April 14, 2007

"Ad orientem": the Papal Altar in St. Peter's Basilica

Here is the floor-plan of the basilica. The position of the Papal Altar is marked with a cross (+). The facade and doors of the basilica are on the east.

A represents the Papal Altar.

B is to the east of the Papal Altar and is the opening in the floor that leads to the confessio, the niche over St. Peter's tomb.

C is literally towards the east on the compass, literally ad orientem -- towards the people and the main door.

In the following photograph you see the confessio. The golden "knobs" on the railing are oil lamps.

In the following photograph you see Pope Pius XII celebrating Mass ("Tridentine") at the Papal Altar. He stands on the western side of the altar, and he faces literally, physically eastward, ad orientem -- and towards the people. You can see the oil lamps of the confessio to the east of the altar (the right side of the photograph).

Today, at a papal Mass, the Vatican sets up a platform over the western end of the confessio, nearest the papal altar, so that the pope can walk all the way around the altar as he incenses it. You can see the platform with white steps in the following photograph.

Because many of the ancient basilicas of Rome have a confessio immediately in front of the high altar, it is not possible to celebrate Mass at those altars without facing the people.

In discussing which way the priest ought to face when he is at the altar, we must be mindful that the original sense and intention of the ad orientem position is to face literally eastwards, that is, towards the rising sun as a symbol of turning to the Resurrection of Christ. Originally, the priest's ad orientem position has nothing to do with intentionally turning either away from or towards the people. It has everything to do with looking to the rising of the sun as a cosmic sign of the Resurrection of Christ.


Blogger Mark Cephas Tan said...

Nice... =)

9:39 AM  
Blogger Saint Peter's helpers said...

This clarifies everything Father. Thank you!

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Kim said...

Wow, interesting! Makes sense to me! :D

3:30 PM  
Blogger Michael Astley said...

Indeed! There's a wonderful chapter on this in The Spirit of the Liturgy. An earlier version of this chapter (soem minor amendments were made to it before publishing) can be read here. Uwe Michael Lang's Turning towards the Lord is also exceptional.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Aaron Traas said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was told that prior to the Novus Ordo, the people faced East as well at St. Peter's, so while the celebrant was facing the people, they were facing away from/with him.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Father Stephanos, O.S.B. said...

aaron traas

That was not the case.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Father Stephanos, O.S.B. said...

aaron traas

That was not the case. That would have entailed having the people turn their backs on the Blessed Sacrament.

However, in the early centuries (the present Basilica is less than 600 years old), there was a usage of the priest and people turning eastwards (no matter which way the building lined up) whenever the priest said, "Let us pray."

2:46 PM  

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