There’s a controversy brewing in the Catholic Church over whether priests should celebrate Mass “facing the people,” as the vast majority of them do nowadays (versum populum), or ad orientem, “towards the East,” or, colloquially, with his back to the people.

I would guess that most Catholics today have no idea that this back-to-the-people position is an option, and would be sincerely baffled as to why anybody might find it desirable.

And yet, some do. Cardinal Sarah, who heads a Vatican task force on liturgy, recently recommended to priests at a liturgy conference that they start using the ad orientem posture more (and received a standing ovation). Sarah has become the unofficial leader of the loyal traditionalist opposition to Pope Francis, who is widely seen as leading the church in a progressive direction, and “flipping the altars” is widely seen as a traditionalist move. The Vatican press office quickly downplayed Sarah’s comments. Because the issue is a cultural flashpoint between the church’s left and right camps, this created a mini-controversy.

But why is this even an issue? And why care about it at all?  CONTINUE READING