Externals of the Catholic Church – The Missal

When a priest goes to the altar to begin the celebration of Mass he opens a large book, and the people know that the prayers which he recites vary from day to day, as they see him arrange the markers or ribbons with which the volume is provided. This book is called the Missal, that is, the Mass-Book, and it contains all that is read or recited in the offering of the Adorable Sacrifice, and very complete “rubrics” or directions for the proper reading of each Mass.

As the Missal is in the Latin language, and as translations of it have not been generally accessible to the faithful until rather recently, its contents are more or less of a mystery even to well-instructed Catholics, although some of the more modern prayer-books contain parts of it rendered into English, and even complete Missals in Latin and English are now published for the use of the faithful.

A lack of knowledge regarding this and other sacred things used by our Church in divine worship tends to render our people incapable of appreciating the value and beauty of sacred rites. Therefore it may be useful to describe briefly the contents of the book from which the priest reads the solemn and beautiful prayers which the Church has incorporated into the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Missal is a book which treats of matters in which all we Catholics should be interested; and some knowledge of which will be useful to us because we will thereby better appreciate the grandeur and harmony of the daily Oblation which is offered before the throne of God by the appointed ministers of His Church on earth.

The Liturgy of the Jews

Among the “people of God” in Old Testament times, in the religion which was a foreshadowing of the Christian faith, a special ritual was in use, based on direct revelation, from God, in which the ceremonial rules were prescribed in the most minute details, and the observance of them was enjoined under the severest penalties. This liturgy was put into form by Moses, the great lawgiver of the Jews, and it continued in use in the worship of God down to the time when it was abrogated by the institution of the Christian Church.

The Church’s Liturgy

As the essence of the Christian religion is contained in the Mass and the Sacraments, which were unknown in the Jewish faith, it was necessary to create a new liturgy. This was done by the Church, and was done very slowly. Our Blessed Lord Himself instituted the Holy Sacrifice and the seven Sacraments, but He did not make any rules about their administration. The authority for arranging all these details is contained in the power “to bind and to loose,” given to the teaching body of the Church; and she also has the power to establish from time to time such sacramentals and other aids to devotion as may be conducive to the spiritual welfare of the faithful.

The Growth of the Missal

The Missal, in its present form, is the result of centuries of development. From the earliest times the essential parts of it were in use in the Church, but they were not always arranged as at present. The changes that have come in the arrangement of the parts of the Mass are described elsewhere in this book, in the chapter on “The Growth of the Mass.” In the early Middle Ages a portion of the prayers was found in one book, another portion in another; and these different books, copied by hand before the invention of printing, caused considerable inconvenience and confusion. A uniform ritual was seen to be advisable in a Church which has a uniform Creed, and in the sixteenth century the Missal was reduced to substantially its present form.

The Reformer of the Missal

This action was recommended by the Council of Trent, and was put into effect by Pope Saint Pius V, who thoroughly revised the Missal, making his edition the standard to which all others must conform.

An exception was made for some churches and religious orders which had a liturgy of their own going back over two hundred years, and they were allowed to continue the use of their own peculiar rite on account of its antiquity. Some of our readers may have noticed the differences in the Mass as said by members of the Dominican order from that celebrated by secular priests; and some, possibly, may have assisted at the Holy Sacrifice when it was offered by a priest of some Oriental Catholic rite, with strange ceremonies and weird chanting. The decree of Saint Pius V prescribing the use of the revisal Missal was issued in 1570; and, as it was not thoroughly obeyed in some parts of the world, a stricter law was made by Clement VIII in 1604 and by Urban VIII in 1634. These three decrees are placed at the beginning of every Missal.

The Missal in use in all churches having the Latin rite is printed entirely in the Latin language. The reasons for this have been very fully set forth in another chapter of this book.

The Arrangement of the Book

It contains, at the beginning, a list of the feasts of the Church, movable and immovable. Next come the rubrics, or rules for the guidance of the priest, and these are continued all through the book. The word “rubric” means “red,” on account of the ancient practice among the Romans, of writing in that color the important and explanatory parts of their legal documents. This practice is still continued in all the liturgical books of the Church, which are always in two colors – red for the explanations and rules, black for the text itself.

What we may call the Missal proper begins with the Mass of the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year. Then, one after another, we find the Masses assigned to all the Sundays and festivals and saints’ days. In these the entire wording of the Mass is not given – merely the parts that are “proper” to the day.

In the middle of the book is inserted the “Ordinary of the Mass,” that is, the parts in which there is little change from day to day. In this portion of the Missal are the Prefaces, those sublime expressions of homage and thanksgiving to God, which are sung to the music of an ancient and beautiful chant in high Masses and recited in low Masses. There are eleven in number, varying according to the season and sometimes according to the feast.

The Canon of the Mass

Then comes the Canon of the Mass, which is practically unchanged from day to day. It includes the “Te igitur,” in which God’s blessing is invoked upon the Church, the Pope, the Bishops and all the faithful; the “Memento for the Living”; the “Communicantes,” which brings in the names and asks the intercession of the Apostles and other Saints; and the solemn words of consecration, by which the bread and wine are changed into the living Body and Blood of Christ. Later on there is the Memento for the Dead, a prayer “also for us sinners,” the Pater Noster, three prayers before Communion, and many other beautiful petitions.

The Masses of the Saints

As is well known, nearly every day of the year is dedicated by our Church to the honoring of some saint or the celebration of some festival. The saints are arranged in several classes – Apostles, martyrs, Doctors of the Church, confessor bishops, confessors, virgin-martyrs, virgins and widows; and for each class a special Mass is provided, while many of the individual Saints have Masses of their own – that is, some of the prayers and other parts are composed or selected especially in honor of that Saint.

The Requiem Masses

Further on in the Missal are the Masses for the dead. Special prayers are given for deceased Popes, Cardinals, Bishops and priests, for the celebrant’s father and mother or both, for relatives, benefactors, etc. It should be understood that the saying of Requiem Masses is restricted to certain days. On festivals, except of the lower classes, low Masses in black vestments are not allowed, and on some of the most important feasts even funeral Masses are forbidden.

The Missal has a supplement which contains Masses in honor of certain saints whose festivals are not celebrated everywhere; for it is permitted to some countries or certain religious orders to honor saints of their own, whose veneration is not prescribed for the whole world.

The Value of the Missal

Our religion teaches us that in the Mass we have an inestimable treasure of grace. The great variety of prayers contained in the Missal enhances the value of this treasure, because those that are appropriate can be selected, in some cases at least, according to the particular needs for which the Mass is offered. In order to have a better knowledge of the beauties of our Church’s liturgy, every member of our Catholic faithful should possess and use a prayer-book which contains an accurate translation of at least a part of the Mass, instead of the “Devotions for Mass,” oftentimes inane and insipid, that are provided in some of our manuals of prayer.