Last week I ended in a dilemma. The GIRM gives the instruction to try to celebrate the Mass facing the people on a free standing altar whenever possible, but the rubrics tell the priest various times during the Mass to turn and face the people. After 35 years of uncertainty, a European Cardinal (whom we now know to be Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna) sent this very question to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments in the year 2000.
The answer from Cardinal Estevez, the head of the Congregation, said that the idea presented in the GIRM does not exclude the possibility of celebrating the Mass “ad Orientem” or facing the apse (liturgical east). It even goes on to say, “It would be a grave error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is [toward] the community. If the priest celebrates versus populum, which is a legitimate and often advisable, his spiritual attitude ought always to be versus Deum per Jesus Christum [toward God through Jesus Christ], as representative of the entire Church…” So even when the priest is “facing” the people his intention must be to face God. Even when the people are looking at the face of the priest—they must be trying to face God. We all have to try to do two contradictory things at once when the Mass is “ad/versus populum”, that can be distracting and draining. Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote a lot about this, which we will delve into.