Q&A on the Orientation of the Priest and Altar during the Maronite Liturgy


We recently received the following question at Living Maronite:

…. I wish to pursue graduate and doctoral studies in Maronite theology. I desire to specialize in the study of our liturgy with the hope of one day becoming a scholar of the Maronite liturgical tradition at a university. Throughout the course of my study on both Roman and Maronite liturgy and their historical developments, I cannot help but see how much Latinization has even affected some of the more fundamental elements of the Divine Liturgy. In particular, one of the things that has most caught my attention is the direction that the priest faces when celebrating the Divine Liturgy. In both the East and the West, the priest used to face east (ad orientem) along with the congregation. For the Roman Rite, this changed after Vatican II when Cardinal Bugnini (who was in charge of implementing Sacrosanctum Concilium) incorrectly overstepped the boundaries of liturgical custom and tradition, and promulgated the Novus Ordo. With the Novus Ordo came the changing of the orientation of the priest to face the congregation (versus populum). While there is extensive scholarship on the change in the West, I cannot find a single mention of this change in the Maronite tradition.

What I have found in my study is that the vast majority of the Eastern Catholic traditions and rites have remained true to the traditions of the Church and have not changed the orientation of the priest, but I have learned that only the Maronites– along with a couple others– have brought this Latinization upon themselves. I truly believe that it is a great loss on the part of the Maronite Church to have changed the way the priest faces during the Divine Liturgy. Could you possibly write an article on how this practice came about, who implemented it, when, and what the justification is for maintaining this practice, even when it was so foreign to our tradition as recently as forty years ago? 

God bless you and your work in keeping our tradition alive.


Dear Questioner,

I will try to answer this question as best I can. I do not propose to have any specialisation in Liturgy.

It might be useful to begin with an excerpt of the encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI, following Vatican II, Orientalium Ecclesiarum:

“6. All members of the Eastern Rite should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life, and that these may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement. All these, then, must be observed by the members of the Eastern rites themselves. Besides, they should attain to an ever greater knowledge and a more exact use of them, and, if in their regard they have fallen short owing to contingencies of times and persons, they should take steps to return to their ancestral traditions.” (my emphasis added).

I agree with you that it is often difficult to convince Maronite’s to return to their own traditions. There is no doubt we have lost much. However, a return to our traditions should not be a knee jerk reaction and it also should not be guided by the nostalgia of some in the Latin Church to return to their ways prior to Vatican II. I do not agree with you that Cardinal Bugnini incorrectly overstepped boundaries.

Liturgy has never been stagnant. It has evolved over time beginning very simply and with Christians meeting where they could. (See Allan Doig, Liturgy and Architecture, 2008 and Edward Adams, The Earliest Christian Meeting Places, revised ed., 2016).

There is abundant evidence that the Maronite priests did in fact stand where they now do – behind the altar. I recommend that you read Fr Yuhanna Azize’s new book – An Introduction to the Maronite Faith (Connor Court Publishing) for a deeper understanding of the Maronite Liturgy. The area behind the altar represented the Father, and the altar represented the Son. For the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest took his place “in heaven”.


The architecture of the oldest Churches in Lebanon would not support the view that that the priest initially celebrated the Liturgy with his back to the people. Looking at the development, even in the Latin Church, altars with priests having their back to the people were a later development. They came into existence as elaborate Basilicas and Cathedrals were built. The term “ad orientum” exactly translated means “to the East”. It refers to the direction that the people and the priest prayed. It seems that over time this has also taken on a connotation that a priest should pray with his back to the people, regardless of the direction to which they are praying.  That is a relatively recent phenomenon.

I am presently visiting Lebanon. There is no doubt that those churches built or altered significantly from the fifteenth century onwards have altars that are built so that the priest’s back is to the people. Those churches also look like the Latin Basilicas and were built or reconstructed at the height of Latinisation of the Maronite Church in Lebanon. A look at the older churches reveals much more simplicity with small altars, not in the wall, but separate. That would suggest that the Churches were not always built with the altar in the wall.

In Hadchit, where I am staying for example, the larger Church of Mar Roumanos has the altar facing the wall, but the older smaller Church of Mar Sarkis and Bakhous has the altar away from the wall.

There has been some good work done on this point by Fr Charbel Abdallah (reviewing the work of Patriarch Doueihi). It is in French and you can find a document here. http://documents.irevues.inist.fr/bitstream/handle/2042/35377/po2004_61.pdf;jsessionid=BBD9F8F8ED07E525A110BC55B4C0B118?sequence=1

While no doubt your question is sincere, you are beginning on the assumption that the priest always had his back to the people and the altar was always on the wall. I would suggest that assumption is incorrect to begin with and a look at our older Maronite Churches would suggest that we have gone back to our tradition.

More importantly, the encyclical Orientalium Ecclesiarum recognises organic improvement. Those improvements evolve because of changes in time and circumstances. Churches were often built to suit the environment and circumstances of the time and community they were built in. For example, some early Maronite Churches were built with very low doors. It is suggested that they were built that way to resist attacks from soldiers on horseback. That would seem an unnecessary design to incorporate into modern day Church architecture. A Church built where it snows will be designed differently to a Church built in a desert or next to the ocean.

Liturgy is an experience that should inspire all the senses to worship – smell, sight, sound and taste. It should inspire the faithful to participate in the Mysteries and glorify God.

Here at Living Maronite we would say that Latinisation has had a more subtle and sinister effect than on the architecture of the Church. It has affected Maronite theology at its core, which is why your study will be so important. To give on example, it is fascinating how often when Maronite’s are looking for apologetic answers to questions they refer to St Augustine and St Aquinas, rather than to St Ephrem or St Jacob of Serugh. Many Maronites have never even read the work of their spiritual ancestors. It is extraordinary that the works of Estephan El Doueihi remain largely untranslated into English.

But we have hope. Our work here at Living Maronite, together with the work of men and women such as yourself, who are willing to reclaim Maronite theology and thought will be essential. The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century has heralded a new phenomenon for the Maronite’s. More Maronite’s than ever have left the Middle East for new lands and new opportunities. Some of the loudest critics of Latinisations at Vatican II came from those Easterners in the Diaspora and one might ask – why?

For those of us referred to as the “Maronites of the Expansion”, it is also becoming increasingly apparent that in order to mission in our own territories we need to have the courage to be ourselves. I take no credit for that phrase and here I turn to a seminal pastoral letter from an American Maronite Bishop in the 1970’s. The letter was written by the then Archbishop of the Melkite Eparchy in America, His Excellency Joseph Tawil and expresses beautifully exactly why we must de Latinise, especially outside the East. We must do so in order to survive. If we are the same, then we will simply blend into oblivion amongst the Latin Churches in the Expansion countries. That is not a threat that the Maronite’s of the East have ever had to face. I encourage you to read the letter if you have not before. http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/5252496

We have a treasure given to us which can bring others closer to Christ. As Maronite’s, our sense of mission is often insular. We look inside ourselves to mission. Time has taught me that we are as attractive to those outside our Church as we are to those in it. I see it in some of the people we have recently baptized in the faith, I see in those spouses who are often from a non-Lebanese background and who are so fascinated when they come to us, that they reinvigorate their Maronite spouses.

As Maronite’s we need to people of the Liturgy. We need to be immersed our Liturgy, which is more than just the architecture. Our best leaders will be those who are liturgical leaders first and to be those leaders, they must understand the Liturgy.

You want to de-Latinise? Start by reading and immersing yourself in the mind of the Liturgy and your own spiritual ancestors. Do not concern yourself with controversies of the Latin Church and the nostalgia of some in it of days gone by. When you are looking for answers, go the texts of the Liturgy and the writings of spiritual ancestors and slowly the answers will reveal themselves to you.

I pray that this answer is of assistance to you.

Yours in Christ

Theresa Simon with some input from Fr Yuhanna Azize

On behalf of the Living Maronite Team.


St Cyprien and Justine Chapel Kiffane