Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Versus Populum

We now turn to examine the sociological aspect of the celebration versus populum. The professor of sociology W. Siebel, in his work, Liturgie als Angebot (Liturgy on Offer), express his belief that the priest facing the people represents the best and primary symbol of the new spirit in liturgy. He continues:

. . . the practice (of the priest facing the other way) that had been in use before gave the impression that the priest was the leader and representative of the faithful acting as a spokesperson for the faithful, like Moses on Mount Sinai. The faithful assumed the role of sending a message (prayer, adoration, sacrifice); the priest functioned as the leader delivering the message; God as the recipient of the message.

In his new role, continues Siebel, the priest

hardly continues to function as the representative of the faithful, but as an actor who plays God’s role, at least during the central part of the Mass, similar to what is played out in Oberammergau and other religious plays.

Siebel draws this conclusion:

This new turn of events having changed the priest into an actor expected to play the role of Christ on stage, in the re-enactment of the Last Supper, makes the persons of Christ and priest merge in a way that heretofore had been impermissable.

Siebel explains the readiness with which almost all priests accepted the versus populum celebration:

The considerable level of insecurity and loneliness experienced by the priest naturally brings about a search for new emotional support structures. A part of this emotional support is the support provided by the faithful. Yet, this support also leads to a new form of dependency: the dependency of the actor on his audience.

In his article, Pubertätserscheinungen in der Katholischen Kirche (Signs of Puberty in the Catholic Church), K. G. Rey observes in a similar way,

While in the past, the priest functioned as the anonymous go-between, the first among the faithful, facing God and not the people, representative of all and together with them offering the Sacrifice, while reciting prayers that have been prescribed for him — today he is a distinct person, with personal characteristics, his personal life-style, his face turned towards the people. For many priests this change is a temptation they cannot handle, the prostitution of their person. Some priests are quite adept — some less so — at taking personal advantage of a situation. Their gestures, their facial expressions, their movements, their overall behavior, all serve to subjectively attract attention to their person. Some draw attention to themselves by making repetitive observations, issuing instructions, and lately, by delivering personalized addresses of welcome and farewell. . . . To them, the level of success in their performance is a measure of their personal power and thus the indicator of their feeling of personal security and self-assurance.

The view advanced by Klauser, cited above, that the celebration versus populum serves to more clearly express the eucharistic community around the table, is addressed by Siebel in his work, Liturgy on Offer:

The intended pulling closer together of the people around the table of the Lord’s Supper hardly contributes to a strengthenng of the sense of community. It is only the priest who is actually at the table, and standing at the table, at that. The other partakers in the supper are sitting, closer or farther removed, in the auditorium.

To this, Siebel adds another observation:

Usually, the altar table is situated at a distance and it is elevated, which means that the sense of togetherness that existed in the room where the Last Supper took place simply cannot be re-created. Facing the people, it is difficult for the priest not to give the impression that he is trying very hard to sell us something. To correct this impression, attempts are made to move the altar into the midst of the faithful. In that way, the individual does not have to look just at the priest, he can now also look at the person next to him or at the person sitting across from him. Moving the altar into the midst of the faithful, however, also means that the space between a sacral center and the faithful is being lost. The holy fear that used to seize us when entering the church where God was really present, is replaced by weak sentiment, a response to something that is little more than ordinary.

— Klaus Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background, English translation, 1993, pp. 85–88.

Gamber’s solution is:

Since there is no basis for it in liturgical history, nor in theology, nor sociologically, the celebration of the Mass versus populum should ge gradually phased out.
— Ibid., p. 92.