By Fr. Mike Haney, O.F.M.,
former Pastor at St. Paschal Catholic Church
Some months ago, several church members were talking about how many people arrive late for Sunday Mass, leave early, do not participate by means of singing or responding to the Mass prayers, and behave during Mass in a variety of inappropriate ways – like talking, walking around, or even how they dress. They made the observation that perhaps this behavior is due to the fact that many people do not understand the Mass, and have never had the opportunity to have the Mass explained to them or to learn what the various parts of the Mass mean. So the recommendation was made that I should prepare some information and write some reflections that would help our parishioners to better appreciate Sunday Mass. The following is the fruit of that effort.
But first, some general observations. 1) Mass is not an obligation, but a celebration. Many people, unfortunately, still see Sunday mass as an obligation – “I have to go to Mass on Sunday.” It is the sin that I hear confessed most often – “Father, I missed Mass on Sunday”. But I don’t think it is the sin that is committed most frequently! Hopefully, we will be able to see Sunday Mass as an opportunity, a celebration – not an obligation. 2) The celebration of Mass is the action of the entire community, not of the priest alone. For centuries, the priest was the actor, the one who prayed, the one who did everything at Mass, and the congregation were spectators who watched. Today, we realize that the Mass is the prayer of the entire community that is gathered in worship. 3) The Mass, the way we know it today, has not always been this way. Since the time of Jesus, the style and manner of celebrating Mass has been evolving and changing, and still continues to do so.
The Mass, obviously, had its origins in the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with his disciples. On the night before he died, he broke the bread and shared it with them, and he blessed the cup of wine and passed it to them, reminding them: “Do this in memory of me!” For the first 100 years or so after Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, the Mass remained this kind of simple meal, where small groups of people gathered, shared the bread and the cup and remembered Jesus. Gradually, the meal was preceded by a scripture service, wherein the Word of God was proclaimed. These celebrations took place in a “house church”, so called because that’s what it was – a “house”, or a “home”, in which the people gathered to hear God’s Holy Word and to celebrate the Sacred Meal.
Gradually, the Mass began to be celebrated in larger buildings because they provided the space that was necessary for the growing crowds of people. And with larger buildings came more ceremony – like processions, like more assisting ministers, and like the use of vestments to make the ministers stand out from the congregation. By the year 700, sacristies were in use – a sacristy is the room where ministers get dressed before the celebration.
With the use of large buildings, and with the coming of large crowds, came also the use of an entrance processional song, to bring the congregation to its feet, and to begin praising God with the music of a song.
With large crowds and big buildings, things got a lot more formal. In place of the family table that was used in the “house church”, a large altar was used, usually made of stone, to remind the people that Jesus is the cornerstone and the spiritual rock of the church. Relics containing tiny bones of a saint were placed in the altar, and the kiss of the altar was a way to greet and honor the saints. This same large altar was frequently blessed with incense, a sign of honor, just as emperors had at one time been welcomed with incense. The Old Testament high priests had begun their services with incense. Incense rises heavenward just as our prayers rise to God.
Christians began the use of the Sign of the Cross already in the second century. But the use of the Sign of the Cross at the beginning of Mass did not begin until the Middle Ages, when the priest prayed the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, which originally he prayed silently while walking into church.
For centuries, the Mass had no penitential rite. Eventually, the penitential rite became a common proclamation that all of us are sinners before God. Sometimes the penitential rite is replaced by a sprinkling rite with water, reminding us of the life-giving waters flowing from the font of Baptism. The Kyrie Eleison, or Lord Have Mercy, was the people’s response to a long litany. To shorten the Mass, the Lord Have Mercy is now said three times, to remind us of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Glory to God, or Gloria, was a song sung only by the priest and only at the Easter Vigil, until the 11th century, when it began to be sung at all Sunday Masses. The Glory to God is meant to be a song for the whole assembly to sing, emphasizing the festive and special character of the Sundays outside of Advent and Lent, when it is not used.
The Opening Prayer has also been called the “Collect” because for centuries, after a long period of silence in which the people prayed silently, the presider summed up and “collected” all the silent prayers into one spoken prayer. The Opening prayer always has three parts: 1) addressing God the Father, 2) stating the petition or the request itself, and 3) asking for the intercession and mediation of Jesus Christ.
Many of the first Christians were actually converted Jews who asked for and received Catholic Baptism. As Jews, part of their Jewish synagogue service was the reading of the Old Testament Law and Prophets. This Jewish tradition as well as the conviction that all the Scriptures are God’s inspired word resulted in the presence of at least one Old Testament reading in the early Christian Liturgy of the Word. The style of the morning prayer service held in the Jewish synagogues had a strong influence on the formation and development of the Christian Liturgy of the Word. It is also interesting to note that often the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist were celebrated independently. In other words, sometimes there would be Scripture readings, but no sharing of the bread and the cup, or vice versa. In the sixth century, the fusion of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist occurred, and has remained since. It is also interesting to note that, for centuries, and for reasons unknown, the reading of Old Testament selections at Mass was dropped. They were restored only recently, as a result of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s, when the world’s bishops said that “…the treasures of the Bible (should) be opened up more lavishly, so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s Word”. (Const. of Sac. Lit., #51.)
Now, on Sundays and on major feasts, there are always three readings. The first is usually taken from the Old Testament. As a rule, the Old Testament readings are chosen to prepare for and coordinate with the Gospel, following the same theme or idea.
On weekdays, there are only two readings at Mass. During the seasons of Advent and Lent, the first reading is always from the Old Testament and is related to the Gospel. During the remainder of the year, Bible selections from both the Old and new Testaments appear, but no attempt was made to harmonize this first reading with the Gospel.
Following the First Reading comes the Psalm Response, or Responsorial Psalm. Continuing the practice of the Jewish synagogue, Christians traditionally respond to a scriptural reading by singing a psalm or biblical canticle. Some of you are old enough to remember that this used to be called the “Gradual”, because the cantor stood on one of the lower steps (“gradus”) of the pulpit to lead this psalm. Today, the Psalm Response holds a place of special importance. Normally, it is sung, and the whole assembly participates by singing the repeated refrain. Very frequently, the psalm has a textual relationship to one of the readings.
For centuries, the Church has called the Second Reading, or the reading before the Gospel, the “Epistle”. Our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Rite Churches call this reading the “Apostle”, because all of these readings were written by the apostles, like Paul, John, and Luke. The text for this Second Reading is made quite independently from the other two readings, although on most Sundays of the year the Second Reading represents a continuation of the same passage that we had heard on the previous Sunday.
Following the Second Reading comes the Alleluia or Gospel Acclamation. The Hebrew word “alleluia” means “Praise Yahweh” or “Praise God”. Historically, St. Augustine writes that the Alleluia was being sung every Sunday during his lifetime in the early 400’s, but by the end of the fifth century the Alleluia was used only on Easter. Eventually, the Alleluia was sung on every Sunday during Easter time, and finally on every Sunday of the year except during Lent. The words of the acclamation in the Alleluia are linked to the Gospel, and often the Alleluia is accompanied by a procession with the Gospel Book.
From earliest times, the importance of the Gospel has been emphasized by special signs of respect and honor. For example, while a lector proclaims the First and Second Readings, only a deacon or priest may proclaim the Gospel. Furthermore, the proclamation of the Gospel is often accompanied by candles and incense. And the congregation, seated during the first two readings, stands during the Gospel as a sign of alertness to the presence of the Risen Lord. The sign of the cross on the book, forehead, mouth and heart is a sign of openness to God’s Word, and the kiss of the book is a sign of respect.
The book from which the Scriptures are proclaimed is called the Lectionary. The Lectionary arranges the Sunday readings in a 3-year cycle: Year A is based on Matthew, Year B on Mark, and Year C on Luke. John’s Gospel occurs on the first Sundays of Lent, during the Easter season, and on certain Sundays during Year B. For weekdays, there is a 2-year cycle; the Gospels remain the same each year but the First Reading varies. Year 1 runs with the odd-numbered years, like 2001, and year 2 runs with the even-numbered years, like 2002.
There is evidence dating back to the year 150 that bishops exhorted and instructed the people in a Homily at Mass to imitate the things they heard in the Scripture Readings. God’s Word needed to be applied to the concrete life situations of the people. In fact, when several priests were present at Mass, each of them would preach a homily – aren’t you glad we don’t do that anymore!
The General Intercessions conclude the Liturgy of the Word. One of the components of the ancient Jewish synagogue liturgy was a series of 18 blessings containing requests for individual and universal needs. From very early on, the Catholic Mass incorporated very similar prayers. These prayers are called “General Intercessions” because they extend beyond the needs and concerns of the local assembly, to the universal church and to the changing events of our world.
There are two major parts to the Mass – the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The pages before this have dealt with the Opening Rites and the Liturgy of the Word; now we begin our treatment of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The Last Supper, which Jesus celebrated with his apostles on the night before his crucifixion, was only a small part of a much larger and more elaborate Jewish Passover Meal. Very early in the history of the Catholic Church, we experienced certain practical difficulties in serving a regular meal every week to an increasingly larger number of people. As a consequence, the Eucharist was gradually disengaged from the meal: the bread and cup rites to which Jesus had attached a new meaning in reference to himself were at first celebrated either before or after the meal, and eventually completely apart from it.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the Preparation of the Altar. Although in past centuries this used to be a much more elaborate rite, today it consists simply in placing the corporal, chalice, purificator and sacramentary upon the altar. This is usually done by a deacon or altar server. If it is not already there, this is also the time when the altar cloth is placed upon the altar.
Then comes the Presentation of the Gifts. Sometimes this is incorrectly referred to as the “Offertory”; but the real offertory is later in the Mass, when the bread and wine are offered during the Eucharistic Prayer. The gifts that are presented are the gifts of bread and wine, along with the financial donations of the people. Years ago, the people supported the church and the priest, not with financial donations, but with gifts of meat, fruit and vegetables. Because these gifts were often dirty, the priest washed his hands immediately after receiving them – and we still see that hand washing ceremony today, but for a much different reason. Years ago, the wine was often very strong, so some water was added to make the wine more drinkable. Today the mingling of water with the wine represents the union of Christ with the faithful – just as the wine receives water, so Christ takes us and our sins to himself. Nowadays a song often accompanies the procession with the Presentation of the Gifts, but this song is not always necessary or even desirable. The priest offers a prayer to praise and bless God for these gifts of bread and wine, and the assembly may make the response: “Blessed Be God Forever”! Although it may be used at any time, on certain special occasions incense is used to bless the altar, the bread and wine, the priest and the people, uniting all of us as we present ourselves and our gifts to God.
The Prayer Over the Gifts was at one time called the “Secret”, because it was prayed silently by the priest. Today the priest prays it aloud, asking God to accept and to be pleased with our gifts of bread and wine.
Then comes the Eucharistic Prayer, the first part of which is the Preface. The origins of the Eucharistic Prayer are found in a series of table prayers required at every Jewish meal. The Preface begins with an initial dialogue between priest and congregation: “The Lord be with you…” The body of the Preface is a statement of the special reason for praising God, especially God’s work in creation and redemption. There are a variety of more than 80 prefaces that can be used at Mass, and all are concise statements of praise addressed to God through Jesus.
The Preface concludes with the Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, a text inspired by the vision of Isaiah and sung in the morning office of the synagogue. From there, it made its way into the Eucharistic Prayer through the influence of Jewish-Christians.
One of the first elements in the Eucharistic Prayer is a formal petition that the Spirit come upon the community and upon the bread and wine. This invocation is technically known as the Epiclesis, which means “calling down”. As the priest makes this petition, he extends his hands over the bread and wine in the ancient gesture signifying the giving of the Spirit.
Another part of the Eucharistic Prayer is the words of institution, sometimes called Consecration. For centuries, theologians tried to pinpoint exactly when and how the consecration occurred. Now, we understand the dynamic and unified character of the entire Eucharistic Prayer. The elevation of the host dates back to the early 13th century, a time when the faithful received communion only rarely, and consequently took great satisfaction in seeing the consecrated bread since the priest celebrated Mass with his back to the people.
Following the words of institution comes the Memorial Acclamation. The “mystery of faith” to which the priest refers in his invitation (“Let us proclaim this mystery of faith”) is the paschal mystery, the mystery of Christ dying, rising and present among his people. It is the whole plan of God realized in Christ’s saving love. Our response to the priest’s invitation shows that we do recall the death, resurrection and second coming of Christ.
Another important part of the Eucharistic Prayer are the Intercessions. Modeled after the ancient Jewish blessing prayer, they request God to show mercy upon all the people of Israel. Today, they mention the Church, the Pope, the local bishop, the assembled faithful, apostles and martyrs, all the saints and all our beloved deceased.
The Eucharistic Prayers concludes with the Doxology, a solemn statement of praise and thanksgiving in the Trinitarian form mentioning Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The bread and cup are raised on high in a gesture of final offering, and the Amen of the congregation is a sign of approval and support. Like every “Amen”, it means “Yes”, “We Believe”, “That’s Right”.
Although it is a long prayer, and there are many approved forms of it, the overall purpose of the Eucharistic Prayer is to recall the many wonderful ways in which God has been a part of our glorious history, and to offer ourselves and our gifts of bread and wine to God as a sign of our thankfulness and appreciation.
In the earliest celebrations of the Eucharist, in the first centuries after Jesus’ Resurrection, once the bread was broken and the wine was blessed, the ministers and the faithful immediately received the Body and Blood of the Lord. But by the fifth century, the growing desire to express love, unity and forgiveness resulted in the expansion of a few rites before the reception of the Eucharist, namely the Our Father and the Greeting of Peace. Praying the Our Father was seen as an ideal preparation for Communion. In fact, the Our Father was even expanded, to ask the Lord to grant perfect peace. That prayer, offered by the priest, is called the “Embolism” – “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil…” In the early centuries, the Our Father was such an important part of the Church’s prayer life that adults were not allowed to pray the Lord’s Prayer until they were baptized. In some churches, it is now customary for the congregation to hold hands while the Our Father is prayed or sung, and often people say that holding hands is such a wonderful sign of unity and togetherness. Actually, the real sign of unity and togetherness at Mass is receiving the Lord in the Eucharist at Communion, and the Our Father is simply a preparation for that important sharing.
Among early Christians, the Greeting of Peace was seen as a seal placed on prayer. To omit this gesture was considered a declaration of hostility. St. Paul himself had reminded the early Christians to “greet one another with a holy kiss”. We are all invited to share peace with those around us. Again as a sign of our unity and togetherness in preparation for Communion. It should be noted that peace is meant to be exchanged with persons nearby, and not by attempting to greet everyone in the congregation. Since the Greeting of Peace is symbolic, the real importance is not how many people we greet, but rather how sincere our wish for peace really is.
Conforming to the rite of the Passover meal, Christ took bread into his hands, pronounced the prayer of praise, and then broke the bread. Primitively, this Breaking of the Bread was the only rite which occurred between the Eucharistic prayer and the communion. In fact, the Eucharist itself was once called “the breaking of the bread”. The bread is broken for two reasons; 1) because Jesus did it at the Last supper, and 2) because the one large loaf which had been consecrated needed to be divided. Individual “hosts” began to be used only when the congregations became so large that breaking the one loaf became impractical. The gesture is seen as a sign of unity – participating in the one bread which is broken, all form one body in Christ. The mixing of a small piece of the consecrated bread into the chalice of Christ’s blood symbolizes the resurrection, reuniting the body and blood of Jesus before Communion, a kind of symbolic re-enactment of the Lord’s resurrection. For a time, it was the custom of the Pope to send a small portion of consecrated bread to the churches in his neighborhood for use in this gesture. As the church grew farther and farther away from Rome, individual priests began to use this gesture in Mass simply “because the Pope did it”.
During the Breaking of the Bread, the Lamb of God is sung. The words “have mercy on us” and “grant us peace” link it to the Greeting of Peace. The Lamb of God is a song of the congregation, not of the priest, who is engaged in the action of breaking and preparing the bread for Communion.\
In the first centuries, it was quite usual for members of the community to take home portions of the consecrated bread, to consume during the week or to bring to those unable to attend the service, as our Ministers to the Homebound do today. By the 13th century, communion by the faithful, other than at the moment of death, was on the point of disappearing. Theologians and preachers reacted by stressing the need for frequent Communion, and eventually the church relaxed its laws regarding fasting before Communion, so that virtually everyone could receive the Eucharist. We hear the words “The Body of Christ” and “The Blood of Christ” as reminders of the meaning and significance of what we are doing – receiving the very flesh and blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our “Amen” is a tiny but significant profession of faith. The song during Communion is expressive of the unity and joy in which we are sharing.
The vessels used for communion are cleansed or purified, usually after Mass, in the sacristy, by the sacristan and the Eucharistic ministers. The vessels are the chalices, which contain the Blood of Christ, and the plates or bowls, called ciboriums or patens, which hold the bread. Private prayer after Communion has long been a recommended practice. So normally after Communion there is some quiet time in which we can personally and privately thank God. This private prayer time is concluded by the public Prayer after Communion, prayed out loud by the priest, and summarizing the thanksgiving of the congregation.
In the earliest centuries, the celebration of the Eucharist seems to have ended with the distribution of Communion. (For some people, it still does today!) But nowadays the Mass does have a few important and brief concluding rites. They are the Announcements, making the community aware of important upcoming events; the Blessing by the priest, until the time when we will be fortunate enough to reassemble in the Lord’s name; the Dismissal, a final word of encouragement before we depart; and the Kissing of the Altar, to conclude Mass the same way it began, with the Kissing of the Altar. Finally, just as we sang ourselves into church with a processional or entrance song, we sing ourselves out of church with a recessional hymn. That recessional hymn is an expression of our joy and gratitude for all the Lord has shared with us and given to us; the song also tries to energize and excite us to go out and live the Christian life that we have just celebrated and in which we have just been renewed.
It is worth mentioning that the word “Mass” comes from the word “Dismissal”. The Dismissal Rite has always implied far more than it states. People were dismissed to go out to live their faith. The Dismissal, then, signified not the end of the Mass, but the beginning of its lived presence in the community. It is in this sense that we are now reminded to “go forth in joy, to love and serve the Lord”.
Note: Fr. Mike Haney, O.F.M. was a Pastor (1998-2007) at St. Paschal Church, W. Monroe, LA