There has been a recent uproar in some circles about a liturgical reform called ad orientem, in which the priest faces east during Mass. In most churches, this means he’s praying with his back to the people. Ad orientem is standard in the Tridentine Mass, the approved liturgical practice of the Church for approximately 400 years, but the reforms of the Second Vatican Council call for priests to face the people during Mass.
The Scrupulous Anonymous mailbag has been overflowing with anxious questions about this so-called reform. Some readers even wonder whether it’s serious sin to attend a church in which Mass is celebrated by a priest who doesn’t practice ad orientem.
To be blunt, this is nonsense. This “liturgical reform” is not Church teaching; it’s a strict interpretation of liturgical law by a group of people who struggle with change. It’s not the pastoral or liturgical practice of the Church.
Unfortunately, a small group of people resists the reforms of Vatican II, and their voices were isolated and contained until the explosion of digital media. Now they can reach new audiences through social media posts, elegant and official-looking websites, and blogs. People with scrupulosity are always looking for answers and certitude. Because the presentation and language of these media express unwavering certitude, Scrupulous Anonymous members often fall victim to this small but very vocal group, which includes some priests and a handful of bishops.
But despite the so-called certitude of this group, the ideas they express are nonsense. Vatican II reforms were inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. They were necessary, they are embraced by Church leadership, and they should not be explained away or ignored.
Most Vatican II documents were approved by overwhelming votes. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium, 1964) was approved by a vote of 2151 to 5. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes, 1965) was approved 2309 to 75. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium, 1963) was approved 2147 to 4. People who oppose Vatican II reforms ignore or minimize this overwhelming approval when they argue that the council was misinformed and misdirected, that its reforms prove the Church has lost direction.
My most serious concern is not that debate is taking place, but that the debate is harmful to people of tender conscience. Liturgically and theologically, this small but vocal group of people is on the fringe of our Church community and will remain so.
Pastorally, I’m concerned that some members of our SA family will continue to fall victim to the rantings and ravings of the fringe and be denied the peace and the confidence they should experience as people of God.
I regularly counsel people with scrupulosity to pay close attention to the publication date of printed material on scrupulosity to be sure they’re getting up-to-date pastoral guidance. Now I’m adding a warning to avoid social media, blogs, websites, and forums that seem to be authoritative but are not sponsored by a diocese or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (usccb.org). A theology degree or an official-sounding religious title doesn’t guarantee helpful pastoral direction.
When all is said and done, the anxiety produced by fascination with supposed liturgical reform is an unfortunate distraction for people with scrupulosity. We need to stay focused on lessening anxiety and arriving at a sense of peace. To engage in the frantic anxiety and believe the threats of heresy from the fringe community, either in liturgical or other so-called doctrinal debates, is not helpful and will not lead to a sense of healing.
Official change in liturgical practice or the interpretation of Church law is announced from the pulpit—and not just one pulpit, but all pulpits. Dioceses distribute materials explaining the change and allow sufficient time for a smooth and anxiety-free transition from one practice to another. If these components are not present, no official change is occurring.
Therefore, without exception, ignore discussion about change that hasn’t been officially announced by a diocese or the USCCB.
The struggle with scrupulosity and the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies it are more than enough to deal with each day. We don’t need to add even more worry and anxiety to the mix. To do so is counterproductive and an obstacle to healing.
God’s healing grace is powerful, but grace is effective only with cooperation from us. Removing unfortunate distraction is one effective way to bring even more of God’s grace into your life.—Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR