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MASS-DIRECTION (CORRECTED) Jun-15-2006 (590 words) xxxi

Conference: Priest facing east at Mass won't ensure focus on Jesus

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Having the priest face east, usually away from the people, when celebrating Mass is not a magic way to ensure that both the priest and the congregation focus on Jesus, said participants at a conference in northern Italy.

Enzo Bianchi, prior of the Bose ecumenical community and host of the conference, summarized the discussion in the June 14 edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.

The conference brought together Catholic liturgists, theologians and church architects from Europe, North and South America and liturgical experts from Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches.

The theme "Liturgical Space and Its Orientation" was chosen because of renewed research and debate about the placement of the altar in churches and the direction the priest and people face.

Bianchi said participants agreed that something must be done to help celebrants and congregations focus more firmly on Jesus and recover dimensions of the liturgy that have weakened since the Second Vatican Council.

In the old liturgy, when the priest faced east during the eucharistic prayer, not only was he not the focus of people's attention, but his posture was meant to evoke the Christian expectation of Christ coming again -- the Book of Revelation says he will come from the east -- and the "cosmological symbolism" of Christ being the sun that rises in the east, Bianchi said.

To recover those dimensions, he said, "that which appears urgent today is a profound rethinking of the position of the priest in respect to the faithful."

One of the speakers at the conference was Father Uwe Michael Lang, whose book "Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer," presents arguments for returning to the practice of having the celebrant facing east with his back to the congregation.

The book includes a foreword written in 2003 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger supporting Father Lang's thesis, but suggesting a more thorough, calmer discussion is needed.

In his own book, "The Spirit of the Liturgy," the cardinal, now pope, suggested that to avoid creating further disruption and confusion by changing the direction the priest faces, a crucifix placed on the altar or suspended above it could be an appropriate alternative.

Msgr. Stefano Russo, an official of the Italian bishops' conference, told participants that different aspects of the liturgy are highlighted by the direction the priest is facing; when the priest and people are looking at each other and at the altar, it emphasizes the communal aspect of the Mass, while the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is emphasized by the priest and people facing the same direction.

He said having the priest face the people "is not better or more correct" than having them face the same direction, "but is only more appropriate and coherent with the faith lived by believers today."

People must be honest enough to admit that either position "by itself is insufficient to convey the totality of the mystery celebrated," Msgr. Russo said. "No ritual form, no text or liturgical gesture could ever exhaust the richness of the mystery of God."

U.S. Jesuit Father Keith Pecklers, a professor of liturgy at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, said the conference was important for bringing balance to a discussion that has been used to polarize or label Catholics.

He told Catholic News Service that a key conclusion of the discussion was that priests need to be trained "to preside with grace, ease and transparency, drawing people to Christ and not focusing attention on themselves."


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