A Simple Explanation of the Mass

When a person investigates something that is unfamiliar to him or her, it is possible to over analyze a certain detail or try and ascertain a deeper understanding than is needed at the time. Establishing this generality, the reader must be willing to sacrifice some knowledge of the deeper theology of the Mass knowing that it can be explored further at a deeper time. It would be wise in this regard, when explaining the Mass to a non-Catholic, to establish a connection between what is being done and why it is being done. Here, the reader will find a sacrifice of many heady, theological terms for a very practical comparison of the "what"" and the "why". To set up the foundation of this study, one must consider the divisions of the Mass. The two main divisions are the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. While the organization can be broken down into these separate divisions, it is important to know that they "are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship." [1]

The Liturgy of the Word is the first division that one encounters when participating in the Mass. The order of the Liturgy of the Word is symbolic of salvation history. Starting with the Sign of the Cross, the Christian faithful begin the Mass with the sign of the fullness of God, just as creation itself began. The Penitential Rite follows the Sign of the Cross and is symbolic of reparation for the fall of mankind. The Penitential Rite is a moment where the Christian faithful acknowledge in front of God and the rest of the Church that they have sinned and need God's forgiveness and grace. The Collect, or Opening Prayer, comes next, where the priest "collects" the prayers of the faithful and offers them up to God in one prayer from the Sacramentary[2], ending the Introductory Rites[3] and beginning the Liturgy of the Word.

The first reading from Sacred Scripture is normally from the Old Testament, and is read by a lay person[4] more often than not. Following the Old Testament Reading, a Psalm from the Book of Psalms is either sung or read aloud in a responsorial style where the lay faithful respond with a verse that is indicated at the beginning of the Psalm. Because of the responsorial style, this section of the Liturgy of the Word is called the Responsorial. A second reading, usually from the New Testament, is read on Sundays and other important days like Feast Days[5].

After the homily, there is a transition phase between the two parts of the Mass that includes the Creed, the Prayers of the Faithful (sometimes called the General Intercessions), and the Offertory. The Creed, said generally on the same days that the Church uses both the first and second readings, is the Christian faithful's proclamation of faith where they stand and recite the truths of their Faith. The text of the Creed can be found in many places, including prayer books and websites. The Prayers of the Faithful are designed to present to God the prayer intentions of the whole Church. During the prayers of the faithful, "intercession will be made for Holy Church, for the civil authorities, for those oppressed by various needs, for all mankind, and for the salvation of the entire world."[8] After each general petition[9] is read, the faithful respond with a suitable response, usually, "Lord, hear our prayer." The Christian faithful then sit while the altar is prepared for the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the collection basket for money is handed through the congregation during the offertory. Also during this time, after the faithful have finished giving money, it is presented, along with the bread and wine for the Eucharist, by a few members from the congregation to the ministers. The bread and wine is then prepared for the Eucharistic meal.

Once all is prepared, the Church has already begun the Liturgy of the Eucharist. (Remember that it is one act of worship, not two separate acts.) The priest who is celebrating the Mass begins the Eucharistic prayer. There are eight parts[10] to the Eucharistic prayer that could be dissected and analyzed, but for the sake of this study, the reader will note three important characteristics to the Eucharistic Prayer. The Church 1) thanks God for the blessings he has bestowed on the world, is bestowing on the world, and will bestow on the world, 2) asks for God's help and intercession, and 3) calls down the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine Jesus Christ's Body and Blood. The latter of the three characteristics is the most climactic and important part of the Eucharistic Prayer. During the Eucharistic Prayer, the faithful kneel most of the time because it is the proper respect that they show to their King. After the Eucharistic Prayer is finished, the congregation responds to the whole prayer with "Amen." This is called the Great Amen, because it affirms the whole Eucharistic Prayer and the faithful's participation in the prayer offered to God.

Between the Eucharistic Prayer and the part in the Mass that the Christian faithful may receive Communion, there are four important parts that prepare the community to receive Christ. The first is the Our Father where the Christian faithful join the priest in saying the Our Father. After this, the Sign of Peace is exchanged. While the Sign of Peace can change a little per the custom of the people, in the United States, many people shake hands or give a brief hug to one another and say, "Peace be with you.," as a communal act of unity. The Mass continues next with the Agnus Dei being said or sung. While it can either be said in Latin or the vernacular, it translates as "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world; have mercy of us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world; have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world; grant us peace." The priest then lifts up the Body of Christ and Blood of Christ, what were formally bread and wine,[11] and he invites the congregation to receive their King. The priest consumes the Body and Blood and then the faithful are given the opportunity to receive Communion.

To conclude the Mass, there is a time for meditation after Communion, which is either shared in silence or with a song which directs one's own prayer to focus on God's gift of the Eucharist. The priest then invites the congregation to stand for the final prayer and a blessing by saying, "Let us pray." After this blessing and dismissal, the ministers then exit the worship space (more formally called the "sanctuary") and process out of the Church. At this point, the Mass has ended and the Christian faithful are told to "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."

All of the Mass is believed to re-present Christ's passion and death on the cross. As he poured out everything for mankind, the faithful who are gathered use the Mass to pour out all of themselves in worship of God. All of the actions during the Mass have a reason that is rooted in either Scripture or Tradition, and in a deeper study, one could research the ties the Mass contains to these. In concluding this study, it would be very unwise to neglect the similarities between the Jewish customs and the Catholic Mass; in a practical and spiritual level, the Jewish rites, customs, and beliefs are fulfilled in the rites, customs, and beliefs of the Catholic Church, especially the Mass. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes that "in its characteristic structure the Liturgy of the Word originates in Jewish prayer." [12] The "what and why" is a very easy place to start, but there are multilayered depths to the Mass that can only be explored deeper and deeper with more study and the grace of God.

By Noah Carter ©2006 Catechetics Online. All Rights Reserved.

[1] Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 56 - Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Second Ecumenical Council of Vatican, 4 December 1963
[2] Sacramentary - a standard book used throughout the Catholic Church that contains all of the prayers and actions at Mass for the whole year.
[3] Introductory Rites - a term that refers to the first parts of the Mass before a lector reads from Sacred Scripture, more specifically, the Sign of the cross, Penitential Rite, and Opening Prayer.
[4] Lay - a term that refers to anyone who is a baptized into the Catholic Church, but who has not received Holy Orders (i.e., deacons, priests, bishops, et cetera) or entered a religious community (i.e., nuns and monks). As a group, these members are referred to as the "lay faithful."
[5] Feast Day - a liturgical phrase that refers to the celebration of God, His angels, saints, mysteries, or events.
[6] Only an adult male who has received Holy Orders (a priest, deacon, bishop, et cetera) may proclaim the Gospel during any liturgical celebration.
[7] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1349
[8] Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 53 - Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Second Ecumenical Council of Vatican, 4 December 1963
[9] I.e., "We pray for the Church, Lord, that You will continue to guide Her and sanctify Her so that She is equipped to spread the Gospels to the ends of the earth. We pray to the Lord
" The Christian faithful respond with, "Lord, hear our prayer," or another suitable response.
[10] For further academic study, the reader may investigate the eight parts and their more detailed characteristics: Preface, Acclamation, Epiclesis, Consecration, Anamnesis, Oblation, Intercessions, and Doxology.
[11] After the Eucharistic Prayer, the Christian faithful believe that the bread that is used during the Mass is no longer bread, but the Body of Christ and the wine is now the Blood of Christ. It is never called bread and wine after communion, but is given a suitable name that distinguishes it from regular bread or regular wine.
[12] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1096