What does the Church teach about the priest’s orientation at Mass? After the Second Vatican Council, one most evident change was the construction of freestanding altars. The celebration versus populum (towards the people) was adopted throughout the Latin Church, and it became the prevailing practice during Mass for the celebrant to stand behind the altar facing the congregation. This has led to a widespread misunderstanding that the priest’s “turning his back on the people” is characteristic of the Tridentine rite, the old Latin Mass of Pope Saint Pius V; whereas the priest’s “turning towards the people” belongs to the New Mass of Pope Paul VI. It is also widely thought that the celebration of Mass “facing the people” was required, even imposed, by the liturgical reform of Vatican II.
In reality, the Council did not even mention the issue, only an instruction afterwards said it was desirable to set up a main altar separate from the back wall, so that the priest can walk around it and a celebration facing the people is possible. Contrary to what often took place, the Church never instructed that the old high altars should be torn down, rather that a freestanding altar should be present in the sanctuary – perhaps in addition to the high altar.
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