Versus populum (Latin for "towards the people") is the liturgical orientation in which the priest celebrates Mass facing the people. The opposite orientation, whereby the priest faces in the same direction as the people, is often called ad orientem ("towards the east"), even if the priest is not in fact facing the east.
From the middle of the seventeenth century, almost all new Latin-rite altars were built against a wall or backed by a reredos, with a tabernacle placed on the altar or inserted into the reredos. This meant that the priest turned to the people, putting his back to the altar, only for a few short moments at Mass. However, the Tridentine Missal itself speaks of celebrating versus populum, and gives corresponding instructions for the priest when performing actions that in the other orientation involved turning around in order to face the people.
Earliest churches in Rome
It has been said that the reason the Pope always faced the people when celebrating Mass in St Peter's was that early Christians faced eastward when praying and, due to the difficult terrain, the basilica was built with its apse to the west. Some have attributed this orientation in other early Roman churches to the influence of Saint Peter's. However, the arrangement whereby the apse with the altar is at the west end of the church and the entrance on the east is found also in Roman churches contemporary with Saint Peter's (such as the original Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls) that were under no such constraints of terrain, and the same arrangement remained the usual one until the sixth century. In this early layout, the people were situated in the side aisles of the church, not in the central nave. While the priest faced both the altar and east throughout the Mass, the people would face the altar (from the sides) until the high point of the Mass, where they would then turn to face east along with the priest.
Other pre-twentieth-century churches in Rome
It was only in the 8th or 9th century that the position whereby the priest faced the apse, not the people, when celebrating Mass was adopted in the Roman Rite. The new usage was introduced from the Frankish Empire and later became almost universal in the West. However, in several churches in Rome, it was physically impossible, even before the twentieth-century liturgical reforms, for the priest to celebrate Mass facing away from the people, because of the presence, immediately in front of the altar, of the "confession" (Latin: confessio), an area sunk below floor level to enable people to come close to the tomb of the saint buried beneath the altar. The best-known such "confession" is that in St Peter's Basilica, but many other churches in Rome have the same architectural feature, including at least one, the present Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, which, although the original Constantinian basilica was arranged like St Peter's, is oriented since 386 in such a way that the priest faces west when celebrating Mass.
1970 Roman Missal
Without requiring priests to face the people throughout the Mass, the Roman Missal now calls for the facing-the-people orientation to be made possible: "The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible." Accordingly, altars that obliged the priest to have his back to the people have generally been moved away from the apse wall or reredos, or, where this was unsuitable, a new freestanding altar has been built closer to the people. This, however, is not universal, and in some churches and chapels it is physically impossible for the priest to face the people throughout the Mass.
The rubrics of the Roman Missal now prescribe that the priest should face the people at six points of the Mass. The priest celebrating the Tridentine Mass was required to face the people, turning if necessary his back to the altar, eight times. The priest is still expressly directed to face the altar at exactly the same points as in the Tridentine Mass. His position in relation to the altar determines, as before, whether facing the altar means also facing the people.
Tabernacle on the altar
In the second half of the seventeenth century it became customary to place the tabernacle on the main altar of the church. When a priest celebrates Mass at such an altar with his back to the people, he sometimes necessarily turns his back directly to the Blessed Sacrament, as when he turns to the people at the Orate fratres. This seeming disrepect is absent when the priest stands on the side of the altar away from the people; but locating so large an object on the altar is arguably inconvenient for a celebration in which the priest faces the people. Accordingly, the revised Roman Missal states:
- [I]t is preferable that the tabernacle be located, according to the judgment of the Diocesan Bishop,
- a. Either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in a form and place more appropriate, not excluding on an old altar no longer used for celebration;
- b. Or even in some chapel suitable for the faithful’s private adoration and prayer and which is organically connected to the church and readily visible to the Christian faithful. (GIRM 315)
The Missal does, however, direct that the tabernacle be situated "in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer" (GIRM 314).
Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa has argued that the change towards Versus populum has had a number of unforeseen and largely negative effects. First of all, he says “it was a serious rupture with the Church’s ancient tradition. Secondly, it can give the appearance that the priest and the people were engaged in a conversation about God, rather than the worship of God. Thirdly, it places an inordinate importance on the personality of the celebrant by placing him on a kind of liturgical stage”.
- "When Christians in fourth-century Rome could first freely begin to build churches, they customarily located the sanctuary towards the west end of the building in imitation of the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. Although in the days of the Jerusalem Temple the high priest indeed faced east when sacrificing on Yom Kippur, the sanctuary within which he stood was located at the west end of the Temple. The Christian replication of the layout and the orientation of the Jerusalem Temple helped to dramatize the eschatological meaning attached to the sacrificial death of Jesus the High Priest in the Epistle to the Hebrews", The Eschatological Dimension of Church Architecture: The Biblical Roots of Church Orientation The Institute for Sacred Architecture, volume 10, 2005
- Latin versus does not mean "against", as does English versus; it means "turned, toward, from past participle of vertere, to turn" (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000)
- Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, V, 3
- "For whatever reason it was done, one can also see this arrangement (whereby the priest faced the people) in a whole series of church buildings within Saint Peter's direct sphere of influence", The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer Adoremus Bulletin, Vol. VI, No. 3: May 2000
- "Msgr. Klaus Gamber has pointed out that although in these early west-facing Roman basilicas the people stood in the side naves and faced the centrally located altar for the first portion of the service, nevertheless at the approach of the consecration they all turned to face east towards the open church doors, the same direction the priest faced throughout the Eucharistic liturgy", The Eschatological Dimension of Church Architecture: The Biblical Roots of Church Orientation The Institute for Sacred Architecture, volume 10, 2005
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3), article "westward position"
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3), article "eastward position"
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 299)
- The six times are:
- When giving the opening greeting (GIRM 124);
- When giving the invitation to pray, "Orate, fratres" (GIRM 146);
- When giving the greeting of peace, "Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum" (GIRM 154);
- When displaying the consecrated Host (or Host and Chalice) before Communion and saying: "Ecce Agnus Dei" (GIRM 157);
- When inviting to pray ("Oremus") before the postcommunion prayer (GIRM 165);
- When giving the final blessing (Ordo Missae 141).
- The eight times are:
- When greeting the people ("Dominus vobiscum") before the collect (Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, V, 1);
- When greeting the people ("Dominus vobiscum") before the offertory rite (Ritus servandus, VII, 1);
- When giving the invitation to pray, "Orate, fratres" (Ritus servandus, VII, 7);
- Twice before giving Communion to others, first when saying the two prayers after the Confiteor, and again while displaying a consecrated Host and saying "Ecce Agnus Dei" (Ritus servandus, X, 6);
- When greeting the people ("Dominus vobiscum") before the postcommunion prayer (Ritus servandus, XI, 1);
- When saying "Ite, missa est" (Ritus servandus, XI, 1);
- When giving the last part of the final blessing (Ritus servandus, XII, 1).
- Oklahoma bishop explains return to ad orientem worship Catholic Culture, August 18, 2009