Fr. John J. Pasquini, Th.D.
The Mass instituted by Jesus, and celebrated by the Apostles and the Patristic Fathers—i.e., Fathers of the Church—was celebrated versus populum, facing the people.
The emerging Christian community had no unique architecture that it could call its own. Rather, Christianity simply continued to use the temple, the synagogue, and the home for worship. As Christianity spread into Greek cities and began to evangelize large groups of Gentiles, villas, particularly of the well-to-do, became important gathering places for Christians. The “domestic church” or the “home church” was born. Mass, the “Supper of the Lamb” was celebrated on the home’s dinner table, with the celebrant oriented versus populum, facing the people.
With the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD and the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue by the Jewish Council of Jamnia in 95 AD, Christianity was relegated to the home where the synagogue service and the temple service would be combined.
In terms of the Christian Scriptures, a canon was slowly developing. The life and teaching of Christ was originally passed on in the form of oral traditions and with the approaching death of the first generation of Christians, the Christian community began to put to writing the oral traditions of Jesus’ words and actions in the form of “memoirs.” By the fifth century, many of these “memoirs” would become the Christian Scriptures, the New Testament.
The house or domestic church continued to be the norm into the third century with a slight difference. These homes or domestic churches were being renovated with the idea of Christian worship in mind. By the end of the third century, many homes were being used exclusively for Christian worship
During the second and third century, clearly identifiable Christian music was being heard. Uniquely Christian in text, tone, and lyrics, the music of these centuries was now deeply embedded into the ritual of the worship. Prayer and music became intrinsically united in the worship of the assembly. The whole community sang. The time of special singers, cantors, and psalmists would be for a later period.
With time, a natural tendency to assure uniformity developed and with this development the Church’s traditions, teachings, and the appropriate manners of worship became codified. Written Eucharistic prayers took shape, the “memoirs” of the apostles were beginning to take on the initial steps of becoming a canon of Scriptures, a Bible, and pastoral handbooks were beginning to be produced.
This was a period of time when wicker baskets and wooden bowls used in Eucharistic celebrations were being replaced by precious vessels especially fabricated for Eucharistic celebrations.
The freedom acquired by Christians in Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 and Theodosius I’s De Fide Catholica in 380 would forever change the nature of Christian worship. Christian worship moved out of homes and simple rooms, and moved into palaces and even abandoned law courts. Simple renovated houses that could hold twenty-five, fifty, or even one hundred worshipers were no longer meeting the tremendous masses of peoples seeking to join in Christian worship. Old palaces were being renovated and new buildings were being constructed as basilicas.
The typical structure of church buildings consisted of a presbyterium—a place in the apse of the building for the throne of the bishop and benches for presbyters [priests]--a sanctuary—where the altar stood—a schola—a processional and Scriptural area set off by a pair of low walls—and a Senatoreum and Matroneum—areas set off by barriers used for the offertory procession and the reception of the Eucharist by the laity. Mass was celebrated versus populum.
The fourth and fifth century was marked with tremendous refinements in the liturgy of the Church. Congregational singing and the use of specialists such as psalmists and cantors—leading chants, refrains, and hymns--were now a common part of the worship experience. While instruments were not a part of Church worship, vocal music echoed throughout Christian congregations into the cities and towns of the Roman Empire.
By the end of the fourth century, what we now call the Bible had been formed and approved by the Church. And after the conversion of Constantinople, a remarkable growth in liturgical books emerged. Liturgical books were greatly monitored for their orthodox theological content.
Wicker, pottery, and wood were continuing to be replaced by gold and silver vessels for Eucharistic celebrations.
With freedom of worship, magnificent churches, music, and art became hallmarks of Christian worship.
The Eucharist reserved for the sick and needy, particularly in times of persecution, could now be moved out of the protective enclaves of homes to established Church buildings. The Eucharist reserved for the ill and needy was now being placed more and more in Tabernacles situated to the right or left of the altar.
It is through the beginning use of Tabernacles to reserve the Eucharist for the needy that the Mass celebrated ad orientem began to develop—the priest not wanting to turn his back on the Tabernacle. As Tabernacles flourished, the celebration of the Mass ad orientem also flourished.
The altar was placed on the Eastern wall with the Tabernacle to its right or left—the priest facing the East and facing the Tabernacle.
The next great jump in the Mass being celebrated ad orientem would occur with the rise of the Frankish empire and Charlemagne. Charlemagne was the great defender of the Catholic Church in Rome. His love for the Roman liturgy and most particularly his desire for a united empire, with a unified pattern of worship, led to the proliferation of the ad orientem Mass throughout Europe.
By the time of the Protestant reformation, the Tridentine Mass had become the norm--Mass celebrated ad orientem. The Tridentine missal, first published in 1570, in a sense codified the celebration of the Mass ad orientem—although celebrating the Mass versus populum was preserved in the Tridentine Missal as an alternative.
The next major change would occur with Vatican II. The spirit of Vatican II desired to restore the Church to its early form of worship. Thus it revived the Permanent Deaconate and revived the Mass versus populum, while still permitting the Mass ad orientem.
Today we can enjoy—and should enjoy--the best of both liturgical celebrations of the Mass. Each celebrates the same reality with a slightly different emphasis—ad orientem as “Calvary made present,” and versus populum as “Supper of the Lamb.”
Cf. Pasquini, Christian History (New York: American Star, 2011).