Considering the question in which direction should be the priest converted during the holy Mass is the answer: to God.
After the edition of the Missal of Paul VI prevailed the position of priest facing the people (versus populo). Before the Missal of Paul VI, was the priest converted to East as the churches oriented are. Our ancestors did not speak about the question in which direction is converted priests’ back, but in which direction is he facing. The holy Mass with a priest at the forefront of people, facing east and usually also the tabernacle was offered for centuries and even today is this mode kept when there is a respect to this tradition. We are just pilgrims in this world and the leader of pilgrims should not be facing the others. Even during the pilgrimage by bus we do not expect the driver to be converted to the passengers and how silly would be a complaint, that the driver is converted to the passengers by his back.
The Bishop Athanasius Schneider said 15th January 2012 in Paris about the liturgy: “The first and the most significant wound of the celebration of the Mass sacrifice is that the priest is during the Eucharistic prayer and the holy Consecration, the most holy moments of the divine adoration, converted by face to the assembly. Such external form corresponds more to a presentation, lecture or giving a refreshment. It forms a shape of a closed circle, which is not natural for a prayer of for adoration. Such form does not the Vatican council II demand neither does it even remotely remind. The Pope Benedict XVI says in the preface of the first part of his collected works: “The idea that the priest and the people should be looking at each other during a prayer came rather recently, just in the modern age, but for the original Christianity is this idea absolutely alien. The priest and the people don’t pray to each other, but to the Lord.”
St. Basil the Great, after whom is one liturgy of the byzantine Church called, writes in his work On the Holy Spirit (De Spiritu Sancto), 27 about the conversion of all in one direction: “For example: at the time of prayers we are all facing east, even if not many of us know, that by this orientation we are seeking the ancient homeland, which planted God in Eden on the east.”
Other documents of the prayer to the east, which is often insulted by being called “with backs to the people”:
- Apostles ordered it is needed to pray converted to east, because from the east will flare up a thunderbolt, which will light up to the west, so will it be with the coming of the Son of man (Syrian Didascalia Apostolorum/Didascalia Addai, Teaching of the Apostles/Teaching of the Apostle Addai)
- And it is needed to pray to the east, because it is written: kingdoms of earth chant to God, sing psalms to the sovereign, to the riding on heaven to the east. (Didascalia Apostolorum)
- We don’t pray converted to east just superficially and casually… This apostolic tradition is not written. Many of it, what passed on us by tradition, is not written. (St. John of Damascus, De fide orthodoxa/On the orthodox faith IV)
- Turn your attention to the east. (Liturgy of St. Marc)
- Psallite Deo, qui ascendit super caelum caeli, ad Orientem – O sing praises unto the Lord; To him that rides upon the heavens of heavens, to the East. (Psalm 67,33-34)
- There are four directions in the world: north, south, east and west. It should be immediately clear that the direction to the rising sun signifies that it is the direction in which we should pray (Origenes, De oratione/On the prayer)
- It is not without interest that by the blood of a bullock is sprinkled in the eastern direction. Because from the east came the reconciliation for you. From there is a man called outgoing, who became a mediator between God and the people. You are also invited to look always to the east, where is the rising Sun of justice and where is anytime the light yield for you. So that you should never walk in the darkness and the last day shouldn’t catch you in the darkness. (Origenes, Homily on the Third book of Moses)
The only preserved church from the prenicene time is in Mesopotamian city Dura Europos and it is a witness of divine service to the east by its apsidal configuration. Antique basilicas and churches are also witnesses of celebration facing east. (Conf. M. J. Moreton: Orientation as a Liturgical Principle)
St. Augustine writes in his work On the words of the Lord (De verbis Domini): “The east calls you, that’s Christ, and you follow west, that is the man, who is mortal and faulting.” In harmony with that can we mention: Christ calls you to be converted by face to God and you follow the conversion to the man, altar converted to a man, to the mortal and faulting people and you don’t see, how you are changing the divine worship to worshiping of people and of yourself.
II. Vatican Council did not (neither other regulation after) ordered an altar converted to the people and the priest is not obligated to follow such ordinance. Those, who say that the Council wanted the altars converted to the people, can we with equanimity ask to show us such reference, where we could read such thinks.
Translation by Frederick Landsedelmann Dipl. Theol.