Many people are shocked when attending their first Traditional Latin Mass. “Why does the priest turn his back on us?” many ask. Well the answer to this is simple, he doesn’t. The liturgical direction of the priest facing with the people towards to the tabernacle and crucifix, is referred to as Ad Orientem or Ad Deum, meaning To the East or To God, respectively.
This tradition of saying the Liturgy is an Apostolic Tradition. Since churches began to be built, they were always built with the altar facing East, as Christ said he will come again from the East and the rising sun. This can be seen in many large cathedrals and basilicas where the original high altar faces East. It is not a compass point East that is important however, it is directing our attention to God the Son physically present in the tabernacle, and the image of Christ crucified behind the altar.
This truly shows the duty of priest as a leader. In war, you would never expect your company’s officer to come into battle and turn and face the company to lead them into battle. He faces with his company as a leader and goes first into battle. The priest has the same duty, he leads us in our perfect worship of the Holy Trinity. He faces with us toward our goal, Jesus Christ. As the priest addresses God, he faces God in the tabernacle or on the crucifix. As he addresses the people, he turns to the people.
This liturgical direction is not dead to our modern times. It is still the mandatory direction for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. It is also still used in the Eastern Rites that were not Latinized during the Second Vatican Council. Something many don’t know is that Ad Orientem is actually the preferred orientation of the Novus Ordo Missae. This is obvious if one reads the rubrics. The priest is told to “Turn to face the people” before saying “The Lord be with you.” This assumes the priest is not facing the people, but to God Ad Orientem. This may come as a surprise, but it really just makes sense.
Many times on various Traditional Catholic Forums, an image depicting stick figures arranged within a mass is shown, one with the “priest” Versus Populum, and one with the “priest” Ad Orientem. Both pictures have the priest saying, “Lord we praise you,” and is captioned “Which one makes sense?” This refers to whether addressing God while facing a congregation of people, or addressing God while facing Jesus Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity and Holy Sacrifice on the Cross makes more sense. This is really a simple question, why would you turn your back on the person you are addressing?