Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

Stay with us, Lord, on our journey

Together at Mass

Together at Mass 1



Major works will soon be started on our church building, the place of our weekly assembly, to make it safe and secure for the future, to make it more easily accessible for all, to enhance its beauty, and overall to make sure it will continue to be a fit and welcoming place for us, and for those who will come after us, to worship God.  

But it is not only buildings that need to be renovated.  We too, who   assemble week after week for Mass, need from time to time to refresh ourselves, to reflect together on what we are doing, and to ponder ways of improving our Sunday liturgy.  

It stands to sense, then, that this time of repair and renovation of our church building should also be a time for us, the church community, to make sure that our regular celebration of Mass should be carried out with proper understanding and full participation, as well as with joy, dignity and respect.  

Hence the invitation to give some time over the next few weeks, to read, reflect and talk about the Mass. The importance of this venture will lie, not so much in our learning anything startlingly new, but rather in the spirit of doing this as a shared activity, so that together we may deepen our appreciation of the liturgy of the Mass. By doing so, may we strengthen and broaden our participation, especially in our regular Sunday parish celebrations

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“From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name”

(Third Eucharistic Prayer)      


A good starting point for us will be to see how, from age to age, the Mass has been celebrated. What follows is a very brief sketch of the history of the Mass. Though grossly incomplete, it serves as a reminder to us that the Mass has always been the same in essence, while in some outward aspects there have been changes.



The celebration of the Eucharist through the ages


AD 30 The Last Supper & the first generation

The Gospels tell us of the institution of the Eucharist when, on the night before he died “Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying: ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’. And likewise the cup after supper, saying: ’This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’.”

Then, in the Acts of the Apostles we read how the celebration of the Eucharist is at the very heart of the first Christian Community: “They remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers”.

Already the characteristics we know are very clear — the word of the apostles — the sense of community — the meal of commemoration — the sharing in prayer.


AD 100 — 300 The early Church

During these years of growth Mass was held mainly in people’s homes or, in times of persecution, in the catacombs. During these years the celebration was kept very simple, and the language was the language of the people—ie the vernacular.


We have a lovely description of the Mass in the second century from St. Justin:

“On Sunday, all gather together for a communal celebration. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read… After the reader has finished, the one presiding gives an address … (relating) these beautiful teachings to their lives. Then all stand up and recite prayers. … Bread and wine mixed with water are brought forward and the president offers prayers and thanksgivings and the people join in with an ‘Amen’. … Then follows the distribution to all … and the deacons take a portion to those who are absent. … After, those who can afford it, give what they can … and the collection is left with the president to help orphans and widows … (and all those in need).”

Again we can see the pattern we know today: the Sunday celebration —  readings from scripture — homily — prayers of the faithful — Eucharistic Prayer, holy communion (also taken to the sick) — collection to help the poor.



AD 300 — 800 The Christian Empire

After the conversion of Constantine, came a rapid growth in numbers, though not always with much understanding or conviction in matters of faith. Mass was now celebrated in large buildings modelled on the king’s halls (‘basilicas’).

Many outward signs of reverence and respect, such as bowing,  processions, genuflections, which were already part of secular court life, were introduced into the Mass to show reverence for our Lord in the Eucharist.

Also introduced during this period was the use of candles and incense to add even further  solemnity to the celebration. The Gregorian plain chant (so-called after Pope Gregory the Great d.604) became the accepted music of the liturgy.

This period saw the growth of solemnity and development of rich ceremonial in the celebration of the Mass.



c.800 — 1500 The medieval Period

A time of massive spread from the great basilicas and cathedrals to smaller parish churches. Latin became the language of the liturgy everywhere. Rites became even more elaborate. Since priests were the only ones who knew the rites and the language, they carried out every part of the ceremony and the people became more and more like spectators.

Communion was received less frequently. Emphasis was given to devotion to the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and to exposition and benediction. Altar rails were introduced, separating the people from the altar. The Mass was seen increasingly as the ceremony of making Christ present to be adored, rather than to be received. In response the rule was made in 1215 that everyone should receive at least once a year as a minimal sign of belonging.

This period saw a growth in a sense of awe, mystery and reverence. It also saw many signs of poor understanding, superstition, and bad practice that needed to be corrected. There was real need for reform.


c. 1500 — 1900 A period of Reform and stability

The Council of Trent (1545-63) was the great reforming council called to counter the many problems of the Protestant Reformation.  Amongst its reforming works were those which clearly formulated Catholic understanding of the Mass, and firmly regulated the way in which Mass was to be celebrated.

The new Roman Missal, for universal use, was published in 1543. Emphasis was put on uniformity; the priest was told exactly how to celebrate Mass through a continuous stream of rubrics (instructions in the missal printed in red ).

The Mass was recognisably the same throughout the world, and stayed so for the next 400 years. The reforms brought great stability to the celebration of Mass and sacraments and fostered real growth. However, they still left the priest acting in isolation from the people. At best, they ‘followed’ what he did.



The 20th Century—A time of growth and renewal

The reforms which came from the Council of Trent brought about great stability, but left areas of concern.  The role of the people at Mass was still very passive; very few people received holy communion more than once a year; the use of Latin had many qualities, but it did not enhance popular involvement.

Many popes had tried to persuade people to participate more in the liturgy, and to receive holy communion more frequently, but without success.  Then, slowly, throughout the last century some changes began to emerge:


St. Pius X in 1903 stressed that the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit is active participation in the Mass, especially by sharing in holy communion. In 1910 he reduced the age for first communion from about 12/13 to about 7/8. To help break away from receiving communion only once a year, he  encouraged confraternities whose members would receive communion on a fixed Sunday of each month. These were very successful.


Pius XI repeatedly wrote about the importance of active participation in the liturgy; take this for example, written in 1928: “It is most important that when the faithful assist at the sacred ceremonies, … they should not be merely detached and silent spectators.”


Pius XII in 1947 wrote a famous encyclical about the liturgy, called “Mediator Dei”. He insisted on a proper balance between external rites and ceremonies and internal attitudes of prayer and attention. He ended with an exhortation to “strive earnestly to bring about a close union of mind and heart between clergy and the people, that the faithful may take so active a part in the liturgy that it becomes really a sacred action in which both priest and people join in offering to Almighty God the worship which is his due.”

It was Pius XII who made the initial changes to long-standing traditions. During the 1950’s he restored the full celebration of the Easter Vigil, changed the fasting from midnight to a three-hour fast, and gave permission for evening Mass. In all that he did he was concerned to foster a deep devotion to and active participation in the liturgy which he described as “the whole public worship of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, Head and members”.


The Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1958 gave a further instruction on the same lines. Very firmly it stated that “the Mass, by its very nature, requires that all those who are present should take part in it in the manner which pertains to them.”


The Liturgical Movement: Encouraged by these papal decrees, and enlightened by  new and deeper studies of the liturgy, there was a widespread development in the middle of the century of the liturgical movement. It sought to promote spiritual renewal within the Church through more active participation in the liturgy. The papal pronouncements had encouraged this, but the rites themselves, as they were, did not easily allow for the people to be as involved in the celebration of the Mass as they should be.


The scene was set for the work of the Second Vatican Council.