The Principal Catholic Practices, Chapter 4 – Attending Mass

The Principal Catholic Practices, by Father George Thomas SchmidtA Great Privilege. The Ceremonies of the Mass

When on that memorable first Good Friday the sacrifice of the new Law was offered on the cross, the veil of the temple at Jerusalem was rent, signifying the passing of the Old Testament with its numerous bloody and unbloody sacrifices. Henceforth from the rising of the sun unto the setting thereof a clean oblation was to be offered to the name of God. The sacrifice of the Mass, the renewal of the sacrifice of Our Saviour on the Cross, is daily offered in thousands of churches and in every land of the globe. Whether the scene be a wretched hut erected of clay and rushes or that magnificent pile of stone and marble, Saint Peter’s at Rome, the sublime act of worship is everywhere the same. At Saint Peter’s, where Mass is celebrated amid the glow of many burning candles, surrounded by the masterpieces of the world’s greatest artists, enhanced by the historic relics that lend added distinction to the superb basilica – the reverence and fervor of the faithful is no greater than in the little mission shack where the priest has erected a temporary altar of rough boards, where but two candles burn and bare walls loudly proclaim the little congregation’s poverty. It is not the external magnificence and splendor that attracts the people. It is the Holy Sacrifice itself.

Our imagination may soar to lofty regions in search of the sublime and majestic, but it cannot picture to us anything more noble than the sacrifice of the Mass. Poor human beings who boast of no more honorable ancestry than the dust of the street kneel down in humble adoration, whether it be in Saint Peter’s at Rome or in the poor country church, and upon the altar God is offering Himself! God, omnipotent Creator of the universe, Maker of the angels and of men, God magnificent, Source of all beauty and joy, offers Himself as sacrificial victim for the poor mortals surrounding the altar! Sublime? It beggars description. Wonderful? The most astounding miracle of all times.

And mark well, we are not compelled to stand at a great distance with separating walls to bar us from actual participation in this great mystery. The poorest of us may confidently prostrate himself before the altar. Oh, what a glorious privilege it is to be allowed to attend Mass, to come so close to that sacred spot where invisible angels adore their Lord and God! Nay, more, the sacrifice offered is for us, and we directly participate in its bountiful fruits. A world was redeemed by the sacrifice of the cross, and great merit was stored up in the spiritual treasury of the Church. Every renewal of that sacrifice pours forth upon the world countless blessings and favors of God. These are in particular showered upon the priest, those for whom the Mass is said, and those who attend devoutly. Was there ever so blessed a privilege as that extended to the humblest Catholic?

Because of the grandeur and lofty significance of the sacred rite, a certain etiquette is asked of Catholics which is not demanded of the worshipers in non-Catholic churches.

As we enter a Catholic church we bend the knee in adoration of Him who unceasingly dwells in the tabernacle. Our conversation is limited to the absolutely necessary. We realize that we are in the court of the King, and that here is no place for levity.

When the priest, garbed in the vestments prescribed by the Church, enters the sanctuary and ascends the altar to begin the exalted act of worship, we strive to unite our intention with his; namely, to renew the sacrifice of the cross.

For those thoroughly instructed in the meaning of the various parts of the Mass, no prayer-book would be needed. If they were sincere in their endeavor to partake in the great sacrifice, their hearts would send forth endless aspirations and pious thoughts to make the Mass most fruitful for them. But in view of the frailty of human nature, it is well to have a prayer-book at hand. Thank God, there is no dearth of good books of devotion. Father Lasance has compiled a number of very helpful books dealing with the profound mystery of the Holy Eucharist. Then there is “The New Missal for Every Day” intended for all who would like to follow the Sacred Rites as it were step by step, and word by word and which can be obtained from any Catholic book-seller.

Let us now briefly accompany the actions of the priest through the Mass. I say briefly, for it will be apparent that in a book of this kind it would be impossible to give a thorough explanation of the Mass.

After the celebrant has opened the Missal he descends to the foot of the altar. With eyes cast down in humble recognition of his unworthiness to look up to heaven, he begs God to purify his heart and make him worthy to enter the Holy of Holies. And with head bowed in deep contrition he confesses his guilt in the Confiteor.

From the preparation at the foot of the altar he arises with unbounded trust in the mercy of God, ascends the altar steps, and stoops to kiss the center of the altar table. This first kissing of the altar is intended in an especial manner as a veneration of the relics of saints. For we must know that in every altar upon which the holy sacrifice of the Mass is offered, there is an altar stone in which relics of martyrs and saints are enclosed.

Proceeding to the right of the altar and making the sign of the cross, the priest begins the Introit (Entrance) of the Mass. Now the Introit, Epistle, and Gospel are not always the same. They are variable according to the nature of the day in the Church calendar. Nor are these first prayers and readings from the Bible to be taken as an integral part of the sacrifice. Rather their purpose is by suggesting pious thoughts and wholesome aspirations to prepare the priest and the faithful for the tremendous mystery that is to follow.

The Kyrie Eleison and Christe Eleison that follow immediately after the Introit are Greek words, and signify “Lord, have mercy on us; Christ, have mercy on us.”

The Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus honae voluntatis is the angelic hymn which in part was given us by the angels announcing the happy tidings of the birth of the Saviour. It has been added to by the Fathers of the Church, and today is a magnificent hymn of praise to the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.

After the Gloria – or, if it is omitted, after the Kyrie – the priest proceeds to the right of the altar to say the oration (prayer) of the day. Sometimes two, three, and five orations are said accordingly as the liturgy calls for a feast of greater or lesser degree. These orations are called Collects, from an old custom of collecting the people before proceeding to the station where the Mass was to be said. They contain petitions to God for the faithful through this intercession of the saint whose feast is celebrated; or, if it be a feast in honor of any of the three Divine Persons, His power is invoked.

Then follows the Epistle on the same side of the altar and the Gospel on the left side. These are extracts from the Bible. The former being usually parts of letters of the apostles or selections from the prophets; the latter are episodes from the narrations of the Gospel-writers, or evangelists.

On certain days the Gospel is followed by the Credo. The Credo is our profession of faith; for in concise and pregnant phrasing it contains all the truths of our religion. There are many symbols of faith, and all are built upon the first, the Apostles’ Creed. The one used in the liturgy of the Mass is called the Nicene Creed, because the definition of the Council of Nice (325) concerning the divinity of Christ is given therein almost word for word. This profession of faith occupies a most logical position in the Mass, For in the Gospel we hear the Word of God, which demands faith from us. Our Credo is therefore an echo to the call of God.

We now approach the real sacrificial action. Priest and people have been well prepared by the foregoing; and with holy thoughts in their hearts they may now approach the great mystery. Since the Mass is not only an offering and consecration, but also the consumption of the Sacrificial Victim, the Mass easily divides itself into three main parts:

1. The Offertory,

2. The Consecration,

3. The Communion.

1. The Offertory. After reciting the antiphon of the Offertory the priest uncovers the chalice, and first offers the host of bread and then the chalice with wine. It has always been customary for the faithful to make some offering at this time. Originally they brought bread and wine, from which the priest selected the materials for the sacrifice. Our custom of taking up the collection at the time of the Offertory is but a reminder of ancient usage.

Concerning the nature of the bread and wine offered, we cannot here go into a lengthy explanation. Suffice it to say that the bread must be unleavened and made of pure wheat-flour. (In the Greek rite, leavened bread is permitted.) The wine must be the pure juice of the grape, and must be beyond the stage of fermentation.

Holding up the patena with the host, and for a moment raising his eyes heavenward, the priest implores the almighty God to accept this oblation, which he, unworthy though he be, offers in propitiation for his own sins, for the transgressions of the faithful who are present, and for all members of the Church living and dead.

We see him next at the right side of the altar, where he pours wine and a little water into the chalice. The mixture of water and wine symbolizes the two natures in Christ. Returning to the center of the altar, the priest raises the chalice with wine, saying the words: “We offer Thee, O Lord, the chalice of salvation, while we earnestly beg Thy mercy that it may ascend to the face of Thy Majesty with the odor of sweetness unto our salvation and that of the whole world.” And bowing profoundly with folded hands resting upon the altar he humbly offers himself and the faithful to God in order that the sacrifice may be pleasing to the Lord.

The priest goes to the right of the altar where the ceremonial of washing the hands is performed. This again reminds the priest that the greatest purity of heart is demanded of him. Returning again to the center of the altar, he bows in prayer for a moment, and turning toward the congregation exhorts all to pray: Orate, Fratres – “Pray, Brethren.” The servers at the altar respond in the name of the people, begging the Almighty to deign to accept the priest’s sacrifice for the glory of God and for the welfare of the whole Church.

The oration called the Secret (because said in a low tone) is said, and we come to the direct preparation for the solemn and ineffable act of consecration.

2. The Consecration. The sacred rite thus far was replete with beauty and significance; but now we stand on the threshold of the tremendous action that brings the Son of God upon the altar with flesh and blood, with humanity and divinity.

We read in Holy Scripture that Our Lord thanked God before consecrating the bread and wine. In like manner the priest sings the Preface, the wonderful hymn of thanksgiving. It has been said by some great musician that the Preface of the Mass is the most beautiful piece of music that ever was written. Certain it is that the words of the Preface are replete with lofty and holy thoughts. This noble hymn of praise concludes with the “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth” – “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.”

After the joyous Hosanna has subsided, a solemn silence sets in – we have come to the Canon of the Mass. The Canon signifies the unalterable rule by which the sacred rite of consecration must be undertaken. The subdued tone of voice used by the priest indicates that this is the act of the celebrant alone. The prayers said are at times petitions to God for His blessing and for the great miracle of transsubstantiation; then again they are pleas that the sacred rite may be fruitful for the living and the dead.

After the priest has said the third oration of the Canon, he proceeds to the act of consecration. Let us hear the beautiful prayer that precedes the act: We beg Thee, O God, to deign to make this offering blessed in all things, true to precept and acceptable so that it may become the body and blood of Thy most beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The celebrant then takes the host of bread in his hands, blesses it and bows over it, saying the words of Christ: “Hoc est enim Corpus meum” – “For this is My body.” Oh, God, how unfathomable are Thy mysteries! A priest of human clay, by the power bestowed upon him in ordination, changes bread into the living body of the Son of God! He bends his knee in adoration and raises the Sacred Host to be adored by the people, and laying it upon the linen corporal again adores.

Taking the chalice, he blesses it and says the second part of the act of Consecration: “Hic est enim Calix Sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni testamenti, mysterium fidei, qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.” – “For this is the chalice of My blood, of the new and eternal testament, the mystery of faith, which will be shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.”

The invisible angels who fill the sanctuary prostrate themselves before the altar in adoration of the King of kings who reigns in their midst.

The prayers that immediately follow the Consecration are prayers of oblation, offering to God the magnificent Sacrificial Victim. The essence of the sacrifice is completed. But even as the preparation for the great act was rich in spiritual treasures, so the Church leads the Mass to its conclusion by weaving a garland of most beautiful ceremonies to crown the Spotless Lamb.

Before the Consecration the priest had prayed in a special memento for the living. Shortly after the action we find him again bowed in prayer with hands folded at his breast. He is begging God to make the souls of the faithful departed partakers of the fruits of the sacrifice. And again as he strikes his breast and audibly says “Nobis quoque peccatoribus” he pleads for the living. A short oration closes the Canon and we proceed to the preparation for Communion.

3. The Communion. The Holy Eucharist is essentially a sacrifice that is to be eaten. And thus the third principal part of the Mass is the Communion. What better preparation could we have for this feast of love than the prayer which Our Lord taught us? And thus we find the priest saying the Pater Noster, the Our Father.

Shortly after the recital of the Lord’s Prayer we see the priest taking the Sacred Host and breaking it into three parts the smallest of which is put into the chalice containing the Most Precious Blood. This little liturgical act signifies and symbolizes the destruction of the Lamb which was tortured and crushed on Calvary.

From now on the preparation for the Communion is essentially a cry for peace. Thrice the priest says the Agnus Dei – “Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world.” Twice he concludes the invocation with “Have mercy on us”; but the third time we hear “Grant us peace.” The Holy Eucharist is preeminently the sacrament of peace. It brings peace; but also demands peace among the faithful if they would receive it worthily.

The three succeeding orations said by the priest, as he humbly bows over the Sacred Species, are his direct preparation for holy communion. Even at this solemn moment he begs God that the sacrament which he is about to receive may not be to his eternal damnation. We see here with what care and devotion we must prepare for the entrance of the Lord God into our hearts.

After the Sacred Host and the Precious Blood have been consumed, the third principal part of the Mass is completed. The priest is purifying his hands and the chalice with water and wine. Again he goes to the right of the altar, where the Communion antiphon is said and subsequently the oration, which is similar in construction to the first oration of the Mass.

Returning to the middle of the altar, and after announcing to the congregation that the Mass is finished – Ite, Missa est – he prays God to accept the sacrifice just offered; and turns to bless the people. The very last action in the Mass is the reading of the Gospel, usually a selection from the first chapter of Saint John proclaiming the divinity of Christ.

During the Mass you will observe that the priest frequently turns to the congregation with the words: “Dominus vobiscum” – “The Lord be with you”; the servers answering in the name of the faithful: “Et cum spiritu tuo” – “And with thy spirit.” It is this oft-repeated greeting and response that binds the priest and people together in the offering of the sacrifice.

In the light of this brief explanation of the great mystery, can we wonder that the sacrifice of the Mass is the main doctrine of Christian worship? And can we be amazed that a reverential silence and great devotion is demanded of the faithful? Deprive us of the Holy Sacrifice, and you take away the life-blood of our religion; forbid its celebration, and priests will risk their lives to offer it as they have done many times in the years of persecution. For the sacrifice of the Mass is the most glorious boon that God has bestowed upon the human race; it is the one great means of holding back the avenging hand of God when individuals and nations ruthlessly trample upon His commandments. For in this sacrifice, from sunrise to sunset, day after day the Son of God is pleading with the Father for human beings.