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EWTN’s bishop says priests must face the people

NCR Staff

In an action that appears directed primarily at Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network, Bishop David Foley of Birmingham, Ala., has prohibited priests in his diocese from celebrating Mass with their backs to the people under most circumstances.

EWTN is headquartered in Irondale, Ala., just outside Birmingham. Foley’s decree never mentions the network but refers to “any Mass that is or will be televised for broadcast or videotaped for public dissemination.”

Neither Foley’s office nor EWTN responded to requests for comment from NCR.

Both supporters and critics of Mother Angelica, known for her feisty conservatism on church affairs, told NCR that the decree seemed to be directed at EWTN, since its daily Mass often shows the priest with his back to the audience.

In churches, shrines and public oratories, the Oct. 18 decree says, the priest must face the people if the altar is “free standing,” meaning not built into a wall. The language about televised Masses is more direct -- the priest must use a freestanding altar and face the people.

The decree was to take effect Nov. 18, one month from its issue date.

The back-to-the-people stance is sometimes called ad orientem, or “to the east,” referring to the ancient Christian tradition of facing Jerusalem during the liturgy. Because the priest stood with his back to the people during the pre-Vatican II Mass, the question of which way the priest faces has become a symbol of the broader struggle over the church reforms launched in the wake of the 1960s council.

In a letter accompanying his decree, Foley said the ad orientem stance “amounts to making a political statement and is dividing the people.”

EWTN supporters believe Foley’s action creates a dangerous precedent. “The implications may be wider and raise more questions than were perhaps intended by the bishop,” said Helen Hitchcock of Adoremus, a liturgical advocacy group.

Mother Angelica is on the Adoremus board of advisers.

Hitchcock said that since the law of the church permits celebrating Mass in the ad orientem style, it’s questionable whether a diocesan bishop has the authority to prohibit it. “Could a bishop say that you can only celebrate Mass in English, even though Latin is permitted?” Hitchcock said. “In that sense, it’s hard to know where this stops.”

Some canonists agreed that the decree may be overly broad. “It seems to eliminate the back-to-the-people posture entirely,” said Msgr. Frederick McManus, former member of the Canon Law Department at the Catholic University of America and a frequent adviser to the U.S. bishops on liturgical questions.

“A bishop cannot issue a decree that is contrary to the universal law of the church,” McManus said.

On the other hand, McManus said a bishop could issue narrower restrictions for pastoral purposes. “He is certainly within his rights to say that you can’t celebrate the Mass this way on television,” McManus said. “He could say that on television you’re supposed to be teaching, that this disturbs the people.”

Fr. John Huels of St. Paul’s University in Toronto, however, said that he felt Foley was on “solid ground” with the decree as it stands. “I think it’s extremely unlikely the Holy See would overrule it,” he said.

Huels said that Foley’s argument that Mass facing the people has become customary over the past 30 years, hence it overrides earlier legislation, is “very carefully reasoned.”

It is possible that network officials may argue that the ruling does not apply to their circumstances. A “frequently asked questions” section on the EWTN Web site says the televised Mass is primarily for the Franciscan nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, and not for a viewing audience.

“The priests at EWTN are celebrating a conventual Mass for the nuns, hence, they face the cloistered nuns and the tabernacle,” the response says. “Not being a parish church but a convent chapel, the people are there by open invitation.”

The U.S. bishops’ expert on liturgy, however, said that since the Mass is broadcast all over the world, it’s hard to argue that it is intended primarily for a cloister.

“The particular responsibility that a broadcaster has to reflect the appropriate liturgical legislation and to be pastorally helpful is of the greatest importance,” said Fr. James Moroney. “In most dioceses you would have to ask the bishop if he finds it helpful that a Mass is being broadcast that does not reflect the same values as his worship office may be promoting.

“I dare say most would say no,” Moroney said.

Some sources told NCR that the timing of Foley’s decree might be linked to the dedication of a new structure on the EWTN grounds. A large new Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, which will serve as a monastery and place of worship, was to be formally dedicated at the end of November. The dedication has been postponed until final preparations, such as the installation of stained glass, are complete.

Because Foley’s decree refers specifically to the celebration of Mass with a “free-standing altar,” some sources said that EWTN could skirt the ruling by attaching the new shrine’s altar to a wall.

Moroney, however, said that would not work. “The General Instruction on the Roman Missal states clearly that when a new church is constructed, the altar must be free-standing so that one can walk around it and so that Mass can be celebrated facing the people,” Moroney said.

The decree surprised some observers because Foley, since taking office in 1994, has been seen as generally supportive of Mother Angelica and EWTN. Foley has his own show on the network, “Pillars of Faith,” which airs Monday evenings at 8 p.m. Eastern.

The cable television network, which broadcasts 24 hours a day, says its signal reaches more than 55 million homes in 38 countries and territories.

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1999