praying towards the east, wrote Joseph Ratzinger, "is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history." And now, as Pope Benedict XVI, he has reminded us of the significance of facing east by celebrating Mass ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel. This practice is what used to be known as "the priest saying Mass with his back to the people". But, like the term "Tridentine Rite", that phrase has been made redundant by the Pope's liturgical renewal.
We should be careful not to confuse the issue of the extraordinary or classical form of the Roman Rite (now a freely available option for all Catholics) with the question of whether the priest should face towards a symbolic east or west when celebrating the Eucharist. In the classical form of the Roman Rite, the priest and people face the same way, eastwards towards the returning Christ. In the ordinary form, the priest usually faces the people, and it has generally been assumed that this was the intention of the 1970 Missal. Cardinal Ratzinger always disagreed with this interpretation, and now, as our Holy Father, he is clarifying matters.
Put briefly, all Masses may be celebrated ad orientem. The Pope prefers this option, because, as he puts it, "looking at the priest has no importance". He does not want to force parishes to abandon the practice of Mass celebrated versus populum, but he is insistent that a Cross should be placed at the centre of the altar.
Pope Benedict is not a dictator: he is not enforcing Mass ad orientem or the classical form of the Roman Rite. But we should take note of the possibilities that he is opening up for us. As James MacMillan says this week, fresh air is blowing through the Vatican.