In his November 21, 2014 diocesan newspaper column, titled “Looking to the East,” James D. Conley, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska explained his orientation concerns.

Appointed Bishop of Lincoln by Pope Benedict in 2012, he is very in sync with the old-times-theology of his predecessor Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz as well as that of his mentor Archbishop Charles Chaput from Philadelphia.

Bishop James will go public, this Advent, with his orientation problem and explained it this way:

Since ancient times, Christians have faced the east during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to remember to keep watch for Christ. Together, the priest and the people faced the east, waiting and watching for Christ. Even in churches that did not face the east, the priest and people stood together in the Mass, gazing at Christ on the crucifix, on the altar, and in the tabernacle, to recall the importance of watching for his return.

The symbolism of the priest and people facing ad orientem—to the east—is an ancient reminder of the coming of Christ.

More recently, it has become common for the priest and the people to face one another during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The priest stands behind the altar as he consecrates the Eucharist, facing the people. The people see the face of the priest as he prays, and he sees their faces….

But the symbolism of facing together, and awaiting Christ, is rich, time-honored and important. Especially during Advent, as we await the coming of the Lord, facing the east together—even symbolically facing Christ together at the altar and on the crucifix—is a powerful witness to Christ’s imminent return….

During the Sundays of Advent, the priests in the Cathedral of the Risen Christ will celebrate the Mass ad orientem. With the People of God, the priest will stand facing the altar, and facing the crucifix.

When I celebrate midnight Mass on Christmas, I will celebrate ad orientem as well. This may take place in other parishes across the Diocese of Lincoln as well.

In the ad orientem posture at Mass, the priest will not be facing away from the people. He will be with them—among them, and leading them—facing Christ, and waiting for his return.

Very interesting. Eucharist reverts once again to being the priest’s action; and the people are reduced to pious spectators of the priest’s derrière….

And so, according to the Bishop of Lincoln, it is better for the Eucharistic presider to gaze upon a lifeless crucifix rather than look into the faces of very alive men and women out there in church.

Etiquette in almost every cultural tradition says one does not turn his or her back on people….More surprising for a bishop, it seems to me, is an apparent dismissal of the broad-based significance of the Incarnation and the presence of Christ in the community of faith.

In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus says: “Where two or three are gathered, there I am…” When one looks into the faces of the women and men gathered for liturgy, an ordained minister is looking into the face of the living Christ. Even the almost-forgotten (and not yet canonized) Pope Pius XII understood this when he wrote his encyclical about the “Mystical Body of Christ.”

Perhaps the bishop from Lincoln has a problem with eye contact? Looking at people eye-to-eye does have certain ramifications….

People who face other people eye-to-eye generally value warm and personable friendships. They are seen as leaders who are personally engaged with people; and they are perceived as trustworthy, honest, and sincere.

As I review biblical imagery, it is clear to me, at least, that turning one’s back on other people is a dangerous sign. It often indicates deception in human relationships and goes hand in hand with turning one’s back on God.

But…on the other hand, I am not from Lincoln, where life may be different.


5 thoughts on “A Bishop with an Orientation Problem

  1. Somewhere the Bishop has missed the Mystery–that when the celebrant says “This is my Body…This is my Blood”–he (not yet she) includes the double meaning that not only this “bread” is sacrificially changing, but also this “body of Christ” community– ALSO the body and blood of the risen Lord–is changing from “flesh” to “spirit” (not as antagonistic, but as fulfillment of the flesh/mortality into the “new creation,” the new Jerusalem. Here and Now.

  2. Lincoln is a lovely town but Conley has not connected to his people there. There is a major disconnect between the priest and the people. I believe the problem is that many clerics consider a priestly vocation as a thing removed and apart of the “regular folks.” If you think you’re special, you believe your opinion in all things is superior to that of the common folk. Orientation is a straw man. If you want to be a leader, connect with the people. Spend lots of time (lots of time) preparing your homily, and base it on your interaction with all those people in the pews who live lives so different from your own and yet for some reason think they should financially support your life style because they are generous and have given you the benefit of the doubt. And for goodness sake, understand that the reward for this generosity is not to show your backside to the people. The test? Think of yourself at a dinner party and ask yourself how you would be perceived if you turned your chair around so that your back faced your host and her guests during the meal. Chupungo had a great insight and understood hospitality is a way to understand liturgy. Don’t do in church what you wouldn’t do in your parents’ dining room.

  3. The people in this diocese should call a Mass Strike when this goes into effect. Lay people need to begin to speak with a loud voice and this would be a loud voice. This is nonsense and a total travesty to what the Eucharist should be about.

  4. Amen to your response, GW Wicklin!!
    The Eucharist is a meal, not a stage play!!
    With such an attitude, pretty soon this bishop will be playing to an empty house…

  5. Life is certainly different in Lincoln. It fact it is awful in that reactionary and backward diocese.

    When I was in the active ministry in my diocese and we trying to activate the liturgical reforms of Vatican II many of the priests were reticent to offer mass facing the people. They liked the old hidden way. Their sloppy gestures over the sacred species were hidden from the people, their signs of the cross over the chaliced looked like they were swatting at flies.

    They were “exposed” and that posed a problem.

    It is hard to believe that this guy in Nebraska is so backward looking. But, given the fellow before him, it comes as no surprise.


Leave a Reply