The Sacrifice of the Mass

by 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.


Continue on to Q&A on the Mass


Taken from A Basic Catholic Catechism (c) 1990 by William G. Most, Part 12.
Full text available in our library.

Electronic text (c) Copyright EWTN 1996. All rights reserved.


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