The Sacrifice of the Mass

Author: Fr. William G. Most

The Council of Trent taught that the Mass is the same as Calvary, "only the manner of offering being changed" from bloody to unbloody. Similarly Vatican II (On the Liturgy #10) said that the Mass is the renewal of the new covenant.

A sacrifice as Catholics understand it (in contrast to some pagan concepts) has two elements: the outward sign and the interior dispositions. The outward sign is there to express and perhaps promote the interior. Without the interior it would be worthless. Hence God once complained through Isaiah 29:13: "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." We need to take care that we too do not descend into mere externalism, thinking it enough to just make the responses and sing etc.

At the Last Supper, the outward sign was the seeming separation of body and blood, with the two species. This was a dramatized way of saying to the Father: "I know the command you have given me, I am to die tomorrow. Very good, I turn myself over to death - expressed by the seeming separation - I accept, I obey." On the next day He did as He pledged, but then the outward sign was the physical separation of body and blood, while the interior remained the same. In the Mass, by the agency of a human priest who acts "in the person of Christ" (Vatican II, LG # 10) Christ continues and repeats His offering. The external sign is multiplied as many times as there are Masses. But the interior disposition of Christ is not multiplied, it is continued from that with which He died. For death makes permanent the attitude of will with which one leaves this world.

Since the Mass has the same external sign, and the same interior dispositions on the part of Christ, we rightly call it a sacrifice, the continuation of Calvary. It does not need to earn redemption all over - that was done once for all (Hebrews 9:28) by His death. But since the Holiness of God loves everything that is good, and in good order, it pleases Him to have titles or reasons in place for what He will give (cf. Summa I. 19. 5. c). So it pleases Him to have the Mass provide the title for the distribution of what was once for all earned on Calvary.

Catechists often like to use a memory word ACTS to express the dispositions: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication. This is not wrong, but it leaves out the essential disposition, obedience to the Father (Cf. Romans 5:19 and LG #3).

At the Last Supper He ordered, "Do this in memory of me". Since we were not there, He wants us to join our dispositions to His. The great Liturgy Encyclical of Pius XII, Mediator Dei, explains well that the people can be said to exercise their royal priesthood, to offer the Mass with the priest: first, "from the fact that the priest at the altar in offering a sacrifice in the name of all His members, does so in the person of Christ," whose members they are. (Since only the ordained priest acts "in the person of Christ" Vatican II says [LG #10] that the ordained priesthood differs from that of the laity in essence, and not only in degree).

Secondly the people can be said to offer since: "The people join their hearts in praise, petition, expiation and thanksgiving with the prayers or intention of the priest, in fact, of the High Priest Himself, so that in the one and same of offering of the Victim... they may be presented to God the Father "(Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 39:556). Vatican II explains (LG # 10) that this is what it means for them to "offer spiritual sacrifices".

These spiritual sacrifices consist of their obedience to the will of the Father, already carried out, and planned for the future (Cf. LG #34). This includes their works, their bearing the troubles of life, their prayers, their apostolic efforts, their living out the duties of their state in life, even their relaxation of body and mind if all these things are done as part of the Father's plan, to enable them to serve Him better. Jesus Himself spent about 30 out of 33 years in family life, to show how greatly the Father values this if done precisely because it part of His plan. No wonder Paul VI, on Feb. 12, 1966, told the 13th National Congress of the Italian Feminine Center that "marriage is a long road towards sanctification", that is, if one takes everything in it as part of the Father's plan. (To be explained more fully in our section on the Sacrament of Matrimony).

We can call this a royal priesthood, since to live this way is to reign, instead of being a slave to vices ( 2 Peter 2:19). St. Augustine explains this well in his exegesis of Revelation/Apocalypse 20:5-6 (City of God 20:7-9) which tells how the holy ones rise from sin - which is the first resurrection, and reign, by being their own masters, by not consenting to the works of the Beast, the Antichrist and his minions, "but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with Him for that thousand years", i.e., all the time from His ascension to His return at the end.

It would be good to take a moment before each Mass to see what one has to join with the obedience of Christ, soon to be offered on the altar. Then Mass cannot be without meaning; rather, it dominates all of life, for we should bring our past obediences, and look ahead to the obedience of the near future.

We can see easily how Vatican II could call the Mass the renewal of the new covenant: in the making of that new covenant, the essential condition which gave it all its value was obedience, the obedience of Jesus, which is to be re-presented again on the altar, so we may join with it.

It is good to recall too that His Mother shared in this sacrifice by her obedience (cf. our comments on the Third Article of the Creed) on Calvary, and now, as John Paul II taught (Angelus Homily of Feb. 12, 1984) she "is at every altar" because "she was present at the original sacrifice", sharing in it, and now from heaven, she still joins her will to His, as He offers the flesh and blood He received from her.

The graces of the Mass are communicated in accord with how often the Mass is offered for a certain intention, the dispositions of the priest, the dispositions of the faithful who join with him, the dispositions of those for whom it is offered, and God's Providence.

We say we offer the Mass in honor of Our Lady, the angels, particular Saints. In it we thank God for what He has done for them, and for us through them. But we offer the Mass to God alone.

The chief liturgical divisions of the Mass are: the penitential rite, the liturgy of the word, the liturgy of the eucharist, the communion rite, and the concluding rite. For the sacrifice as such, only the double consecration is essential. Hence Pius XII taught, "When the consecration of the bread and wine is validly brought about, the whole action of Christ is actually accomplished. Even if all that remains could not be completed, still, nothing essential would be lacking to the Lord's offering" (Vous nous avez, To the Liturgical Conference of Assisi Sept 22, 1956). Hence the Great Amen is not the offering, it is a sort of extension, to give us further opportunity to join with Christ. The Communion follows up, giving us a share in the Divine Victim as He has commanded.

The Mass brings forgiveness for venial sins for which there is sorrow, and for temporal punishment commonly left over after forgiveness of sins.

Mass may be offered for the living or the dead. Its general benefits go to the whole Church, living and dead. Special benefits are for the priest who offers, and those for whom a Mass is specially offered, and for those who actively participate at the Mass.

In it we recall not only His death, but also His Resurrection, as the Eucharistic Prayer I reminds us.

Even with the changes in the laws, Mass on Sundays and Holyday of Obligation remains an obligation binding under grave sin each time.


Taken from A Basic Catholic Catechism (c) 1990 by William G. Most, Part 12.


Related Q and A

357. What is the Mass?

The Mass is the Sacrifice of the New Law in which Christ, through the ministry of the priest, offers Himself to God in an unbloody manner under the appearances of bread and wine.

(a) The name "Mass" comes from the Latin word Missa meaning dismissal. In the early days of the Church the catechumens were asked to leave after the gospel and sermon were finished. The faithful, however, remained until they were dismissed after the sacrifice was completed. Then, as now, this was done by saying or singing Ite Missa Est. In the course of time the word Missa, or dismissal, was used to designate the entire sacrifice.

358. What is a sacrifice?

A sacrifice is the offering of a victim by a priest to God alone, and the destruction of it in some way to acknowledge that He is the Creator of all things.

(a) By his very nature man wants to adore and thank his Creator. Men mistaken at times about the nature of the true God have offered false worship; but they have always recognized the obligation of adoring the Supreme Being. As far back as the history of man is recorded, there is evidence that men acknowledged their dependence on the Supreme Being by offering sacrifices to Him. (b) Before the coming of Christ, sacrifices were offered to God in many different ways. The patriarchs and Jewish priests at the command of God offered fruits, wine, or animals as victims. Cain, for example, offered fruits; Abel offered some sheep of his flock; Melchisedech offered bread and wine. The destruction of these offerings removed them from man's use and thereby signified that God is the Supreme Lord and Master of the entire created universe and that man is wholly dependent upon Him for everything. Sacrifice, therefore, is the most perfect way for man to worship God.

(c) All these different sacrifices of the Old Law were only figures of the sacrifice which Christ was to make of Himself. His offering of Himself on the cross was the greatest sacrifice ever offered to God. All the sacrifices of the Old Law derived their efficacy, or value, from the sacrifice which Christ was to offer on the cross.

359. Who is the principal priest in every Mass?

The principal priest in every Mass is Jesus Christ, who offers to His heavenly Father, through the ministry of His ordained priest, His body and blood which were sacrificed on the cross.

(a) The Mass is the same sacrifice as the sacrifice of the cross. It is now in the New Law, the sacrifice that is acceptable to God.

360. Why is the Mass the same sacrifice as the sacrifice of the cross?

The Mass is the same sacrifice as the sacrifice of the cross because in the Mass the victim is the same, and the principal priest is the same, Jesus Christ.

(a) Christ, though invisible, is the principal minister, offering Himself in the Mass. The priest is the visible and secondary minister, offering Christ in the Mass.

(b) The most important part of the Mass is the Consecration. In the Consecration bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ who then is really present on the altar. Through the priest He offers Himself to God in commemoration of His death on the cross.

(c) The other most important parts of the Mass are the Offertory and the Communion. In the Offertory the priest offers to God the bread and wine that will be changed into the body and blood of Christ. In the Communion the priest and the people receive the body and blood of Our Lord under the appearances of bread and wine.

361. What are the purposes for which the Mass is offered?

The purposes for which the Mass is offered are: first, to adore God as our Creator and Lord; second, to thank God for His many favors; third, to ask God to bestow His blessings on all men; fourth, to satisfy the justice of God for the sins committed against Him.

(a) In every Mass adoration, praise, and thanksgiving are given to God, and reparation is made to Him.

(b) Besides the purpose for which the Mass is offered and the effects that it produces, there are also special fruits of the Mass. The fruits Of the Mass are the blessings that God bestows through the Mass upon the celebrant, upon those who serve or assist at it, upon the person or persons for whom it is offered, and also upon all mankind, especially the members of the Church and the souls in purgatory.

(c) The measure of these blessings depends especially on the dispositions of those to whom they are given.

362. Is there any difference between the sacrifice of the cross and the Sacrifice of the Mass?

The manner in which the sacrifice is offered is different. On the cross Christ physically shed His blood and was physically slain, while in the Mass there is no physical shedding of blood nor physical death, because Christ can die no more; on the cross Christ gained merit and satisfied for us, while in the Mass He applies to us the merits and satisfaction of His death on the cross.

(a) On the cross Christ was offered in a bloody manner; in the Mass He is offered in an unbloody manner. On the cross Christ alone offered Himself directly; in the Mass He offers Himself through the priest, who is the secondary but true minister, dependent upon Christ.

(b) On the cross Christ suffered and died; in the Mass He can no longer suffer or die. On the cross He paid the price of our redemption; in the Mass He applies to us the merits of His Sacrifice on the cross.

(c) There are various kinds of Masses:

first, a Solemn Mass, which is celebrated by a priest who is immediately assisted by a deacon and a sub-deacon; second, a High Mass, in which the celebrating priest sings certain parts of the Mass; third, a Low Mass, in which the priest reads all the parts of the Mass: fourth, a Pontifical Mass, which is celebrated by a bishop and by certain other prelates.

Any of these kinds of Masses can be a Requiem Mass, which is one offered for the dead. In a Requiem Mass the celebrating priest wears black vestments and reads or chants special prayers for the dead.

(d) Some prayers make up the "Ordinary" of the Mass and are practically always the same; others make up the "Proper" of the Mass and differ according to the seasons and the feasts of the ecclesiastical calendar.

(e) Ordinarily Mass must be offered on an altar stone consecrated by a bishop or by his delegate.

(f) The priest wears the following vestments during Mass:

an alb, a long white linen garment covering the body;
an amice, a white linen cloth placed over the shoulders and about the neck (as needed);
a cincture, a cord tied about the waist (as needed);
the stole, a long narrow band of cloth worn over the shoulders; and
the chasuble, an outer garment covering the greater part of the body.

These vestments have an ancient origin, and most of them resemble the garments worn by the apostles.

(g) The colors of the outer vestments worn during Mass are: white, which signifies purity of soul and holiness, red, which signifies the shedding of blood and burning love; green, which signifies hope; violet, which signifies penance; black, which signifies mourning; rose, which signifies joy in the midst of penance; and gold, which is used on solemn occasions in place of white, red, or green vestments.

White vestments are worn on feasts of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, saints who were not martyrs, and during the Easter season; red is used on the feasts of the Holy Ghost, the passion of Our Lord, and martyrs; green is used on the Sundays outside of Advent, Lent, and the Christmas and Easter season; violet is worn in Lent, Advent, and on penitential days, black is worn in Masses for the dead; rose may be used instead of violet on the third Sunday of Advent and on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

(h) Some of the important articles used during Mass are: the chalice, a gold-lined or other precious cup, in which the wine is consecrated; the paten, a gold-covered or other precious plate, on which the host is placed; the purificator, or cloth, for wiping the chalice, the pall, or linen-covered card, used to cover the chalice; the corporal, or square linen cloth, on which the host is placed; the missal, or book, from which the priest reads the prayers of the Mass; the candles, usually of beeswax; the crucifix over the altar; and the three linen cloths that cover the altar.

363. How should we assist at Mass?

We should assist at Mass with reverence, attention, and devotion.

(a) There are different ways of assisting at Mass devoutly: using the missal to follow the priest, saying the Mass prayers as found in a prayer book; singing hymns; and the like.

364. What is the best method of assisting at Mass?

The best method of assisting at Mass is to unite with the priest in offering the Holy Sacrifice, and to receive Holy Communion.

(a) It is evident from the words of the priest himself that we do unite with him in offering up the Holy Sacrifice. After the Offertory he turns to the people and says: "Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty." In the second commemoration of the Canon of the Mass he says: "Remember, O Lord, Thy servants . . . for whom we offer, or who offer up to Thee, this sacrifice of praise . . . "

365. Who said the first Mass?

Our divine Savior said the first Mass, at the Last Supper, the night before He died.

Modified slightly from the Baltimore Catechism, Lesson 27.