Q. Where in the documents of the Second Vatican Council does it describe the change of the priest having his back to the people during Mass to actually facing them?
A. Oddly enough, although this very noticeable change is often attributed to the Second Vatican Council, nowhere in the document outlining the reform of the liturgy is this development mentioned. In all likelihood, this change came about as a result of two things: the desire of some priests and bishops that it be so; and secondly, an instruction from a subsequent document indicating that in the construction of new churches, altars be built away from the wall making it possible for the priest to walk around it and face the people. So, this change was never actually decreed; rather, it was an eventual development that gradually became the norm.
It might also help to understand what the former posture signified. It is somewhat misleading to describe that posture as the priest with his back to the people. Instead, it is more aptly described as the priest and people facing the same direction. Since the entire Mass is a prayer directed towards God the Father, the priest – in his role of mediator – is addressing God on behalf of the people with their prayers and for their sanctification. In the eventual rubrics governing the Mass of Vatican II, at four distinct moments the instruction ad populum versus is given, meaning ‘facing towards the people’. Obviously, if the priest were facing the people all along, there would be no need for an instruction to turn and face them. It is conceivable that this development was never actually intended but very quickly became the norm. Given its more personable appearance, the change was readily accepted. Strictly speaking, though, it cannot be attributed to Vatican II.