As a Roman Catholic, I have the obligation to attend mass on Sundays, and the privilege of attending mass every day of the week if I so choose. Every day all around the world, Latin Catholic parishes offer the sacrifice of the mass. My local parish of St Fiacre’s Leichhardt is no exception.
The sacrifice of the mass is as mysterious to outsiders today as it was 2000 years ago. Rumours of Catholics engaging in cannibalism have proliferated down through history to the present day, as tales of the faithful “eating flesh” and “drinking blood” on Sundays are whispered among those who are not on the inside of this the worlds biggest cult.
But what actually happens behind the doors of a Catholic church during mass?
The Divine Liturgy
Catholics have a very high view of liturgy. Liturgy is basically whatever a group of people does when they come together. Buddhists have liturgy, Muslims have liturgy, Christians have liturgy. However unlike their evangelical brethren – whose liturgy might simply consist of singing a couple of songs, passing around the collection plate and listening to a painfully long sermon – Catholics consider their liturgy to be inspired and literally the Word of God. Catholics believe that God the Holy Spirit is active during the liturgy and divinely reveals himself through the prayers and movements.
When asked why we should believe that the bible is inspired and that God speaks through it, evangelical Christians never have a good response. They are generally brought up to believe in the inspiration of scripture as axiomatic, something not to be questioned or doubted. When pushed on this point, some evangelicals end up apostatising as they realise that “their house is built on sand”, which is to say that their faith has absolutely no rational, reasonable, logical grounding, instead resting entirely on blind faith.
Not so with the Catholic! When a Catholic is asked why the bible is inspired, he can confidently respond with “Because we read it during the liturgy, and if the liturgy is inspired then the bible is too.” Why is the liturgy inspired? That’s a question for another time, but let it be said that the answer is closely related to the holy tradition of the apostolic succession of bishops that stretches back in time all the way to the apostles and the Godman, Jesus Christ himself.
So what is the liturgy, often referred to as “the mass” all about? What actually happens?
The first thing to be grappled with when entering into a mass is the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar determines which prayers are to be said on any given day, which portions of scripture are to be read, which psalms are to be recited, as well as the liturgical colours that the priest must wear and the church must be decorated with. Every little detail of the mass is scripted out according to the particular day and liturgical season.
Today just so happens to be the first Sunday of the season of Advent, according to the Novus Ordo Latin Liturgical Calendar. As such the priest wore purple vestments, and certain parts of the church were decorated in purple.
Leichhardt parish is run by the Capuchin Friars. The Capuchins are a group of monks in the Franciscan “mendicant friar” tradition. Mendicant friars are essentially monks who live in the towns and cities, ministering to the average citizens and the poor. In comparison to this there are the “Cloistered monks”, who are monks that isolate themselves from the world, living either in solitude as hermits or in community with each other in monasteries, where they pray all day long.
St Fiacre’s Leichhardt does not have a choir or organ, and musical accompaniment to the mass is provided by members of the Neo-Catechumenal way with guitars and singing (The Neo-cats are another recently formed subgroup within Catholicism who have adopted a somewhat more Charismatic approach to the faith).
Catholics who adhere to “traditionalist” strands of Catholicism often object to the presence of guitars during the liturgy, claiming that it detracts from the reverence and sacredness appropriate to such an important event. There is a cultural battle being waged within the church between the Charismatic and Traditionalist parties for control of the mass, with many Catholic publications labelling the situation as a “crisis”. The traditionalists want to see more Latin, more Gregorian chant, a return of the organ. The Charismatics want to see more English, more modern music, drums and guitars, less scripted movements and more spontaneous prayers.
Aside from the presence of guitars, and a distinct lack of Latin during the liturgy, St Fiacre’s strikes me as a more conservative, traditional parish.
The Liturgy Begins
As the clock strikes 9:30am, some small hand held bells are shaken as a signal that the mass has begun. Everyone stands up as the priest walks up to the altar, and the entire church recites what is called the “Entrance Antiphon”; a short extract from the psalms. Today this was from Psalm 24:1-5:
To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame.
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.
After this, once the priest has taken his position before the altar, he recites the Trinitarian formula “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and makes the sign of the cross with his hand. The congregation follows his motions and at the conclusion of the gesture respond with “Amen”.
The priest continues:
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
To which the people simultaneously and cheerfully respond:
And with your spirit!
The priest goes on:
Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.
This is followed by 15 seconds of silence, during which it is expected that everyone attempts to bring to mind their failings and imperfections over the past week, so as to bring them to God and ask for forgiveness.
Eventually the silence is broken as the priest intones the first words of an ancient prayer, the confiteor. The congregation joins in and together everyone recites:
I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
at this point everyone strikes their chest three times in coordination with the words that follow:
through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
After this, the priest delivers what is called a “general absolution” as he says
May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.
And the congregation responds with “Amen”.
After this, the most ancient part of the liturgy is recited, the Kyrie. The priest chants “Lord, have mercy” and the congregation mirrors his words. He then chants “Christ have mercy” and once again the congregation repeats the invocation. Finally he again chants “Lord, have mercy” and once again the congregation returns the same phrase back to him.
The introduction of the liturgy is concluded with what is called a “collect”. The priest says “Let us pray.” and then follows this with a prayer which is unique to that day of the liturgical year. On this particular day, the first Sunday of Advent, the prayer read as follows:
Grant your faithful, we pray; almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Immediately the congregation says “Amen” and everyone returns to a sitting posture.
The Liturgy of the Word
At this point what is known as the Liturgy of the Word begins. This is the part of the mass where sections of scripture are read, psalms are prayed and the homily is delivered. This is the part of the mass which imparts inspiration to scripture. If not for this part of the mass, the bible would just be another book. But instead, by virtue of the fact that scripture is read during this section of the liturgy, all of scripture is considered to be inspired.
On a Sunday, there is one Old Testament reading, one New Testament reading, a psalm, and a section from one of the four Gospels. The readings today were Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 24:4-14, 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2 and finally some sections from Luke 21.
After each reading, the reader (sometimes called a “lector”) pronounces “The word of the Lord” to which the congregation responds “Thanks be to God”. After the Gospel reading, the congregation instead responds with “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ”
The congregation sits during the readings, but stands for the Gospel reading, and prior to commencing the reading everyone makes what is known as the “Solemn sign of the cross”. This is a threefold cross motion where you first cross your forehead with your thumb, then cross your lips, then cross your heart. It is a more intense version of the usual sign of the cross.
For the Psalm today, the guitarist set the psalm to music by strumming a Spanish tune and singing the words. The congregation entered into the “Call and response”, reciting the response line at the appropriate intervals.
After all of these readings and liturgical songs, everyone takes their seat as the priest mounts the pulpit to deliver a short homily.
Catholic Sunday homilies typically only last for 15 minutes, which is a stark contrast to the 40-60 minute sermons that are heard in evangelical communities. Today’s homily was about the true meaning of Christmas, and how the modern secular world has completely distorted the ancient holiday into an excuse to engage in an orgy of materialistic spending.
Once the homily had concluded, the priest resumed his throne behind the altar and silently sat, allowing the congregation to spend some time praying and processing what had been said.
After a short time, the priest rose from his seat and launched into the Apostles creed, with the congregation following along:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
After this, a member of the congregation ascended the pulpit and started reciting prayerful petitions, asking God’s favour for the parish, the church, the poor and suffering and the world. As she concluded, the liturgy of the word was brought to an end.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist
At this point we arrived at the heart of the liturgy. It has attracted many names throughout history, including “The Lord’s supper” and “The heavenly banquet”. This is the core of the mass. It is supposedly exactly equivalent to the moment where Christ offers himself to the father for the sins of the world, thus securing the salvation of the entire cosmos. If you go to church and witness the Liturgy of the Eucharist, it is helpful to understand the significance of what you are looking at: you are beholding the salvation of the cosmos, before your very eyes you are seeing it happen and the drama is unfolding in front of you on the altar.
The priest whispers some quiet prayers (which are otherwise spoken audibly if you attend a weekday mass) and then addresses the congregation:
Pray; brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.
To which the congregation in perfect unison responds:
May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.
The priest continues:
Accept, we pray; O Lord, these offerings we make, gathered from among your gifts to us, and may what you grant us to celebrate devoutly here below gain for us the prize of eternal redemption. Through Christ our Lord.
And the people all say “Amen”.
At this point the mass enters into the Eucharistic prayer; the most ancient part of the liturgy, stretching all the way back to St Peter himself.
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right and just.
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.
For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.
And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
At this point the entire congregation kneels, as the priest enters into the Canon of the mass, the most important prayer of the entire proceedings, which is believed to have the power to change the essence of the bread and wine on the altar into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.
To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord: that you accept and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices, which we offer you firstly for your holy catholic Church. Be pleased to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her throughout the whole world, together with your servant Francis our Pope and Anthony our Bishop, and all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith.
Remember, Lord, your servants and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them: for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to you, the eternal God, living and true.
In communion with those whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ, and blessed Joseph, her Spouse, your blessed Apostles and Martyrs, Peter and Paul, Andrew, and all your Saints; we ask that through their merits and prayers, in all things we may be defended by your protecting help.
Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family; order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.
Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:
TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND EAT OF IT, FOR THIS IS MY BODY, WHICH WILL BE GIVEN UP FOR YOU.
After invoking these words, the priest picks up the wafer and holds it above his head for the congregation to worship and adore, because it is believed that with these words, the bread is no longer bread: it has become the very body of Jesus himself. God in the flesh, dwelling among us.
The priest then drops the Eucharist back onto the altar and falls down in worship. The congregation follows suit.
When the priest rises, he continues the long and lofty prayer:
In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands, and once more giving you thanks, he said the blessing and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying:
TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND DRINK FROM IT, FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD, THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT, WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS. DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.
Once again the priest holds up the chalice that earlier contained wine, now believed to have literally become the blood of Jesus. The entire congregation silently adores and worships for a short time, before the priest returns the chalice to the altar and prostrates, with the congregation following in the motion.
When the priest rises, he intones the words “The mystery of faith” and the congregation responds with
Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free.
The priest returns to the long canon prayer:
Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension in o heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord, we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.
Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim. In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.
To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, and all your Saints; admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon, through Christ our Lord. Through whom you continue to make all these good things, O Lord; you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them, and bestow them upon us.
The priest then picks up both the chalice and the Eucharist and holds one above the other as he recites:
Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.
This is followed by what is called the great amen. The entire congregation does a long, loud, triumphant, drawn out “Amen”.
The priest returns the Eucharist and the chalice to the altar and invites the congregation to recite the lords prayer.
Once this is completed, the priest commands the congregation to give each other the sign of peace. At this point everyone turns to their neighbour and shakes their hand or performs some other friendly gesture, while saying “Peace be with you”.
Soon after this, the priest launches into the agnus dei, another ancient prayer, and the congregation joins in:
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, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
Everyone kneels once again, as the priest breaks the large Eucharistic host in half and holds it up for all to see, saying:
Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.
To which the congregation responds by beating their chests and reciting the prayer of the centurion:
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
At this point the priest consumes the Eucharist, confirming that the sacrifice has been accomplished.
Music is performed as everyone lines up to receive their own portion of the Eucharist. It is a very serious and reverent moment, as the devout congregation believes that they are truly and legitimately eating God.
Once everyone has returned to their seats, the priest enters into the concluding rites:
Let us pray:
May these mysteries, O Lord, in which we have participated, profit us, we pray, for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures. Through Christ our Lord.
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
May almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Go forth, the Mass is ended.
Thanks be to God.
And with these words, the Divine liturgy comes to a close and the parishioners slowly pack up and filter out, ready to get on with the rest of their Sunday.
So what actually happened? In essence, the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was offered up to God the Father by God the Son, and the entire congregation was drawn into this movement by the work of God the Holy Spirit. The Priest served as Christ’s physical hands during the liturgy, and returned to being just another bloke once the liturgy had concluded. Blood was drunk, flesh was eaten, under the form of Bread and Wine. Salvation was sought, salvation was given. The entire cosmos was redeemed and saved.
All things come together during the mass. It is the pinnacle and turning point of history, where before we were falling head first into Hell, now we are flying at full speed towards Heaven. How great it is to witness the securing of salvation before you eyes. What a beautiful blessing. It’s a wonderful experience if you appreciate it, and I highly recommend it to everyone.
Alex is a Bishop, Heretic, Prophet, Priest, Apostle and ASM (Ascended Spiritual Master). On his good days he is often also the one true God almighty incarnate. He enjoys writing theology and philosophy articles and spreading the Gospel promise of Universal Salvation