Structure of the Catholic Mass

The Mass incorporates the profession of faith (through the recitation of the Creed), reading of Scripture, and the sacrament of the Eucharist. The liturgy of Mass begins with the Last Supper; the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ form its nucleus. The Mass is both a banquet and a memoriam of the Crucifixion.

The liturgy of Mass includes High Mass and Low Mass. The High Mass, which is much more intricate, is reserved for special feast days and is usually performed by a bishop or another venerated ecclesiast. It also requires the assistance of a deacon and the presence of a choir. A priest, attended by an altar server, generally performs the Low Mass, which is held daily. Sunday Mass, of course, has special significance, and the Church requires attendance of its members on this day.

Introductory Rites

The Mass begins with greeting rites that prepare the assembly — as a community — to hear the Word of God and celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice. First, the congregation does the entrance antiphon by singing (or chanting) a few lines from a psalm. There is a greeting period, which is followed by a penitential rite (a rite of blessing and sprinkling). Then, the congregation recites Gloria (Glory to God) and the opening prayer.

Liturgy of the Word

The introductory rites are followed by the Liturgy of the Word, which is the first major part of the Mass. The purpose of this section of the Mass is to proclaim God's Word to the assembly, as it is understood from Scripture. Here the Word of God is spoken, responded to, explained, embraced, and appealed to.

The First Reading is almost always taken from the Old Testament. The congregation follows the reading with a Responsorial Psalm. (In a way, the congregation is “speaking” in response to God.) The Second Reading is an encouragement, taken from one of the epistles of the New Testament. At the Gospel Acclamation, the Alleluia, all members rise. The Gospel is the central reading of this part of the Mass.

When going to Mass, it is important to note that the liturgical calendar, in Sunday worship, follows a cycle that changes over a three-year period: Matthew is the primary Gospel in the first year, followed by Mark the following year and Luke the third year.

The priest then gives his homily, a short speech drawing relevance from the Gospel to daily life. There is a moment of silence, then the recitation of the Nicene or Apostles' Creed. The congregation recites the Prayer of the Faithful, a common prayer in which calls for special intercessions may be made, as appropriate.

Liturgy of the Eucharist

The second major part of the Mass reflects Christ's actions at the Last Supper and fulfills his request to eat bread and drink wine as his body and blood in memory of his life, death, and resurrection.

At this point, the priest will spend a few minutes going about the Preparation and Offering of the Gifts. There is an Offertory song, a kind of brief anthem, and Preparation of the Altar, the bread, and the wine. This includes folding of special cloths to catch any fragments or drops of the bread and wine once it is consecrated, mixing a little water with the wine, and getting the communion wafers, or “hosts,” ready for the assembly.

The priest washes his hands in a ritual suggesting purification and invites the assembly to prayer. As he turns back to the Gifts, the faithful say one brief prayer, and then what Catholics consider the awe-inspiring moment takes place. The Eucharistic Prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving, is spoken.

The Eucharistic Prayer consists of these elements: an introductory “Dialogue,” Preface (Lord Be With You), Sanctus, Thanksgiving, Acclamation, “Epiclesis” (when the priest asks God to consecrate the host and wine), the Narrative Institution (the actual formal moment of consecration), the Anamnesis (that Christ comes to us through the Apostles), the Offering (Jesus offered to his Father), Petitions or Intercessions for the people, Doxology (or the Gloria in Excelsis: the angels' song at the birth of Our Lord), Memorial Acclamation, and Great Amen. This is the high point of the Mass. The gifts of bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ in what is known as transubstantiation.

The Mass now turns to the Communion Rite itself, which begins with the Our Father, also known as the Lord's Prayer. The members of the assembly turn to each other to give the Rite of Peace, a sign they are one with each other and that the Holy Spirit unites them.

The Kiss of Peace descended from the apostles, but at one time it was dropped from the liturgy. Vatican II reinstated it in the 1960s. Now called the Rite or even the Sign of Peace, it is not literally a kiss anymore. Parishioners usually shake hands with those next to them, saying “Peace be with you.”

In the Fraction Rite, the priest “breaks” the bread (no longer an actual loaf of bread). The assembly says a prayer called the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). The priest says a private prayer to prepare himself, and then he shows the host to the assembled and they humble themselves with a small prayer that begins, “Lord, I am not worthy. …” Everyone moves in procession to the sanctuary at the front of the church to receive communion. The Liturgy of the Eucharist ends with a prayer after communion. Once the Mass is concluded, the priest blesses the congregation before they are dismissed.

Objects Used to Celebrate Mass

All solemn occasions are given more drama through the use of beautiful objects in ritual. This is true for the Mass as well. The wellspring of Catholic religion is the celebration of Christ's sacrifice on the cross; therefore, the sacred objects are of special value.

First among sacred vessels, the chalice is the large cup that holds the wine that becomes the blood of Christ during the Eucharistic ceremony. The chalice must be made of either gold or silver. If it is silver, the bowl is gilded on the inside. A bishop must consecrate a chalice before it is used; only priests and deacons are permitted to hold it.

The chalice has a long, rich history in the Church. Beautiful artifacts from the Middle Ages still exist, so that we can see the development of this wide-based, sometimes double-handled vessel, sumptuously decorated, to its present-day form. The chalice has adjuncts (additional components) that are called the pall, the purificator, the corporal, the burse, and the chalice veil. The adjuncts perform the following functions:

  • Pall: A stiff, square piece of white linen that is placed over the chalice. The pall also requires a special blessing.

  • Purificator: A white linen cloth resembling a napkin, used to wipe and dry the chalice, or the priest's lips, after the ablutions.

  • Corporal: A white linen cloth, smaller than the breadth of the altar, where the priest places the Sacred Host and the chalice during Mass.

  • Burse: A cover to keep the corporal from getting dirty; it has only been used since the sixteenth century.

  • Veil: The veil issued to cover the chalice and paten when they are brought to the altar.

The use of linen is symbolic. It represents cloth “sprung from the earth, as the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ was buried in a clean linen shroud” (attributed to Pope Sylvester).

Other objects used during Mass are the paten, ciborium, decanter, and communion cups, as follows:

  • The paten is a shallow, saucer-shaped disk used to hold the bread that becomes the body of Christ. Just as the chalice, the paten must be made of precious metal. In the earliest days of the Church, patens weighed as much as twenty-five pounds; today, they tend to be smaller, weighing only about a pound.

  • The ciborium is a sacred cup-like vessel that holds the hosts once they have been consecrated. The ciborium is used to distribute Holy Communion to the faithful and is also used to keep the consecrated particles of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. Like the chalice and paten, it must be made of a precious metal and consecrated by a bishop. Its distinguishing feature from the chalice is that it is raised in the middle, so that the remaining blessed particles may be removed easily.

  • The decanter, or flagon, is a vessel brought forth with the gifts at the early part of the Mass. It holds the wine that will be consecrated for the communion of the people.

  • Communion cups are used infrequently, when the people receive wine at communion. These are kept nearby and brought to the altar at communion time.

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