On the Traditional Latin Mass: Ad Orientem


I have been hearing the Traditional Latin Mass for over a year. Compared to the ordinary Mass that most Catholics go to these days, it is in a totally different language. And I don’t just mean the Latin!

Lost in “Translation”

Whenever I tell people what I do on Sunday, they almost always say something about the priest “facing away from the people.” And then I have to explain that “facing away from the people” is a terrible modern translation of the priest’s ancient “ad orientem” position. In the Latin Mass, the priest “faces the East.”

To be fair, the people I talk to have the right translation of “ad populum”: toward the people. In the ordinary Mass, the priest really does “face the people,” and it makes no sense to say he “faces the West.”

If we say a priest who celebrates Mass ad orientem is “facing away from the people,” we are describing the same action, but not the same meaning behind the action. It’s like saying that someone is “emptying a bucket of water” when what he is really doing is “putting out a fire.” It’s technically correct . . . and completely wrong.

“Found” in Language Learning

One reason the Latin Mass was changed in the 1960s was so that Catholics could hear the Bible readings and the prayers in their first language. But there is more to any language than its words. The body’s posture, the hand’s gestures, the face’s expressions: even these are part of language. Just ask an Italian! And be careful, because common gestures can also be false friends: “thumbs up” has an American meaning that is very different from its Iranian meaning. Likewise, just because you understand ad populum, that does not mean you also know ad orientem.

Although I can’t go back to the 1960s and change things, I can make recommendations for the future. Moving forward, the best solution is for all Catholics to be “bilingual”: to be familiar with both the Traditional Latin Mass and the new Mass. If we don’t mind hearing the new Mass in a foreign language when we are on vacation, then we shouldn’t mind hearing the Latin Mass under any circumstances.

I normally share this idea with people right after explaining what ad orientem really means. And if they object, it is usually because they don’t want to study a new language just to be able to hear Mass. That’s a fair point, and I would like to be fair to it as well. Expect more posts about the Traditional Latin Mass on Linguavert.com!

Have you ever heard a Traditional Latin Mass?

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