Understanding the Mass

"[T]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord's supper." - Sacrosanctum Concillium, Constitution of the Second Council of the Vatican on the Sacred Liturgy

The Sacred Liturgy, also called the Mass, is the principal action of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Liturgy, we follow Jesus' command to celebrate His Last Supper "in memory of Me," offering bread and wine which becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus--the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. This offering, the memorial of Jesus' saving sacrifice on "the altar of the Cross," is the central action and aspect of our lives of faith, and the primary way Catholics worship God. It is also why the Mass is called the Holy Sacrifice; the changing of the offered bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus makes His sacrifice of 2000 years ago really and truly present to us now.

The word "liturgy" comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which means "work of the people" or "public service." Christians are called to live the faith in all aspects of life, not just privately, and this is exemplified by coming together as a community in the Liturgy. The term “Mass” comes from the Latin word missa which means “sending.” The Liturgy has this name because it concludes with sending forth the faithful (Ite, missa est, translated "Go forth, the Mass is ended") to bring the Good News of Jesus to others and to be His presence in the world (the word "mission" also comes from missa). The Mass is also a time to give God thanks and praise for all His gifts to us, a thanksgiving that culminates in the offering of the bread and wine of the Eucharist (which comes from the Greek word eukharistia, meaning “thanksgiving”).

"On the day we call the sun's day, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place. ...Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and for a considerable time he gives thanks that we have been judged worthy of these gifts." - First Apologia of Saint Justin Martyr, written around A.D. 155

The Mass has been celebrated since the earliest days of the Church, and continues to be celebrated in churches and chapels throughout the world; practically every hour of every day, the Mass is being celebrated somewhere. In accordance with God's command to "remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy," all Catholics are obilged to particpate in the Mass on all Sundays, and on certain other specified days of the year (no more than six in number in the United States) called Holy Days of Obligation. However, Catholics may, and do, participate in the Mass on a more frequent, or even daily, basis to continually honor and praise God and to unite in prayer with other members of the Church. The celebration of Mass is the foundation for both the individual believer and the Church as a whole. Participation in the gift of the Eucharist feeds, transforms, and heals us in our faith journey. Through the Liturgy, and especially through Holy Communion, Jesus empowers us to go forth and continue His saving ministry in our daily lives. We become more centered on God and on the mystery of God’s unconditional love for us through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

The Sacred Liturgy has four parts:

  1. the Introdcutory Rites, in which we greet each other in the name of the Trinity, acknowledge our sins, ask God's mercy, praise His glory, and prepare to listen to God's word;
  2. the Liturgy of the Word, in which we hear the Sacred Scriptures read, a Psalm sung, and the Gospel proclaimed, listen to the priest or deacon preach on the meaning of the Gospel in our lives and in today's world, profess our one shared faith according to the ancient formula of either the Nicene or Apostles' Creed, and offer our prayers for the Church, for our community, for the world and for the dead;
  3. the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in which we bring forward the bread and wine, God changes the substance of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus through the actions of the priest-celebrant in the Eucharistic Prayer, we pray the Lord's Prayer ("Our Father") together and offer each other a sign of peace, we acknowledge the Presence of Jesus on the altar, and then we come forward to receive Him in Holy Communion; and
  4. the Concluding Rites, in which we receive the blessing of the Trinity from the priest-celebrant, and are sent forth "to love and serve the Lord." 

In Masses that do not take place on a Sunday or a Holy Day of Obligation, the Introductory Rites and the Liturgy of the Word may be abbreviated, depending on the type of day or feast being celebrated. For more information on types of days, see our pages on the Liturgical Calendar

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