No recent news from the Catholic Church has been more welcome.

The National Catholic Register today (July 6) reports that Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments for the Catholic Church, is asking all priests to return to the traditional practice of facing toward the east with worshippers when they celebrate liturgy.

Cardinal Sarah also is asking all bishops to take the lead in ensuring that they and their priests face the east during liturgies at their cathedrals and at large celebrations in their dioceses. He further suggests that bishops ensure that seminarians be formed in the practice and that the faithful be catechized about the reasons for its importance.

Cardinal Sarah suggests that this return to traditional practice be initiated as soon as possible but that a good time for all to return to the practice would be the first Sunday of Advent this year.

The cardinal’s appeal primarily concerns Latin rite priests and bishops, since Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches for the most part have not deviated from the practice of facing toward the east in liturgy. A return to the practice of facing east in liturgy, in fact, would in one small way realign the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Edward Pentin writes in the article that Cardinal Sarah made his request yesterday (July 5) on the opening day of the Sacra Liturgia conference held in London. Among what Pentin said some are calling historic comments Cardinal Sarah, who noted that he had expressed his belief about facing east in a recent article and an interview, said:

“…I believe that it is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction—Eastwards or at least towards the apse—to the Lord who comes, in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God. This practice is permitted by current liturgical legislation. It is perfectly legitimate in the modern rite. Indeed, I think it is a very important step in ensuring that in our celebrations the Lord is truly at the centre.”

The practice of facing east, called ad orientem, was the common practice in the Church until Vatican II. After Vatican II Latin rite Catholic priests began facing worshippers, a move that, as Joseph Ratzinger has noted, some thought prevented the priest from turning his back on worshippers.

Critics, however, have noted that what was lost with this small change was the emphasis on priest and worshippers praying toward the east together, as one unified body, and so toward the direction of the rising sun, a symbol of the Resurrection, and the direction from which Christ will return.

In addition, a consequence of this change was that it placed undue emphasis on those worshipping; and, further, worshippers lost the understanding that one generally enters the church building from the west, or in darkness, the location of Satan, and faces toward the east and the light of truth in worship.

One important consequence, however, was what this change from tradition meant for the priest.

The priest, Cardinal Sarah, believes,  should not turn his back on the Lord: “Dear Fathers, we should listen again to the lament of God proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘they have turned their back to me’ (2:27). Let us turn again towards the Lord!”

When the priest and the worshippers face east together, the emphasis at liturgy will no longer be on the worshippers – the people – but on Christ, his Resurrection, and his return for which we all await in hope.

Perhaps the example of the bishops and priests who return to this practice will inspire Catholics to begin praying toward the east in their own daily prayer at home, once also a common practice. This can only improve the prayer life of the average Catholic.

Maybe those of the many Christian denominations outside the Catholic Church, and any Eastern churches that pray ad populum, will see this example and will begin facing east in their worship – and even in their own daily prayer – in an act of Christian unity.

And perhaps this small example of always praying with hope toward the east and the light of lights will help prevent those who think they are righteous, and those who are not, from turning their backs on Christ in their own daily lives.

Nothing but good will come from a return to this most important traditional practice.