What is special about the Mass? Over the years, the language of the Mass has changed and so has the music. But while these changes may enhance the Mass and move the congregation to prayer and action, they are not the heart of what makes the Mass special. Mass is special because it is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, made present through the words and actions of an ordained priest. At the Last Supper, as Jesus anticipated his death on the cross the next day, he gave us his body to eat and his blood to drink under the appearances of bread and wine.
The Mass and its various parts is one complete action that brings anew to our altars in an unbloody way the suffering and death that Jesus endured on Good Friday and his being raised up by his Father on Easter Sunday. As the people of God, we remember and share in this one sacrifice of Christ, reflecting God’s love for us.
At every Mass, Jesus again offers his eternal sacrifice to God in atonement for our sins and the sins of the world. He is with us in a unique way wherever Mass is celebrated. At Mass, the People of God gather in union with Christ to be nourished and transformed by word and sacrament. It helps us to become more fully the Body of Christ in the world.
The Mass is an action of Christ and his Church (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, No. 7) and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet (No. 8). It celebrates God’s sanctification of the world and enhances the building up of the Church (No. 7).
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood” (No. 1382).
It’s important to learn more about it and make special efforts to attend Mass on Sundays. As a starting point, we examine the parts of the Mass.
The Order Of The Mass
The Mass is one central act of worship, divided into several parts. This oneness of the Mass is rooted in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Each part of the Mass has its special role. The arrangement of these parts is called the Order of the Mass.
The Roman Missal divides the Mass into four main parts: Introductory Rites, Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of the Eucharist and Concluding Rites. Together, they comprise one divine action.
The Introductory Rites help the faithful in attendance to establish communion with each other, focus on the liturgical time and feast, and better prepare to hear God’s word and worthily receive the Eucharist. These rites include the following parts:
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◗ As the Mass begins, the celebrant, servers, readers and other ministers approach the altar from the back in an entrance procession. As they arrive, they bow or genuflect, and the priest goes around the altar, kisses it as a sign of veneration and proceeds to his chair in the sanctuary.
◗ After making the sign of the cross, he greets the congregation with words like, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Then, the people answer, “And with your spirit.”
Penitential Act and the Kyrie
◗ An act of penitence follows the Greeting. At this time, the priest urges the faithful to reflect on their sins and invoke God’s mercy in order to more fruitfully celebrate the holy mysteries. He then asks for God’s mercy and forgiveness. The words of an ancient Greek formulary, “Lord, have mercy” (“Kyrie Eleison”), are used. There are three forms of the Penitential Act. During Easter Time and on Sundays, a Sprinkling Rite with blessed water may substitute for the Penitential Act. This reminds the faithful of their baptismal commitment.
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◗ The Gloria follows the Penitential Act. Used on Sundays, solemnities and feasts, this ancient hymn recalls the angels’ words at the birth of Christ, “Glory to God in the highest.” It is normally sung.
◗ The priest then prays the Collect, a prayer that concludes the Introductory Rites. Listening to it prepares the faithful to hear God’s word, soon to be proclaimed in the readings.
LITURGY OF THE WORD
Christ is present in the Scripture passages proclaimed at Mass. The word of God feeds us and opens us up to acknowledge God’s presence. God speaks to those assembled through the readings and invites them to allow the word to transform their hearts and minds and have power over their lives.
The Liturgy of the Word consists of:
◗ No other readings may be substituted.
◗ Three Scripture readings are read on Sundays and solemn occasions. Usually, the first is taken from the Old Testament, the second from a New Testament letter and the third from a Gospel passage. At Easter Time, the first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles. Two readings are proclaimed on most weekdays, one from the Old Testament and another from a Gospel passage.
◗ The responsorial psalm follows the first reading. During it, the faithful respond to what God says to them in the psalm, generally sung but sometimes recited.
◗ On Sundays and other special occasions, a second reading follows the responsorial psalm.
◗ After these readings, the faithful prepare to hear the Gospel, when the Lord speaks to them through his word. They joyfully ready themselves to listen by acclaiming “Alleluia,” an ancient Hebrew word meaning “Praise ye Jah[weh]” or “Praise the Lord.” During Lent, the words “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, king of endless glory!” take the place of the “Alleluia.”
◗ Proclaiming the Gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. Centering on Jesus’ life and teaching, it receives special respect. This includes a sung Gospel acclamation, a procession to the ambo and standing to hear it. If a deacon is a minister at Mass, he proclaims the Gospel.
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◗ A priest, usually the celebrant at Mass, preaches the homily. In it, he reflects on the Scriptures read and connects them with the lives of the faithful. Since the liturgy aims at helping the faithful grow in holiness, the celebrant’s words direct those assembled to see how the word of God contains lessons for them. At times, a deacon may preach the homily.
Profession of faith
◗ On Sundays and other special occasions, the profession of faith (Creed) follows the homily. It renews the faith of those gathered for the liturgy in anticipation of the most sacred part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The Universal Prayer
◗ This concludes the Liturgy of the Word. In this prayer, also called the prayer of the faithful, the congregation offers their petitions to God for the salvation of all humankind. In a way, the petitions respond to the readings just proclaimed. Typically, the prayers are for the Church, public authorities, the world, for those in need and for the local community (cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Nos. 69, 70).
LITURGY OF THE EUCHARIST
The Liturgy of the Word prepares for the “center and high point of the entire celebration ... the Eucharistic Prayer ... the prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification” (Roman Missal, No. 78). This is the eternal prayer of Christ, offered to his Father. To continue Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross, the priest acts in his person as the head of the Church. Around him gather members of Christ’s body, made one through baptism. The priest joins their offering to Christ’s eternal offering.
To prepare for the Eucharist, members of the assembly bring forward gifts of bread and wine to be changed into Christ’s body and blood. The presider prepares these gifts by placing them on the altar with an accompanying prayer formula. After the preparatory rites, he washes his hands. A collection may be taken up to support parish needs and the poor. The prayer over the offerings, prayed by the priest, is the final preparatory act, leading into the Eucharistic Prayer.
The Eucharistic Prayer is the central act of Catholic worship. Also called the Canon of the Mass or the anaphora, it is Christ’s prayer, directed to the Father and offered in union with the Church. The Eucharistic Prayer uses the word, “we,” to indicate that the entire body of Christ assembled for worship offers this prayer to the Father.
In it, we offer our thanks and praise. Furthermore, we join with Christ’s sacrifice and offer our lives and works to God and commit ourselves to be more Christlike, especially in our ministry to the poor and needy.
The prayer is a single prayer. It is a dialogue between priest and people enabling us to pray together this great sacrifice of praise. Our efforts to be like Christ will always fall short, but joined with his sacrifice, they become acts of praise, thanksgiving and adoration to the Father.
◗ This is a prayer of thanksgiving. In the name of the assembly, the priest praises and thanks God for all that God has done and continues to do in our world.
◗ The entire assembly sings, “Holy, Holy, Holy ...”
◗ An invocation in which the presider asks the Father to send the Holy Spirit so that the bread and wine may become the body and blood of Christ (Eucharistic Prayer II).
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Consecration (or institution narrative)
◗ This is the central act of the Mass. At this time, the sacrifice instituted by Christ at the Last Supper is effected at the altar. Recalling the institution of the Eucharist, the priest consecrates the bread and wine using the words of Christ, “... This is my body ... this is the chalice of my blood ...” The bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ.
◗ Anamnesis is a Greek word for “remembrance.” In the anamnesis, we remember Christ’s salvific actions by recalling Christ’s passion, resurrection and ascension (cf. GIRM, No. 79e).
◗ The priest and people offer the “bread of life and the chalice of salvation” to the Father through the Holy Spirit and give thanks “that you (Father) have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you” (Eucharistic Prayer II). “The Church’s intention, indeed, is that the faithful not only offer this unblemished sacrificial Victim but also learn to offer their very selves ...” (Roman Missal, No. 79f).
◗ The intercessions remind us of our connection to the whole Church and the world. We ask the Father to bless the Church as a whole, Church leaders, the deceased and all the assembled through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Blessed Joseph, the apostles, martyrs and all the saints.
◗ “Through him and with him ... Amen” (Roman Missal). This prayer of praise and glory to God for his saving works is made in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Lord’s Prayer
◗ The Communion Rite begins with the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray ...” (Lk 11:1-4; cf. Mt 6:9-13). In this prayer, the priest and people ask that God’s kingdom come, for material and spiritual sustenance, for the forgiveness of their sins and for deliverance from temptation and evil.
Rite of Peace
◗ According to the Roman Missal, in the Rite of Peace, “the Church entreats peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament” (No. 82).
Fraction of the Bread
◗ The congregation sings or says the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”), and the priest breaks the consecrated host and drops a small piece into the chalice “to signify the unity of the body and blood of the Lord” (GIRM, No. 83). Sometimes called the Breaking of the Bread, this recalls the time Jesus broke bread at the Last Supper before distributing it to his disciples.
◗ Before receiving Communion, those assembled make an “act of humility” as they admit that they are not worthy, saying “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (Roman Missal).
◗ The presider also makes an “act of humility” (GIRM, No. 84) and receives the consecrated Eucharistic species first, followed by the altar ministers and the congregation. During Communion, a chant is sung.
◗ When approaching a priest, deacon or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion to receive the Eucharist, a person makes a simple bow as a sign of reverence to the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species.
◗ After the minister says, “The body of Christ,” the recipient answers “Amen” and receives the consecrated host in the hand or on the tongue. This is repeated when receiving the blood of Christ from the cup. “Amen” means “so be it.” It testifies to the recipient’s belief that the consecrated bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ.
◗ Following Communion, the assembly sits in silence to praise and worship God and to reflect on Jesus, now present within them in his risen body.
Prayer after Communion
◗ This prayer asks God to strengthen us, so that the graces we received in the Mass will remain with us after we leave church.
The Concluding Rites may include announcements about parish matters. If no announcements are made, the priest greets the assembly, gives them a final blessing and dismisses them. The words of dismissal clearly reflect the assembly’s role as missionary disciples, sent out into the world to do the work of Christ. Then, the celebrant kisses the altar and leaves.
Father Robert J. Hater, Ph.D., is a Cincinnati diocesan priest and an internally acclaimed speaker and widely published author. He writes from Ohio.
Altar: A table at the center of the Church on which Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is made present.
Ambo: A pulpit or stand where the readings during the Liturgy of the Word are proclaimed.
Anaphora: A Greek word used for the Eucharistic Prayer — a prayer of thanksgiving at the heart of the Mass.
Bow or genuflect: Signs of reverence and respect used at various times in the liturgy.
Canon of the Mass: The heart of the Mass, also called the “Eucharistic Prayer” or the “anaphora.”
Creed: A normative summary of the basic beliefs of Christians, exemplified in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.
Deacon: Third degree of Holy Orders, directed primarily to the ministry of service.
Kyrie, Eleison: The Greek words for “Lord, have mercy.”
Sanctuary: A holy place in church where the altar, ambo, presider’s (and deacon’s) chair(s) are placed.
Tabernacle: A receptacle where the consecrated Eucharist is reserved for ministry to the sick and dying and for private adoration. The tabernacle may be placed behind the main altar or in a chapel where the faithful may pray privately and give adoration.
Unleavened bread: Bread made without raising agents, used at Mass in the Roman Catholic Church.
Vestments: Garments worn by a Church minister during the performance of an official liturgical act. At Mass, the presider wears an outer garment, called a chasuble, and an inner garment made of white cloth, called an alb. In addition, he wears a stole, the symbol of his spiritual authority. Different color chasubles and stoles are worn depending on the liturgical season or occasion celebrated.