Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

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Together at Mass

Together at Mass 2

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65)

Throughout the whole of the twentieth century pope after pope had spoken and written about the liturgy, seeking to foster greater participation of all in the celebration of Mass and of the sacraments. The problem was that the rites as we had them simply did not allow for much participation. It was not just a question of the use of Latin, which excluded many people from the texts; the rites themselves were in many cases complex, obscure and in need of reform.

Note the intention of the Bishops in the Council’s reform of the liturgy: “In order that the Christian people may more securely derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. … In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things they signify. Christian people, as far as possible, should be able to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.”

Hence the Council decreed: “The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of the several parts, as also the connection between them, can be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation can be more easily accomplished.”

Pope Paul VI promulgated the new Roman Missal in April 1969. He wrote: “No one should think that this revision of the Roman Missal has been suddenly accomplished”. It came as the result of a long process of development. It’s purpose was not to make the Mass ‘more interesting’ or ‘entertaining’, but to open up the abundance of grace which flows from participation in the liturgy.



Where did the word “Mass” come from?

In days gone by it has been known as the ‘Lord’s Supper’, the ‘breaking of bread’, the ‘Sunday Assembly’ or the ‘Eucharist’. The most precious activity in which we are privileged to engage has been described in many ways, but the word Mass is the one that has come down to us and is the universally recognised  name for what we do on Sunday. Yet it had strange origin.


It came into existence when the people had hardly any involvement at all in what was happening  in church. The ceremony was in Latin, a language the people did not understand, and was mostly spoken by the priest in silence, as he stood with his back to the people, carrying out the sacred actions. Not only could they not hear or understand what was being said, very often they could not see either. The cathedrals and many churches had choir-stalls which screened the clergy from the laity, and sometimes they would have a rood screen cutting the people off from the area of the altar, or the sanctuary .


The people could not see, they could not hear, they could not understand; they stayed on and said their own prayers, waiting until they were told that the act of worship had ended and it was time to leave. That was one expression they did hear and  understand: the deacon would sing out in a loud voice “Ite, missa est” and then the people would go home with those words ringing in their heads. “Ite, missa est” - “Go, it is the missa”  - the “dismissal” or the “sending out”. Gradually they began to use the word for the whole service—the Missa or Mass.




This is the sort of music to which the deacon would have sung “Ite, missa est”.

It is the Plain Chant, or Gregorian Chant, which has been the main music of the Mass since the seventh century until recent years, a tremendously rich heritage which we should not allow to disappear.

You do not need to be able to read music to recognise how rich a flow of sound would have floated over the congregation at the end of the service, and to which they would have joined in the response: “Deo gratias” - “thanks be to God”. Not surprising that it stayed with them when they went off home. A humble origin, yes indeed; but a word that is now precious to Catholics everywhere—the Mass.




What about the word “liturgy”?

Where does that come from?

It comes from two Greek words “laiton” (belonging to the people - laos), and “ergon” (a work or service). Quite literally it means “work of the people”, and  refers to the public and official prayers and rites of the Church. Essentially it means that the formal worship of the Church is never the work of any individual, but is an activity of the whole Church, laity and clergy alike and together.

Now that has not always been our perception of the Mass,  Just think of the  words we have used, like ‘going to Mass’, or ‘attending’, ‘hearing’, ‘following’ the Mass. They could be used of going to the cinema; they leave people in a  passive role. As for the priest, he was (and sometimes is still) referred to as ‘saying’ or ‘offering’ the Mass, as though it was his work alone that mattered.

But far from being the action only of one priest or even a few specially ordained persons, liturgy is always a public act, an act of the entire People of God, an act of the whole Church. And since the Church is the Body of Christ, its liturgy is an act of Christ himself and of all his members, united in worship of Abba, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who is lovingly close to us as to him.



Let’s Celebrate

So how can we better describe our shared participation in the Mass?

A useful word here is ‘celebrate’. We often speak of the celebration of Mass, and refer to the priest as the celebrant. But, although he has an irreplaceable role in the Mass, he does not celebrate alone. Together we are celebrating God’s love for us, given in and through Jesus Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit. And together we are celebrating our acceptance of his love with our response to him in love and trust and hope. Together, through Christ and with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, we are celebrating his sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.

In our everyday experience of celebrations, such as weddings, birthdays, and so on, there are usually some sort of rituals, such as sending cards, sharing food and drink, offering gifts, eating a cake, drinking a toast. Through such rituals people express their sharing in the meaning of the occasion and also their solidarity with others in what is being celebrated. Rituals are important. But it is also important that the people involved in the celebration really want to take part in it, that their heart is in it. Otherwise, the cards and gifts will be expressions of convention rather than of true sentiment; the meal will be simply food not fellowship; the sharing of a toast no more than just another drink. In such a situation not only are the accepted rituals emptied of meaning; they can become signs of hypocrisy.

Then there is a  need to be familiar with the event being celebrated and with the story of which it is a part. At a birthday party, the better you know the story of the person whose birthday it is, and the more your own life is touched by that person, the more that birthday may be a cause of genuine celebration. Knowing the story and cherishing the story, these are very important elements of celebrating. A total stranger might enjoy the meal and the sense of occasion, but would not be able truly to enter into the heart of the celebration.



The shape of the Mass

It is quite easy for someone to attend Mass time and again without thinking about the basic ‘shape’ of the Mass. We can readily pass from one part to another without averting to its place within the structure of the Mass as a whole, and without recognising the connection between this and other parts of the celebration.


Remember, one of the chief aims of the revision of the rite of the Mass was so “that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, can be more clearly manifested”. To know what you are doing and where you are going is already a great help to participation.

The General Instruction of the new Roman Missal outlines the structure of the Mass as follows: “Although the Mass is made up of the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic Liturgy, the two parts are so closely connected as to form one act of worship. The table of the Lord is the table of God’s word and of Christ’s body, and from it the faithful are instructed and     refreshed. In addition, the Mass has introductory and concluding rites”.

This gives us the basic structure of the Mass as illustrated here. It is desirable, and will be helpful, to examine the ‘nature and purpose’ of each part in turn and to reflect on our own parish practice.




To ponder and to discuss

Many people had the impression that the Second Vatican Council’s reforms of the liturgy had come ‘right out of the blue’. Did you know of the many years of slow development in liturgical matters before the Vatican Council began its work? Does the ‘bit of history’ help understanding? Have you gained anything from it?

Does the concept of ‘celebrating’ the Mass offer anything new? Is there anything we can learn from our everyday celebrations that can enrich our participation in the Mass - e.g. being familiar with the rituals, desire to engage, being an insider to the story? What do we mean by the ‘story’ in relation to the Mass?

Look at the parts of the Mass in the above diagram, and see if you can list the  various elements contained within each part, including those elements which make up each of the three parts of the of the Eucharistic liturgy.