Have We Lost the Essence of the Mass?
I have lived in several places and traveled to many places over the past 13 years I have been a Catholic. As a result I have attended many Masses in many places in the US, and some abroad over the same time span. In my experience, those many Novus Ordo Masses that I have been to have not proven to be celebrated worthily as if they were primarily a Sacrifice. Only the traditional Latin Masses and the Eastern Liturgies have demonstrated to consistently resemble this fact in their reverence and execution. What is the reason for this? Have we lost the fact that the Mass is primarily a sacrifice?
I am not one of the deniers who believes the Novus Ordo is invalid, I am however firmly convinced that the Church did not make one of her best decisions by making the Novus Ordo liturgy the “Ordinary Form.” I believe the experiment was a colossal failure and the Church will once again at some point in time move back to the old Roman Rite. I don’t think this is a stretch to think that this could happen. In celebrating the Sacraments over the centuries, the Church has realized at several points in time when she has made not the best decisions in the way they were celebrated. For example, the Church eventually figured out that executing the Sacrament of penance in public was not a good idea, and changed it to be said in private.
The Liturgical practices have been unique in that with the exception of the Novus Ordo, they were established by the apostles and have grown and changed gradually and organically throughout time. The Novus Ordo, concocted ad hoc by a group of supposed “experts” is the only Liturgy of this ad hoc pedigree the Church has ever produced. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that it is the only liturgy that does not put forth a Sacrificial, penitential tone in its prayer form. It is also the only liturgy to celebrated ad populum, taking the focus off of the altar and the sacrifice and refocusing it on the community. Thus, over the years we have seen that in its execution, the clergy and laity in a general sense do put forth a sacrificial, penitential tone in their actions. They treat the Mass more like a community gathering than that of the Most Holy Sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
If we read theological works written on the Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council, we see that the Mass was always referred to as the “Holy Sacrifice.” For example, in the work, “The Unchangeable Church” written in 1909, the very first sentence in chapter XXXI on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass says, “Sacrifice is an external act of supreme religious worship given to God alone.” Then it continues, “The Mass! What is the Mass? The Mass in one word is the very same sacrifice as that of the cross.” If that is the case, then why is that no longer the theological focus of most of today’s theologians? The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most important action that anyone can participate in, this side of heaven. The Council of Trent reiterates, “that no other work can be performed by the faithful so holy and divine as this tremendous mystery. Wherein the life-giving Victim, by which we were reconciled to the Father, is daily immolated on the altar by priests.”
In the Novus Ordo, we have a wholesale change in the prayer form compared to the Tridentine Liturgy. The Novus Ordo seems to be more focused on the communal aspect of the Mass, which is a valid aspect, yet it has never been a primary theological focus by theologians throughout the centuries, and for good reason. It is because the Mass in its essence is a sacrifice. Theologians now miss this point because they have also lost the traditional theological tradition of the scholastics, which understood what it was to define a thing and its essence. Again, the Mass is in its essence a Sacrifice, not a communal gathering. You can actually celebrate a Mass with only the priest. But, even in recognizing the communal aspect, theologians today still miss an important point. They miss the fact that we are assembled primarily to give praise, thanksgiving and to obtain graces and blessings from God, not to celebrate one another or the community. They also miss the point that when the laity are present, they are also participating that same sacrifice with the priest in a unique way. All those present in some way make the great offering of sacrifice with him, “Pray, bretheren, that your sacrifice and mine may be acceptable to God.” That is why the laity along with the priest leading them face the altar of sacrifice.
The Application of the Mass
When we participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we give adoration to God, we thank Him for what He has given us and we petition him to give us the grace to remain faithful to Him so that we may do His will, and not our own. Also, there are three “fruits” in which the Mass produces. The first is a general fruit in which everyone participates, which is the celebration by the priest for the entire Church. Then there are special intentions in which the Mass is said for one or more people, to which special graces are passed. Finally there is a special fruit in which the priest himself participates. The Mass delivers special graces in each of these aspects. So the Sacrifice of the Mass bears special graces and fruits in each of these intentions. It must be pointed out that it is through the Sacrifice itself that this communal aspect is made possible so that the praise, thanksgiving, and the graces given are to be made pleasing to God. This is not to say that private prayer and devotion is not pleasing to God, but that as a Church in her liturgical celebration, only the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the legitimate means of obtaining these special graces where we give a sacrificial thanksgiving and receive these special blessings directly from God.
The Four Debts
The great St. Thomas Aquinas gives us a proper look at the debts which we owe to God that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass infinitely pays. “The first is to praise and honor the infinite majesty of God, which is infinitely worthy of all praise and honor the creature can give Him. The second is to satisfy for the many sins committed against Him. The third is to thank Him for the many favors received from Him. The fourth is to supplicate Him as the giver of all good gifts.” We seem to forget the idea that original sin has created a rupture between us and God. Divine Justice demands that these debts, for lack of a better term, are satisfied. Christ’s sacrifice is the only infinite means of satisfying an infinite God. Thus we see how the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass satisfies Divine Justice. This is important is we are to understand the gravity of the Mass in which we regularly participate.
The Passion and Death
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is also in reality an active celebration of the Passion and Death of Christ. There could be no sacrifice without a victim and a priest. Even the actions of the priest in the Tridentine Mass represent certain parts Christ’s passion and death. For example, the priest going to the altar represents Christ going to Mt Olivet. The priest saying the Confiteor represents Christ falling down and sweating blood. The priest offering the bread and wine represents Christ being scourged, and so on. I have rarely read anything post Vatican II that even refers to such things. Many will argue that some of these things developed over time in the Latin Mass and so the Novus Ordo will develop as well. This however is not the point. The point is, the traditional Rite had at its core the penitential and sacrificial nature built into its DNA from the beginning. The fact is, we don’t know exactly how the first Masses were said. We do know that what was passed down to us in the Roman Rite can be traced back to its origins in the apostles and that as it developed it was not diminished, but perfected over the years organically. This simply cannot happen with the Novus Ordo.
Many will ask why other religious services including Protestant services cannot be pleasing to God. Many post Vatican II theologians wanted the Novus Ordo to be more appealing to Protestants. This scheme however did not result in any new converts, and in fact diminished the fact that the Mass was indeed very different from a Protestant service. The reason is that Christ Himself deemed to give us His Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as the valid true way of celebrating our redemption. This was made possible through His Sacrifice on Calvary. It is this same sacrifice that is made present in the Mass which is not and cannot be made present in any other form of worship. “In a word: the bloody sacrifice was the instrument of redemption, and the unbloody sacrifice puts us in possession of it; the one opened to us the treasury of merits of Christ our Lord, the other gives us the practical use of that never-failing treasury.” (The Unchangeable Church) It is important to realize this fact, and that any other form of liturgical worship in other heretical groups are not pleasing to God. So we must understand the uniqueness of this Holy Sacrifice and it should be instantly recognizable in its execution. Any attempt to make the Mass more like a Protestant service only damages the faith of Catholics and obscures its essence.
A Treasure to Behold
When we are at Mass then, we should put ourselves at the foot of the cross. We should act like we are at the foot of the cross with Our Blessed Mother and the Saints. We should treat it is as a treasure. The music should make it clear that it is a sacred treasure. Would we approach the cross on Calvary dressed like we are going out on the town for a night of leisure with casual piano music playing as if we were in a ballroom? Do we ever think of how we may be profaning the sacred altar where Our Lord is being offered for our sins? We should think well on the presence of Christ present in the priest who is offering the Mass, the victim of Christ Himself in the Mass, and the great majesty of who it is being sacrificed. If this reality is not enough to give us pause in how we act at Mass, then nothing will.
It is through this Holy Sacrifice that we obtain special graces. Every moment of our existence depends on God and God alone. Every “good” that we do is done with His grace. The Mass strengthens us and allows us to unite ourselves to Christ in a unique manner. We receive tremendous spiritual graces such as sorrow for sin, the ability to overcome temptation and the nurturing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It gives us the grace to become saints. We receive special blessings and we participate in the Church’s mission to evangelize lost souls. The Mass also brings with it material blessings such as the health of our bodies, avoiding war, famine and other pestilences. We receive more graces than we can imagine by reverently participating at each Mass. St Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote, “More is gained by a single Mass, than by distributing all of your goods to the poor, or going to pilgrimages to all of the most holy shrines in the world.”
The Dying, Death and those in Purgatory
Do we ever think to pray for those souls close to death or those suffering the pains of Purgatory while we are at Mass? If you have in your possession any of the traditional prayer books, they all have prayers that you can pray before during and after the Mass. If you notice, there are always prayers to obtain graces for those that will die that day, the dead, and for those souls in purgatory. The Mass merits graces for those souls as well. We petition God that we and others may have a holy and peaceful death. We also are able to obtain graces to shorten our time in Purgatory, or avoid it altogether. One priest I recently had a conversation with pointed out the vast difference in a funeral Mass between the Tridentine Rite and the Novus Ordo Rite. The Tridentine Rite focuses on obtaining graces for the soul of the departed so that graces can be obtained to shorten that person’s time in purgatory. So the funeral Mass is not primarily to celebrate the life of the departed as it seems to be at the Novus Ordo. We can do that at a wake. It is primarily aimed at obtaining special graces for the departed soul. In other words, we should see the focus again on the penitential and sacrificial rather than the communal.
The Most Holy Eucharist
There are two miracles that take place at every Mass. The first is that at consecration, the wine and bread become the Precious Body and Blood of Christ and that the accidents, or appearance of the bread and wine remain. This is known as Transubstantiation. We still see the appearances of bread and wine, which should not remain once their substance is changed, but Christ is now truly present in Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. This is who we truly receive at Mass in Holy Communion. So we now have yet another important gift in the treasure of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Christ Himself, giving Himself to us in all of His being. The Eucharist itself should also be regarded as a Sacrifice as Trent clearly states. This is another important reason on why no other religious service through any denomination can be pleasing to God, Christ Himself instituted the Eucharist and Christ is present “truly and substantially” (Trent). St. Paul also states that partaking in other religious ceremonies is, “the table of devils.” (1 Cor 10) The Eucharist is also a means of Christ uniting Himself with us. He is the “life giving water” and our spiritual nourishment. It is a precursor to our eternal unity with Him when we pass from this life. In this life he makes us stronger as we unite to Him in our sufferings, trials and even triumphs. The Church calls the Holy Eucharist the source and summit of our Christian lives. We should treat it as such in all of our actions during the Mass.
Conveying The Reality
With this truth and reality of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass before us, how can it be that so many in the Church today act as if it is just a communal celebration? Was there a change in theology with the institution of the Novus Ordo? No change is found in any of the Vatican II documents on the liturgy, yet it is clear that the ambiguity of the documents allowed an entire theological attitude change for much of the faithful and the clergy. Anibale Bugnini the chief creator of the Novus Ordo wrote in his memoirs, “The path opened up by the Council will surely bring a radical change in the very appearance of traditional liturgical assemblies,..." This is exactly what happened. Appearances convey reality. The Mass no longer remained focused on the Holy Sacrifice, and the uniformity established in the liturgical norms of the past that were meant to convey the true reality were done away with. It was the intention of Bugnini to do away with this traditional thinking on the Mass by freeing it from past uniformity. By his own admission Bugnini tells us this clearly on page 42 of his memoirs, "This principle represents a momentous departure from past practice. For centuries the Church willed that all worship in the Roman Rite should everywhere show perfect uniformity. The two liturgical reforms which history has recorded - that of the eighth century and that promoted by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century- had precisely that aim... Social, religious, cultic and cultural considerations, and indeed the entire psychological climate, have changed radically in our day." This is why there are so many options in the Novus Ordo and why the rubrics are not as tight. It is more dependent on the priest and the particular community the Mass is being celebrated at than the reality of Christ being the Sacrifice. It is my hope that the proper sacrificial and penitential reality of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will be restored and that in due time the Church will realize that the Tridentine Mass best exemplifies this reality. I hope in my day that the Church will restore it to the ordinary celebration in the Roman Rite. In my opinion, the experiment of the Novus Ordo liturgy has failed to uniformly convey adequately the reality of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Unchangeable Church Vol II 1909 John Duffy