Elsewhere: backing into heaven


The Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is what it is, regardless of less than ideal environments. In war, the hood of a jeep has served as the altar of sacrifice. In distant jungles, a church sanctuary may be only the area under a thatched roof. In countries where religious freedom is suppressed, Mass must be held in secret in whatever dark place is available.

In each of these lowly and humble situations, through the timeless Mass, heaven and earth touch. Heavenly choirs of angels and saints join us as our Savior becomes present. We commune with Him at the Last Supper, follow His passion to the foot of the cross and His victory over death. We are witnesses to, and participants in, God’s boundless love and infinite sacrifice for us.

The surroundings do not make the Mass what it is. So why then do we build beautiful cathedrals? Why was high liturgy ever practiced? I offer two reasons.

First, for God. He deserves nothing less and it pleases Him. Just look at Exodus to get a sense of God’s expectations. There are detailed commands for: materials, the Ark, the table, the Menorah, tent cloth, framework, veils, the altar, the Tabernacle, lamp oil, vestments, consecration of priests, installation sacrifices, incense, basin, anointing oil, artisans and sabbath laws. All this was expected in the time of Moses 3,400 years ago. Should our worship be to a lower standard?

Second, for us. While the reality of the Mass does not change, our sense of the sacred does. If at all possible, the environment and liturgy should remind us of the supernatural reality before us. It should draw us in and point us to Christ. Our focus should not be on ourselves.

Post conciliar changes – NOT called for by Vatican II – have chipped-away at the environment and liturgy. Some churches are built without images of Saints, hard to find tabernacles, no soaring ceilings, missing altar rails, seating facing each other “in the round” (vs. facing God). They are less sacred churches than multi-function rooms. The ordinary form of the liturgy need not be “dumbed down,” but often is. The voids are then sometimes filled by humor, novelties, inappropriate “participation,” secular music and other entertainment.

Msgr. Charles Pope has been pondering some of this too. In his blog for the Archdiocese of Washington he recently wrote about correcting some of the false post-Vatican II excesses which have been thoughtlessly embraced to the detriment of the Church.

Some years ago the theologian Fr. Jonathan Robinson wrote a commentary on the modern experience of the Sacred liturgy and entitled it, The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward. It is a compelling image of so much of what is wrong with the celebration of the Liturgy in many parishes today.

While Fr. Robinson certainly had the celebration of Mass “facing the people” in mind, his concerns are broader than that.

Indeed, we have the strange modern concept of the “closed circle” in so many modern conceptions of the Mass. Too often we are tediously self-referential and anthropocentric. So much of modern liturgy includes long lists of congratulatory references, both done by, but also expected of the celebrant.

Instead of the Liturgy being upwardly focused to God and outwardly toward the mission of the Church (to make disciples of all the nations), we tend today to “gather” and hunker down in rather closed circles looking at each other, and speaking at great length about ourselves.

We have even enshrined this architecturally in our modern circular and fan shaped churches that facilitate us looking at each other, and focusing inwardly, not up or put. The author Thomas Day once described Modern Catholic Liturgy as, “the aware, gathered community celebrating itself.”

In the ancient orientation or “stance” of the Mass that was ubiquitous until 1965, the focus was outward and upward. Though disparaged by many in recent decades as the priest “having his back to the people” even this description shows the self obsession of the modern age. And to those speak this way about the liturgical orientation of almost 2,000 years, the answer must come, “The priest does not have his back to you. Actually it is not about you at all. The liturgy is about God. And the priest, and all the faithful are turned outward and upward to God.”

The liturgical questions of the history of the eastward orientation and its recent loss, of how and why we got into the modern closed circle mentality, and the erroneous understandings of the liturgists of the 1950s about the practice of the early Church, are all discussed more aptly by others more liturgically versed than I.

Please consider dear reader that my proposal is not for a sudden and swift change in our liturgical stance. Rather, that we begin to ponder if, by our inwardly focused stance in circular and fan shaped churches, facing each other, we are communicating what we really intend. Does our stance project that our real focus here is God? Does it communicate the goal of the liturgy to lead us to God? Does it inculcate a spirit of leadership in our clergy who are called to lead us to God? Does a largely closed circle manifest an outward trajectory to evangelize outward and unto the ends of the earth”

Whatever pastoral blessings come with “facing the people” (and there are some blessings) there may be value in continuing to reassess whether our modern pastoral stance of an inwardly focused liturgy serves us well and communicates what we are really doing and experiencing.

There is much more. Read Msgr. Pope’s entire piece Are We Walking to Heaven Backward? A Pastoral Consideration of Liturgical “orientation.”


  1. “The Mass isn’t about YOU!!”

    Try telling that to Catholics. They will be shocked.

    After all, everything else in our society is about ME; why would I waste time on a Sunday morning attending a church service that isn’t about my favorite subject?

    “If at all possible, the environment and liturgy should remind us of the supernatural reality before us. It should draw us in and point us to Christ. Our focus should not be on ourselves.”


  2. I long ago realized that in this and many related issues the question is how you make decisions based on what possibilities you have. So, if with great effort and at personal risk of your life you celebrate or attend Mass using an old car hood as an altar, your decision has been to give the best you can to God. If in the safety of our country you give a tenth of one percent of your income to help pay for top quality altar cloths at a grand, spacious and well decorated cathedral, perhaps you have given less than the people who were at the old car Mass. In order to give of yourself you would have to give more. Of course there are many different ways to give of yourself, but the point is you have to make decisions based on your own real situation.

    • I agree when funds are limited. In those cases we have to do the best that we can.

      Much of the time the issue is not one of funding but sleek, modern aesthetics over sacred images. Churches could have been designed more traditionally but decisions are made not to. This has led to some dreadful looking buildings and hollow interiors. Ironically, these spaces look quite dated after just a few decades. Those spaces that are more traditional look timeless and feel sacred regardless of age.

      Another problem is “renovations” that strip-out classic elements in an ill-advised attempt to meet some poor notion of what a contemporary church should look like. That is just sad and typically has dreadful results.

Share Your Thoughts