He also believes that the impetus behind the change of orientation is due to the overemphasis of the Eucharistic community within what he calls the new theology of the Mass. He equates the orientation of versus populum with the theological innovation that the Mass is primarily a communal meal. It is here where it seems to me that he has forced a theological meaning onto a topological orientation. While it remains true that there are those who assign priority to the communal meal and deemphasize the teaching of Trent that the Mass is preeminently a sacrifice, it is not true that versus populum orientation has an inherent theological context of such.
Historically the orientation to the east is a modification of the Jewish custom of prayer posture. The Jews turned towards the temple in Jerusalem to pray. Therefore, we may presume that the Apostles and early Christians did the same. Early on Christians continued to attend the Synagogue services of the Jews. While they celebrated the Eucharist in private only among believers. One would expect that they maintained many of their Jewish liturgical customs. At a later date, the significance of their posture was modified to be towards the east or the rising of the sun, interpreted as a symbol of Christ the Light of the world or of the risen Christ. Early alignment was semi circle open towards the east with the altar at the center point of the imaginary completed circle. In Basilicas such as St. Peter's and San Clemente, the orientation was in the opposite direction from the altar. The open end of the semi-circle was still towards the east while the priest was 'behind' the altar in the vertex of the semi-circle. St. Basil lists praying towards the east as among the kergyma of the Church which deserves equal reverence as Scripture. (Jurgens: The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume 2, 954)
The Eastern Liturgical Rites have maintained this posture with its symbolic significance. The Western Liturgical Rites on the other hand deviated from this practice through what may be considered an innovation in architecture. Churches were no longer built with the apse facing east. They continued, however, to maintain their traditional orientation in the same direction as the priest, though in many places this meant that they were no longer facing true east. This led to the phenomenon of orientation facing ‘liturgical east’ or versus apsidem. This liturgical orientation began to be explained as orientation ad Altare Dei. The latter is a term that has caused great confusion in modern times.
In the former Missal, indeed even in the original 1570 Missale Romanum, there are instructions for the celebration of the Mass versus populum. Msgr. Gamber notes this but fails to draw the necessary conclusion. The direction is found in the instruction appended to the front of the missal Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, V, 3: "Si Altare sit ad Orientem, versus populum, Celebrans versa facie ad populum, non vertit humeros ad Altare, cum dicturus est Dominus vobiscum, Orate, fratres, Ite, Missa est, vel daturus benedictionem…" This instructs those celebrating the Mass versus populum to disregard the rubrics in the missal to turn around at certain points because these celebrants are already facing the people. Msgr. Gamber makes note that the qualifying point is that of the preceding words ad Orientem, so that the mass was celebrated versus populum only in those places where that orientation was also towards the east.
The break with the traditional custom of facing to the east came about by an architectural deviation. Churches began to be built without consideration for their alignment along an east-west axis. The liturgy celebrated within these churches began to be celebrated oriented towards the apse without regard for the liturgical custom of facing east. So the distinction must be made, at least since the construction of the Roman Basilicas that were built by the Roman Emperor St. Constantine, that the physical orientation of the celebrant at mass though it admits of symbolic interpretation is more topological than theological.
The theological meaning of liturgical orientation is one that is primarily an interior disposition rather than an exterior posture, for in the celebration of all masses in any church the celebrant and the people are, or should be, interiorly turned towards God. It may be argued that the Mass at these places was so celebrated versus populum in order to maintain the ancient Christian practice of praying towards the east. While that remains true of these particular churches, the break with tradition does not occur with the 1970 Missale Romanum, but rather with the loss of meaning behind praying towards the east. I cannot be sure of the exact time frame in which churches were designed without regard for the orientation of the apse, but I am certain that it was long before Vatican II and the promulgation of the 1970 Missale Romanum.
The further development of posture versus populum without regard for facing east is an outgrowth of the loss of meaning behind liturgical posture. Cardinal Ratzinger has lamented that the damage to recovering the essence of meaning of liturgical posture is already done. It is probably impossible to restore the former practice. If in the times preceding the liturgical reform the orientation of the priest came to be understood as the priest having his back to the people or praying to the wall, then to return to this practice would likely result in even more confusion. It could be done through catechesis, but Cardinal Ratzinger suggests re-orienting liturgical posture as focused upon the altar crucifix. Another opinion is to return to the practice of Rome, where although celebrated ad Orientem versus populum, the candelabra and other decorative features of the altar obscured in some way the view of the altar. Still we must strive to renew an understanding of liturgical posture that recognizes its true meaning of versus Deum. This can be done within the framework of the current orientation.
Today, the priest and the congregation are facing the Altar, albeit from opposite sides. It is therefore erroneous in my opinion to attempt to prove that celebration of today as it is normally done is a deviation theologically, though it must be admitted that it is change with regards to former practice. Still I cannot shake the feeling that the former practice is more expressive of the interior orientation than the current practice. The former practice is also the current practice of the other liturgical rites. However, as Cardinal Medina would have us remember, "There is no need to give excessive importance to elements that have changed throughout the centuries. What always remains is the event celebrated in the liturgy: this is manifested through rites, signs, symbols and words that express various aspects of the mystery without, however, exhausting it, because it transcends them. Taking a rigid position and absolutizing it could become a rejection of some aspect of the truth which merits respect and acceptance." Therefore, even within the current liturgical practice let us remember the admonition "Conversi ad Dominum" and turn ourselves towards the Lord.