“Why does the priest traditionally turn his back on the congregation during Mass?”
Until the 1960’s, the priest faced whomever he was addressing. If he was speaking to the congregation, then he faced the congregation. If he was speaking to God, then he faced the symbol of God: the altar cross. The sermon, for example, was always delivered facing the congregation, while the prayers were always offered facing the cross. So, it was like ordinary human conversations: we face the person to whom we are speaking. While God is everywhere, we perceive Him through signs and symbols, such as the altar cross.
“How did this direction of prayer develop?”
In ancient Israel, for over a thousand years the worshiping people of God faced the Presence of God, Who rested His feet above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies room at the Jerusalem Temple.
With the advent of the Messiah, the ancient Christians began facing the eastern horizon (“ad orientem”) whenever they worshiped God, because the rising sun was the cosmic symbol of Christ’s Sacrifice ascending to our eternal Father. For centuries, churches were built with this cosmic orientation in mind. In some churches, such as the basilicas of Rome, the priest stood at the western end during Mass—behind the congregation—so that he and the people could watch the sunrise through the opened doors at the eastern entrance. Most other churches were constructed with the back wall facing east, on which hung a cross. The cross eventually became the indicator of the eastern direction of prayer in homes and churches.
By the 16th century, cosmic spirituality faded, and the altar cross became the direction of worship in its own right, so that churches needed no longer be constructed in any particular direction. Similarly, in the Roman basilicas, as lay participation in the Mass sadly declined, the congregation no longer literally turned towards the east, so the altar cross became their substitute direction of prayer, too, with the priest facing east all by himself.
“What should be the directional posture today?”
Today, the priest and congregation almost always face opposite directions during the Eucharistic Prayer, a 1960’s innovation that increases audibility and visibility for the sake of greater congregational participation. But interiorly, we must all continue to face the same direction during Mass, looking through the Rising Sun towards our Heavenly Father. There are, however, no official directives from Rome either mandating or prohibiting either the ancient or the new directional postures of worship. It’s simply a matter of custom and pastoral discretion. Both postures are acceptably Catholic.
“If the Mass is a sacred meal, then should we face each other, as the Apostles did at the Last Supper?”
The Mass is our participation in Christ’s sacrifice of Himself to the Father for our salvation, and so we turn with Christ to face the Father. The priest and congregation have always faced each other for the Rite of Holy Communion, however, which is the meal element of the Mass. We should note that when the ancient Jews, Greeks or Romans gathered for meals, everyone at the table sat facing the same direction (encircling food was considered barbaric). There is no evidence suggesting that the Last Supper was any different.
“In our parish, when do we celebrate Mass with the ancient posture?”
We have occasional celebrations of Mass in the Extraordinary Form, which is customarily offered with the priest and congregation facing the same direction to pray. We offer the Ordinary Mass at the side altars on the feasts of the martyrs whose relics are there. Also, whenever our daily 6:30 am Mass is offered in the chapel—rather than in the convent oratory—we adopt the ancient directional posture. All other scheduled Mass celebrations at Saint Mary’s will remain in the 1960’s directional posture.
“Is there any way to facilitate ‘turning towards the Lord’ in our parish, even when the priest and congregation face opposite directions?”
Yes. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI provides us a solution: “Where a direct common turning towards the East is not possible, the altar cross can serve as the interior ‘East’ of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common focal point for both priest and praying community. In this way, we all look together at the One whose Death tore the veil of the Temple, the One who stands before the Father for us and encloses us in His arms in order to make us the new and living Temple.”
“Does the altar cross get in the way, blocking the congregation’s view of the priest?”
Pope Emeritus Benedict provides us a blunt—and humorous—answer to this good question: “Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomena of recent decades. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than Our Lord?” Well, that’s an answer in the form of a loaded question! He also says, “A common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of non-essentials, but of essentials. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord.”
“Where can I find more information about this topic?”
In English, you can start with: “The Spirit of the Liturgy” by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, or “Turning towards the Lord”, by Fr. Michael Lang (w/ preface by Benedict XVI).