Answers to Questions about the Sacred Liturgy
The Holy Mass
In the Mass, the mystery of our Redemption is renewed. The Redemption is the act by which Jesus Christ restored our fallen human race to a state of friendship with God. Our Lord redeemed us when he offered himself on the Cross as a sacrifice for our sins, and thus opened the possibility of salvation for us. Like any sacrifice, the Mass is offered for four ends or purposes: to adore God, to thank him for his blessings, to ask him for what we need, and to beg pardon for our sins. The Mass may be offered for the people, both living and dead; the Mass may be offered in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints; but the Mass, as an act of adoration, is offered to God alone. An important distinction!
Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Mass on the occasion of the Last Supper, on the night before he died. The sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross and the sacrifice of the Mass are one and the same, because in each it is the same priest who offers the sacrifice (Jesus Christ) and the same perfect victim that is offered (again, Jesus Christ: truly present in the Eucharist – with his Body, his Blood, his Soul and his Divinity). Of course Our Lord Jesus Christ offered himself once and for all on the Cross: the Mass is not a repetition of the sacrifice of the Cross but rather renews this sacrifice in an unbloody manner. It is only an outward difference.
This sacrifice does not exist in a void, but is encased in a beautiful progression of ceremonies called the rite or liturgy of the Mass. Everything in the rite of Mass raises our minds and hearts to these heavenly realities. (To be continued …)
In the Old Covenant (Judaism), God himself prescribed the ceremonies that were to be used in offering the various sacrifices and regulated the details related to the Temple and the sacred vessels, the vestments of the high priest, and so on. In the New Covenant (Christianity), God has left the arrangement of such details to the Church he founded. Thus, over time the Church has implemented various ceremonies – or rites – to accompany the sacrifice of the Mass and to underline its dignity and importance. As Christianity spread to different regions, the early Christian communities, whilst always following more or less the same basic structure in the celebration of Mass, developed different ceremonies and liturgical customs. Neighbouring cities often adopted the liturgical customs of the more important regional centres like Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. This is the origin of the different rites used in the Church today: the Roman rite, the Byzantine rite, and so on. Regardless of the ceremonies used, however, the heart of every Mass is the consecration of the bread and the wine, which then become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Mass consists of a preparatory service of prayers and readings (called the Mass of the Catechumens, because in the early Church the catechumens, those who had not yet been baptised could attend only this first part) and then the Eucharistic sacrifice itself (called the Mass of the Faithful), consisting of three essential parts: the Offertory, the Consecration and the Communion. This is the same general structure of every Mass, regardless of the rite being followed.
Drawing upon customs sanctioned by the early popes, the basic form of the Roman Mass was well established by the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604), before being embellished in succeeding centuries, especially at the time of Charlemagne (circa 800). In the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, the Church naturally wished to take special care to guarantee that the sacred liturgy should be celebrated with all due reverence and devotion. In order to correct liturgical abuses, in 1570 Pope St. Pius V published a purified version of the Roman missal (the book containing the prayers of the Mass). Hence the traditional Latin Mass is sometimes – though not entirely accurately – called the ‘rite of St. Pius V’ or the ‘Tridentine Mass’. The word Tridentine comes from the Latin version of the name for Trent, a city in northern Italy. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) met in order to clarify and reiterate Catholic doctrine in the wake of the Protestant revolution of the sixteenth century, as well as to address legitimate practical concerns that had arisen. We must emphasise that the so-called Tridentine missal was not created by the Council of Trent or by St. Pius V but is really much older. The Mass contained in the missal of St. Pius V is simply the Mass as it had been celebrated for many centuries in the papal court at Rome and in the places evangelised by Roman missionaries. The Tridentine reform merely codified the existing liturgy, whose prayers and ceremonies had developed slowly since the time of the first Christians.
The traditional Latin Mass has thus been handed down to succeeding generations of Catholics by popes and saints from the very mists of Christian antiquity. The word ‘traditional’ comes from the Latin word tradere, ‘to hand on,’ and so the traditional Latin Mass is quite simply the form of Mass that has been handed on to us by our ancestors in the faith who have celebrated this Mass the way it developed centuries ago in Rome, at the heart of Christendom. This timeless liturgy is a precious reminder for us that through all the vicissitudes of history, our Mother the Catholic Church is, like Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.
Historically most major religions have had the practice of reserving a special “sacred” language for divine worship. We ought not to be surprised that the Church uses a sacred language for the holy Mass, instead of necessarily using the modern languages employed by people in their daily life. This is a custom which was already known by the Jews of the Old Covenant and which was accepted by Our Lord and his Apostles. In fact, the Jews of Palestine at the time of Our Lord two thousand years ago had already lost the use of the Hebrew tongue several centuries beforehand, during the Exile in Babylon (sixth century b.c.), and so they used a common dialect called Aramaic in their day-to-day life. Nonetheless, for liturgical worship in the Temple they retained the use of Hebrew.
The early Church did not continue the custom of using Hebrew as the liturgical language because Christianity had now fulfilled the promises of the Old Law and the old Jewish religious practices were henceforth abrogated. Even so, the Church retained the custom of using a dignified language in her services even though it might not be understood perfectly by the people, first Greek then Latin.
As providence led Saint Peter, the first pope, to establish the seat of the Church in Rome, it is understandable that in time Latin, the language of Rome, should become also the language of the Church. The Mass continued to be celebrated in Latin even after the development of modern languages, when Latin was no longer widely spoken.
We can follow the translations in our missals, and it is easy to get used to the general parts of the Mass. The Latin tongue not only unites Catholics of all races and backgrounds, but it also unites us across time with our distant ancestors in the faith.
It is sometimes said that the priest offers the Mass ‘with his back turned to the people,’ but this is rather misleading. In reality, the priest and people turn together in the same direction, looking towards God, represented by the altar cross. This is quite sensible, since the prayers of the Mass are offered to God.
Moreover, the common direction of liturgical prayer unites the priest and people looking symbolically towards the east, the direction from which Christ will return at the end of time. The priest and people look together towards the altar because they are engaged in a common act of worship at holy Mass, each in their own way but closely united to each other.
Whenever the priest addresses the people (usually by saying, Dominus vobiscum, ‘the Lord be with you’), he turns briefly to face the congregation. On the other hand, when he prays to God at the altar in his capacity as the ordained representative of the whole Church, he remains facing towards the altar: like a shepherd leading his flock.
In the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI: “Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue but of common worship, of setting off toward the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement forward, expressed in a common direction for prayer.”
The Liturgical Year
The Church’s year, unlike the civil calendar, begins not with January but with Advent Sunday four weeks before Christmas (between 27th November and 3rd December). The sacred liturgy is the public worship rendered to God by his Church. The liturgy follows a yearly cycle intended to help us participate in the mysteries of Christ and in the glory of his saints. The liturgical year is made up of two parallel cycles: the Temporal Cycle (or ‘Proper of the Time’), which recalls the principal mysteries of Our Lord’s life and mission, and the Sanctoral Cycle (or ‘Proper of the Saints’), which recalls Christ’s triumph through the ages in the holiness of his saints. The major contours of the liturgical year come from the Temporal Cycle, with the feasts of the Sanctoral Cycle being inserted into the liturgical calendar on set dates, like jewels in a crown.
The Temporal Cycle brings before our eyes – and above all to our souls – the mysteries of Christ who became man to save us from our sins and open the way of heaven. Therefore, the liturgical year is divided into two parts dedicated to these two aspects: the ‘cycle of the Incarnation’ (the Christmas cycle), dedicated to the mystery of the taking on of a human nature by the eternal Son of God, and the ‘cycle of the Redemption’ (the Easter cycle), dedicated to the mystery of the restoration of our fallen human race to a state of friendship with God through the triumphant sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Because these sacred mysteries are too profound for us to contemplate all at once, each of these cycles comprises an initial period of preparation and penance, then the celebration of the feast itself, then a season of ‘after’ time that prolongs our recollection of the feast. Thus for the cycle of the Incarnation we have: Advent, Christmas and the Epiphany, and then the time after Epiphany. For the cycle of the Redemption, which by far makes up the major part of the liturgical year, we have: Septuagesima (remote preparation), Lent (proximate preparation) and Passiontide (immediate preparation), Easter followed by the great feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, then the time after Pentecost. The greatest feasts of the year are prolonged by a week of celebration called an octave; certain feasts are preceded by a day of penance called a vigil.
Advent includes four Sundays: if the last Sunday falls on 24th December the office of the Vigil of Christmas replaces that of the Fourth Sunday. The liturgical texts of Advent express a feeling of anticipation, or what might almost be called “holy impatience”. At the beginning of Advent, at the First Vespers of Advent Sunday, the liturgy tells us that “the name of the Lord cometh from afar”. We sense Christ slowly getting closer as the liturgy invites us to adore “the king who is to come” (Matins, first two weeks of Advent) and then tells us, “the Lord is now near” (last two weeks). Finally, just hours away from Christmas, the Introit of the Mass of the Vigil, quoting Exodus, tells us: “This day you shall know that the Lord will come, and save us: and in the morning you shall see His glory.”
Although the penitential character of Advent is not as pronounced as that of Lent, the theme of penance is still present during this season. As during the other periods of the year, the Advent Ember Days (third week of Advent) are traditionally days of fasting, as is the Vigil of Christmas. Violet vestments are worn and flowers do not decorate the altar (except on Gaudete Sunday). The Gloria is not sung at Advent Masses; the joyful Alleluia is still sung on Sundays (unlike in Lent) but it is not recited on weekdays (unlike during the rest of the year). In the final week of Advent, the singing of the Magnificat at Vespers is accompanied by seven very beautiful antiphons (called the Great ‘O Antiphons’), applying to Christ various Old Testament titles for the Messiah. Advent is a reminder for us that the Promised One has truly come, but also that we must prepare for his Second Coming.
At Christmas every priest has the privilege of celebrating three Masses. The first Mass, the Midnight Mass, commemorates the eternal birth of Christ from God the Father. The second Mass, at dawn, commemorates Christ’s birth in time of the Virgin Mary. The third Mass, during the day, commemorates Christ’s birth into our hearts by grace. The first Christmas Mass is celebrated in the midst of the night to show that Christ came to dissipate the darkness of error and to save us from our sins. Like the other great feasts of the liturgical year, Christmas has an octave, a week-long celebration prolonging the feast. All during the Octave, a second Collect is added at Mass (and the liturgical hours of Lauds and Vespers) to commemorate the Octave, and in the Canon of the Mass there is a special version of the prayer called the Communicantes (this happens only on the five greatest feasts of the year), “keeping this most holy day, on which the spotless virginity of blessed Mary brought forth a Saviour to this world.” The three days following Christmas are dedicated to the saints called the comites Christi, or ‘companions of Christ’, who form a sort of honour guard around the crib of the Divine King: S. Stephen the first martyr (a martyr in fact as well as in will), S. John the Evangelist (a martyr in will but not in fact, since he was the only Apostle not to die a martyr’s death – his ancillary feast on 6th May commemorates a failed attempt to kill him in boiling oil!), on whose feast wine is blessed, and the Holy Innocents (who were martyrs in fact but not in will, since they were killed by King Herod at such a young age they did not understand what was happening – the liturgy on their feast rather charmingly sings of ‘first victims of the martyr bands, with crowns and palms in tender hands, around the altar seem to play’).
The greatest feast of the year, the Resurrection of Our Lord, is preceded by a period of preparation called Lent. But in order that the rigours of Lent not come upon us unexpectedly, the Church has wisely instituted a brief liturgical season in order to prepare us for Lent itself: this is the period of Septuagesima. Coming from the Latin word for ‘seventy,’ Septuagesima calls to mind the 70 years the Jews spent in exile in Babylon and reminds us that, before our Risen Lord leads us into our heavenly homeland, we also are living in a land of exile. That is why the singing of the Alleluia, the chant sung eternally by the saints in heaven (cf. Apoc 19:1), is suspended during Septuagesima and Lent, for ‘How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?’ (Ps 136:4). At the end of the First Vespers of Septuagesima the Alleluia is solemnly sung twice; it will not be heard again until Holy Saturday. During this time the Alleluia is therefore replaced, even on feast days, by a text called the Tract at Mass and by the verse ‘praise to Thee, king of eternal glory,’ in the Divine Office. Just as in Advent and Lent, the Gloria in excelsis is omitted at Mass and purple vestments, a sign of penance, are worn. However, in Septuagesima the organ can still be played and flowers still decorate the altar; the deacon and subdeacon at High Mass still wear their dalmatic and tunicle, vestments of joy, instead of the folded chasubles traditionally worn on penitential days. In the readings of the Divine Office, the three weeks of Septuagesima recall the history of Adam, Noah and Abraham, the great patriarchs of the Law of Nature, with whom God made his covenants to prepare the world for the formation of the Chosen People and ultimately for the coming of the promised Messiah, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
A long time ago, when the strict Lenten fast involved total abstinence from all meat, people would ‘ease into’ the Lenten fast during Septuagesima by giving up these goods, before the full fast began on Ash Wednesday. Although the discipline is no longer as strict as in the days of our ancestors, this pre-Lent season still affords us a valuable opportunity to think ahead and make our Lenten resolutions, so that we are not caught off guard on Ash Wednesday.
As Catholics, our greatest treasure is the holy Eucharist: God himself truly present among us under the outward form of bread. Over the course of the centuries, different forms of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament have arisen in the Church, such as Eucharistic processions.
The solemn three-day Adoration known as the Forty Hours Devotion (or in Italian, the Quarant’ore), in honour of the roughly forty hours that the body of Christ lay in the tomb, was started in Milan around the year 1527, as part of a ceremony in reparation for the sins committed during Carnival time (just before Lent many countries observe a period of feasting called Carnival, from the Latin words carne, vale, “goodbye, meat,” in reference to the strict Lenten fast followed by our pious ancestors: in some places unfortunately this legitimate pre-Lent celebration degenerated into a drunken spectacle, and so the Church instituted special prayers of reparation for these excesses). About ten years later the Forty Hours Devotion in more or less the form we now know it seems to have been instated by the Capuchin friar Father Giuseppe da Ferno – although other names have also been suggested – with the Devotion beginning in one church just as it ends in another. In 1575 St. Charles Borromeo laid down guidelines for the celebration of the Forty Hours in his diocese of Milan, and in 1731 Pope Clement XII set down norms for Rome; these are essentially the norms followed throughout the Church today.
Although the Forty Hours is still customary in many places during Carnival just before Lent, this Adoration can be held any time during the year (except the Easter Triduum). Ideally the devotion runs for roughly forty continuous hours, but often the Blessed Sacrament is reposed in the tabernacle at the end of the day if no one is available to watch during the night. Where the full ceremonies are held, the Forty Hours begins and ends with a votive Mass of the Blessed Sacrament, the singing of the Litany of the Saints and a procession. On the second of the three days, a special Mass for Peace is said: the peace of Christendom has always been one of the main intentions of the Church’s prayer during the Forty Hours.
Lent is the season of preparation for Easter. The liturgy refers to the holy exercises of this season as our “Christian warfare” (praesidia militiae christianae), because during this period we devote special attention to fighting against our spiritual enemies, notably our own fallen nature. During this season, the Church particularly recommends the spiritual “arms” of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The Lenten liturgical texts speak constantly of these three pious practices.
Lent includes 40 days of penance, in memory of the 40 days the Lord spent fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry. In fact if we begin on Ash Wednesday, we can count a total of 46 days in Lent, but Sundays, which always call to mind Christ’s Resurrection, are never a day of penance, and so subtracting the six Sundays of Lent brings us back to 40 days of penance.
The liturgy of Lent has certain unique characteristics. Every day of Lent has its own special Mass, whereas on the other ferias of the year (a feria is a day when no feast is celebrated), the Mass of the preceding Sunday is simply repeated. The Lenten Masses tend to have as their theme either penance or the preparation for baptism, since the catechumens who will be baptised at Easter received their final preparation during Lent. In Lent there is a proper Preface for the Mass, which is said even on feast days.
After the final postcommunion prayer at Mass, there is a special additional prayer said over the people, who bow their heads. This prayer is repeated at Vespers. Even when a feast is celebrated during Lent, the feria must always be commemorated at Lauds and Vespers and Mass, and the Gospel from the ferial Mass, when it is not celebrated, is read in the place of the normal Last Gospel (Jn 1:1-14) at the end of feast-day Masses. The penitential aspect of the liturgy, initiated during Septuagesima, is intensified during Lent: the organ is no longer played and flowers no longer adorn the altar. In the Divine Office, additional prayers are added, which are recited kneeling.
The last two weeks of Lent are know as Passiontide: this is the third and final stage of the preparation for Easter that began with Septuagesima and developed with Lent. The spirit of penance in the liturgy or of stripping away intensifies during this time: at Septuagesima purple vestments were introduced and the Gloria in excelsis and Alleluia disappeared from the Mass; with Lent, the organ was silenced and flowers no longer decorate the altar. Now, in this second part of Lent, the joyful Psalm 42 is omitted from the prayers at the foot of the altar, and the Gloria Patri is no longer said at its normal place in Mass (after the Asperges, when the priest washes his hands, etc.). In these last two weeks of Lent, the Lenten Preface is replaced at Mass by the Preface of the Holy Cross (also used on the feasts of the Holy Cross and the Precious Blood), as the thought of Our Lord’s impending sufferings comes to fill our mind. At Vespers we sing the beautiful hymn Vexilla Regis, “the banners of the king go forth,” in honour of the Cross, the victorious standard of Christianity. The most notable feature of Passiontide, however, is the covering of the images in the church: the crucifixes are all covered and, if it is not possible to cover all the images, at least the ones that adorn the altars or serve as a particular focus of devotion, should be covered. In the Middle Ages, this covering was done in some places at the beginning of Lent, and often a giant curtain, the “Lenten veil,” was drawn across the sanctuary during this whole season, to remind us that we have been driven from paradise by Adam’s sin, and it will be reopened to us only by Christ’s victory over sin and death at Easter (in the liturgy the nave, the place where the people sit, represents the Church on earth, and the sanctuary represents heaven). The veiling of the images is also a reference to the Gospel of Passion Sunday: “They therefore took up stones to cast at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out from the temple.” The cross is unveiled liturgically on Good Friday, and the other images are uncovered during the Gloria at the Easter Vigil, as the bells are rung.
During the month of November the liturgical calendar commemorates the feasts of the dedication – or consecration – of three of the great basilicas in Rome. On 9th November we celebrate the dedication feast of the Archbasilica of the Holy Saviour, commonly called Saint John Lateran, after its secondary dedication to S. John the Baptist (the ancient baptistery has been in use since the fourth century). This church is built on the site of the ancient Lateran Palace, given by the Emperor Constantine (who legalised Christianity in a.d. 313) to Pope Saint Sylvester I. The Basilica of the Holy Saviour is actually the “mother church” of the Catholic world, as it is the pope’s cathedral as bishop of Rome. Among its other interesting relics, the church contains the table from the Last Supper. On 18th November we celebrate the consecration of the Basilica of Saint Peter and the Basilica of Saint Paul, where the relics of these two great Apostles are respectively buried. The word basilica means a “royal hall.” Churches with a particular historical or cultural significance can be designated by the pope as “minor basilicas,” but these important churches in Rome are “major basilicas.”
The ceremony for the dedication of a church is one of the most impressive rites in the Catholic liturgy. The bishop blesses the exterior and interior walls with a special holy water called “Gregorian water.” He traces the letters of the Greek and Latin alphabets on the floor of the nave, inscribing them in a giant X-shaped cross of ash. He anoints the walls with chrism in twelve places, in honour of the Apostles, the “pillars” of the Church. Relics of martyrs are entombed in the altar, which itself is anointed with chrism; incense is burnt on the five crosses carved into the surface of the altar in memory the five wounds of Our Lord. A special Mass is then celebrated in the newly dedicated church; the anniversary is commemorated with a feast every year.