Benedict XVI leads the faithful in ‘looking together at the Lord’
"What matters is looking together at the Lord." These words, written eight years ago by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, explain a subtle but decisive liturgical reform being enacted through the personal example of Pope Benedict XVI.
The latest and perhaps most striking step in this reform took place on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord when, as has become customary, the Pope celebrated Mass in the Sistine Chapel and baptised newborn infants. As papal ceremonial goes, this is not usually a grand liturgical occasion: the Mass is in the vernacular and is largely said, not sung.
Yet it was precisely there – in perhaps as close to a parish setting as papal ceremonies often get – that the Holy Father chose to make a significant liturgical adjustment. Instead of celebrating the liturgy of the Eucharist at a temporary altar-table set up for the occasion that would have had him "facing the people" (as has often been done in recent years), at the preparation of the gifts Pope Benedict went up to the original altar of the Sistine chapel (which stands against the wall on which Michelangelo painted his Last Judgement) and celebrated "facing East" or "towards the Lord" as it were. The Pope faced in the same direction as all those present – towards the liturgical "East", towards the cross – in continuity with popes (including Pope John Paul II) and generations of the faithful before him.
Let us be clear, this has nothing at all to do with the Pope's decision that the more ancient rite of the Mass (in Latin) be available to those who wish it. No, this Mass was according to the modern Missal of Paul VI, in Italian. And that is why this occasion was so important. For in this silent gesture Pope Benedict stated once and for all that there is nothing at all wrong with using the older altars in our churches. For as he wrote in his preface to Fr Michael Lang's book Turning Towards the Lord: "there is nothing in the [Second Vatican] Council text about turning altars towards the people."
The story is a thoughtful essay and worth checking out!