Fourth Prayer has an invariable Preface, that special embolisms and intercessions are given for different feastdays and circumstances in this or that Prayer, all makes for a happy variety that allows the Bishop or priest celebrant to make appropriate pastoral choices for the good of the people, opting for one or other Eucharistic Prayer with its variant internal parts. While the First Eucharistic Prayer is a venerable text which deserves all respect, having been in continuous use for perhaps a millennium and a half, the other three Eucharistic Prayers are also in one way or another ancient and in any case are worthy of the veneration and deep respect of priests and faithful. To suggest otherwise is at the least erroneous and irresponsible. The Second Eucharistic Prayer represents a liturgical tradition, found in the early centuries in Rome and diffused in distant lands. The Third Eucharistic Prayer enjoys a rich history with its origins in the Hispanic or Mozarabic Rite. The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer, likewise, is of venerable origin, being based upon the Antiochene tradition.
This Congregation is grateful to Your Excellency for raising in such a focused manner these serious questions and for offering the occasion to formulate and make known an appropriate answer. According to your pastoral judgement, Your Excellency is free to refer publicly to the content of this letter or to publish it in whatever form seems appropriate.
With every good wish and kind regard, I am
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Jorge A. Card. Medina Estévez
Francesco Pio Tamburrino
RRAO (2000): 33-35.