YOUR correspondent Father Cuthbert Smith (March 5), is mistaken if he thinks that Mass facing the people "is the ancient custom of the Catholic Church." The argument from the Roman basilicas needs closer examination. The best modern scholarship on this subject has now established that the arrangement of a free-standing altar in the apse of the basilica is not earlier than the 6th century. and dates from the liturgical reforms of St. Gregory the Great.
It appears that the basilicas in the Constantinian era usually had the attar in the centre of the nave at a considerable distance from the Bishop's throne at the back of the apse. This was itself a reversal of the plan of the early Syrian churches where the altar was in the apse and the Bishop's throne in the nave. St. Gregory's reform was to withdraw the altar to the chord of the apse, and by doing so to increase the separation of the clergy from the laity, which had already begun when after the conversion of the Empire the Bishop and his ministers came to occupy the apse.
This somewhat complex evolution of the so-called "altar facing the people" is described in detail in Louis Bouyer's "Architecture et Liturgic" (1967). He demonstrates that this change had nothing to do with pastoral considerations, but led rather to the further clericalisation of the liturgy. What dictated the position of the celebrant was the orientation of the building.
It was the univeisal practice for the prayers, and especially the Eucharistic Prayer, to be said facing the East. Where the East end of the church was at the entrance, the celebrant would have faced it standing behind the altar; but the congregation too would have faced East, and thus the greater part would have stood with their backs to the altar!
This is perhaps the reason why such a manner of proceeding was confined almost exclusively to Rome. North of the Alps there are about 150 altars still in their original position which date from the first millennium. It has been established beyond discussion that not more than one or two of these could have been used for a celebration "versus populum."
Whatever may he said in favour of Mass facing the people, it cannot be claimed that this practice is a return to ancient tradition. It is a modern innovation which may or may not be justified according to widely differing circumstances.
The clear distinction now made between the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist, makes it perfectly possible for the former to be celebrated facing—or even among—the people; while the Eucharist can perhaps be celebrated better— and certainly more traditionally —when priest and people are united on the same side of the altar.
(Fr.) Charles Napier The Provost, Brampton Oratory.