What’s a surefire way to start a heated discussion among practicing Catholics? Make a comment about the Mass — about the music, the prayers, the homily … or just about any part of the Mass — and you’ll be sure to stir up strong opinions and vigorous debate.
Although such arguments can sometimes denigrate into uncharitable attacks, it is natural that Catholics feel passionate about the Mass; after all, according to the Second Vatican Council, it is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians. It is both the source of the graces we receive and the summit of the Christian life. It is, quite literally, the most important thing that we can do in this world, and it prepares us for our life in the next world. The Mass is worth feeling passionate about.
These passions are sure to come to the fore again soon as the Church prepares for a new English translation of the Roman Missal, to go into effect Nov. 27, the first Sunday of Advent. The new translation is more faithful to the original Latin as well as to the biblical sources of the Mass. But, as with any change, it is sure to cause frustrations and even some ill feelings.
As Catholics, we should always take a step back and remind ourselves of the fundamental importance of the Mass, which transcends debates over translations, music and homiletics. Fortunately, a number of books have been published recently that intend to refocus our attention on the Mass and its place in the authentically Catholic life.
The Mass is a prayer
Sometimes we forget that the Mass is essentially one big prayer. In fact, it is the prayer of the Church, the one through which Our Lord Jesus Christ prays to the Father for the salvation of the world. Mary DeTurris Poust makes this point clear in her book “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass” (Alpha Books, $16.95). Poust, a popular author and blogger, places the Mass in the greater context of Catholic prayer. In fact, only about 50 pages of this 336-page book are explicitly on the Mass, while the rest focuses on various types of prayers and the reasons why we pray.
Perfect for new Catholics as well as uncatechized Catholics who are beginning to practice their faith again, this book gives clear advice on prayer, which is the indispensable act of the spiritual life. Poust also details the changes coming with the new Missal, explaining them in a lucid fashion and with understanding that such changes can be disconcerting. If you know someone who is beginning to practice his or her Catholic faith more fully, then “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass” is, well, essential.
Companion to a classic
More than 10 years ago, Scott Hahn wrote a little volume about the Book of Revelation. The book was published in 1999, and one might think it was related to the end of the millennium and all the hysteria that surrounded it (Y2K, anyone?). But instead the book was about the Mass, and the fundamental connection between our participation in the Mass here on earth and the heavenly liturgy that goes on eternally in heaven and is described in the last book of the Bible.
“The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth” (Doubleday Religion, $21.95) became one of the most surprising best-sellers in the Catholic publishing world. Perhaps no book in recent memory has done more to deepen Catholics’ appreciation of the Mass and to answer the question, “Why do we do this?”
Now, Hahn has published a “Study Guide for The Lamb’s Supper” (Image, $9.99), which is intended to help individuals and groups get more out of “The Lamb’s Supper” — both the book and the actual Lamb’s Supper, the Mass. This short study guide — it is only about 100 pages — takes each chapter of the original book and helps the reader to delve more deeply into the topic. Each chapter is divided into six sections — Summary, Scripture, Doctrine, Song, Questions and Further Reading — and gives a comprehensive view of the topic being covered. If you found your experience of the Mass enriched by reading “The Lamb’s Supper,” then allow it to be deepened again through the “Study Guide for The Lamb’s Supper.”
There is nothing more Catholic than the Mass, and to many non-Catholic Christians, that means there is nothing more unbiblical than the Mass. But in truth, there is nothing more biblical we can do — and no better way to know the Bible — than to participate in the Mass. However, like many non-Catholics, too many Catholics don’t realize the intimate connection between the Scriptures and the Mass.
Fortunately, Edward Sri has written a powerful book called “A Biblical Walk Through the Mass: Understanding What We Say and Do in the Liturgy,” (Ascension Press, $12.99) which goes into great detail — in a style both fascinating and easy to understand — about the biblical basis for the things we do at Mass. As the title suggests, the book’s structure addresses, one by one, each part of the Mass — from the Sign of the Cross to the dismissal — and explains its meaning and biblical origins. Sri does an expert job of not only clarifying where all the parts of the Mass originate, but also why they matter. What does it mean to make the sign of the cross? Why should we call Our Lord the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”? Too often, we can become like zombies trudging through the liturgy — “A Biblical Walk Through the Mass” makes our participation come alive as we realize we are part of something that has been being prepared since the foundation of the world. If you purchase just one book on the Mass this year, I would recommend Sri’s — and I’d also recommend it as a gift to any former Catholics you know who are now evangelical Protestants.
Our Jewish heritage
Whereas Sri’s book gives a comprehensive overview of the biblical roots of the Mass, “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper” (Doubleday Religion, $21.99) by Brant Pitre goes in-depth on one particular aspect of our Catholic faith: its Jewish foundations. As just about any Catholic can tell you, the first Mass was the Last Supper, which many believe was a Passover meal celebrated by Jesus and his apostles. This connection between the Last Supper, the Mass and the Passover has been explored by saints and scholars over the centuries, but Pitre goes even deeper. He looks into the many Jewish aspects of the ministry of Jesus, particularly as it pertains to his teaching on the Eucharist. If Jews were forbidden to drink blood, how could a Jewish Jesus command his followers to drink his blood to inherit eternal life? During the Passover, the Jews were commanded to eat the lamb — how does that foreshadow the Eucharist? Furthermore, Pitre’s book details that the Sacrament of the Eucharist is not something that was invented out of thin air in the first century, but was instead prefigured since the days of Moses. For those wishing to delve deeper into the historical roots of the Mass, “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist” is a wonderful book.
High point of Mass
The books mentioned above deal with the Mass in general, but Barry Hudock’s “The Eucharistic Prayer: A User’s Guide” (Liturgical Press, $16.95) examines only the central prayer of the Mass.
For many Catholics, this is the part of the Mass where we tend to “zone out” — after all, it is a prayer we hear week in and week out, without change (and sometimes without inflection). But Hudock argues that the Eucharistic Prayer is actually the high point of the Mass, where the Church offers its ultimate prayer of thanksgiving. As Hudock notes, the Eucharistic Prayer is “the central and definitive liturgical expression of the Church’s faith.” By understanding this prayer well, we can deepen our own thanksgiving to God and offer ourselves to him through the Mass. Especially helpful in this book is the section in which Hudock relates the history of each of the four major Eucharistic Prayers and explains the differences between them.
Vatican II famously called all Catholics to a “full and active participation” in the Mass. Fortunately, there are many books available to deepen your own participation in the “source and summit” of our Christian lives.
Eric Sammons writes from Maryland. He is the author of “Who is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew” (OSV, $14.95).