THE MASS: STEP BY STEP
English-speaking Roman Catholics have been celebrating Mass with a newly revised translation of the Roman Missal since Advent 2011. Hopefully, Catholics have noticed the stronger scriptural references, attuned our ears to the more formal sound of the prayers, and asked questions regarding the meaning of new or less familiar words and phrases.
Above all, this time of transition has given us an opportunity to renew our appreciation of our Catholic worship and to deepen our relationships with the Lord and one another. Below you will find a detailed explanation of the parts of the Mass to assist you in learning more about the Mass and the changes that have occurred with the implementation of the third edition of the Roman Missal.
"The Gathering of the Community
The celebration of Mass begins with the Parish community gathering together. From far and wide Catholics from all walks of life, backgrounds and vocations come together for a single purpose. More importantly they are coming from someplace: from the many varied activities of the week, both those that have put their faith into action, and those that have sadly lured them away from Christ. And so they come as they are: rich and poor, happy and sad, male and female, tired and energetic and form the holy people of God where Christ becomes present: “For where two or more gather in my name, there I will be in their midst” (Matthew 18.20). Our worship of God first begins in our preparation at home and in our gathering as a community in our parish church to acknowledge the events of the past week and to receive strength for the week ahead.
The Priest’s Prayer for the Mass Intention
As the priest is vesting for Mass, he says a prayer offering the Mass for the specified intention, which is usually listed in the parish bulletin. This prayer is said privately by the priest as it demonstrates his responsibility to pray for the needs of his parishioners and for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed. This formal Mass intention is for the priest, and he carries that intention in his heart during Mass. For this reason, the Mass intention is never mentioned aloud during Mass.
In the silence of their hearts, the faithful may offer the Mass for their own intentions.
The Mass consists of four parts: the Introductory Rites, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Concluding Rites. The Introductory Rites consist of everything from the beginning of the Entrance Chant to the conclusion of the Collect.
Through song, reflection and prayer, these rites serve to open the Mass and to prepare our hearts and souls to listen attentively to the Word of God and to then feast at the table of the Eucharist. It is likened to what happened to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, in the opening of the Scriptures and in the breaking of bread, their eyes were opened and they recognized Christ in their midst.
The Entrance Chant
Hymns and singing have always been part of Christian worship. According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the Last Supper concluded with a hymn. As early as the 6th century, Sunday Mass has always opened and concluded with hymns of praise to God. Singing lifts our hearts, minds and voices in prayer. St. Augustine once remarked: “They who sing, pray twice.” With the new edition of the Roman Missal, every prayer of the Mass has been set to music.
The Entrance Procession
The meaning of the Entrance Procession comes from the image of Christ the Good Shepherd. What sets apart a good shepherd from others is his place in the midst of the flock. A good shepherd is always found at the rear of the flock, for it is from there that he can keep a watchful eye out for danger, and from where he can recognize and tend to the needs of the sheep and when necessary carry them on his shoulders when they grow weary. It is for this reason that the priest, who by his ordination stands in the place of Christ the Good Shepherd, is last in the procession. It is a reminder of the priest’s role in the community, to lead, serve, care for and protect God’s people, and at the same time a reminder to the people that they never walk alone through the trials and joys of life.
In the entrance procession, the priest is joined by the lay ministers who will assist him during Mass. Altar servers carrying incense (if used), the processional cross and candles lead the procession to the altar. If a deacon is present, he follows carrying the Book of Gospels and then the priest.
The Veneration of the Altar
A series of gestures shows respect for the altar, which since the 4th century has been the primary symbol of Christ in the church building. The lay ministers bow to it, the priest kisses it and he may also incense it. The kissing of the altar comes from the time when Christianity was still outlawed in the Roman Empire and Mass was secretly celebrated in the catacombs on the tombs of the martyrs. By kissing the tomb, the priest honoured the one who gave his/ her life for the Faith. When Christianity became the religion of the Empire in 313 AD, the kissing of the altar continued as a reminder of the high price that was paid so that we could worship God in public free from fear. It is also for this reason that the practice of placing relics of saints inside the altar of sacrifice continues to this day.
The Sign of the Cross
Following the veneration of the altar, the priest goes to his chair and opens the Mass with the Sign of the Cross. The Sign of the Cross is the first gesture that we as Catholics make to begin and end our prayer, as it reminds us of the two most important facts of our faith: the God we worship is a trinity of persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and by the power of the Cross we have been redeemed. The Sign of the Cross is a prayer in itself and a blessing, calling upon the God who created, redeemed and sanctifies us to be with us always.
Following the Sign of the Cross, the priest greets the people in the name of Christ. All of the greetings are inspired by Scripture: either from the Old Testament (see Judges 6.12; Ruth 2.4; and 2 Chronicles 15.2) or from the introduction of Paul’s Letters (see 1 Corinthians 1.3; 2 Corinthians 13.14; Romans 1.7, Galatians 1.3; Ephesians 1.2; Philippians 1.2).
The people’s response to the greeting is also taken from Scripture. The use of the word “spirit” in the people’s response, connects the greeting to its biblical roots, its historical usage, and the religious nature of the events about to take place. The word “spirit” does not refer to the soul of the priest but to the Spirit he has received through ordination. The greeting signifies that the Church in its fullness is gathered for worship and that Christ is present in our midst.
The Penitential Act
For the first thousand years, there is little evidence of a penitential act during Mass. It was only in 1570 AD, that this act of repentance as we know it today, was included in the Mass. The Penitential Act finds its basis from the First Letter of John (1.9): “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The Penitential Act opens with an introduction by the priest calling upon the entire community to acknowledge their sins before the Lord, which we do in silence. This moment of silence is intended as a weekly examination of our lives. Ask yourself this question: “What is the one major thing that has kept me from God this week?”
Then all present join in a general confession of sin, which is usually the Confiteor prayer (“I confess to almighty God….”). The words to the Confiteor have repeatedly changed since 1570 AD, however its purpose has always reminded the same: to acknowledge our sins and to ask forgiveness from the Lord.
The origins of the Kyrie (Lord, have mercy) are unclear, however it was firmly in place as a hymn since the time when Gregory the Great was pope (590 – 604 AD). It was often used as a conclusion to the Psalms and for processions. When Latin became the official language of the Church, the Kyrie was the only prayer that was retained in its original Greek and not translated into Latin. The Kyrie was never intended to be penitential in nature and is not connected to repentance. After repenting of our sin and asking for forgiveness in the Penitential Act, we join in singing or saying this ancient hymn celebrating God’s mercy and goodness that he has showered upon us.
The first recorded use of the Gloria dates back to the 3rd century as a hymn for morning prayer. By the 8th century, the Gloria was sung at Masses at which the bishop presided and during the Christmas and Easter seasons. The Gloria probably originated as a Christmas hymn since its first line is taken the angels’ announcement of the Saviour’s birth to the shepherds (see Luke 2.14). The Gloria is a hymn of joy and celebration, and therefore is only sung at Masses during the Christmas and Easter seasons and Ordinary Time. It is omitted during the seasons of Advent and Lent. By this hymn, the faithful gathered in the Holy Spirit, praise God.
The priest’s invitation “Let us pray,” leads everyone into a moment of silence, during which they offer the prayers they bring to Mass. What is in your heart as you come to Mass today? In what areas of your life can you use God’s grace or strength? Is there anyone whom you wish to pray for? During this time, the priest may again silently remember the Mass intention. Then extending his hands, the priest gathers all these prayers together and offers them to God by saying a formal prayer. This silence and prayer are called the Collect; for the priest “collects” the prayers of the people and offers them to God. This is symbolized in the extending of the priest’s hands upwards. The Collect concludes the Introductory Rites.
The Liturgy of the Word is the first major part of the Mass. The proclamation of the Scriptures has always been a part of Christian worship. It basis comes from the Jewish tradition of reading the Torah in the synagogue; as well as Luke’s account of the journey to Emmaus, in which two disciples converse with Jesus though unaware it is him. Along the way, Jesus explains the Scriptures, and then when he breaks the bread they recognize him for who he is.
The Second Vatican Council expanded the readings from Scripture that we hear at Mass. Before Vatican II, we heard less than 1% of the Old Testament and 17% from the New Testament. Now we hear 14% of the Old Testament and 71% of the New Testament and the entire four Gospels over a three year cycle. This three year cycle for Gospel readings was chosen to reflect the duration of Jesus’ public ministry of three years.
The First Reading
The Scripture readings are always proclaimed from the ambo. During the readings, the assembly is called upon to sit and listen to the Word being proclaimed. The Scriptures were not meant for just private devotion, but primarily for public proclamation. God speaks to his people in the proclamation of the Word, not in the silent reading along with the lector. The First Reading is always taken from the Old Testament, except during the Easter Season when it is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. The selection of the First Reading is chosen in relation to the Gospel; thus these two readings always share the same theme. In the silence that follows the reading, ask yourself: “What phrase or image stuck with me from the reading, and what is God saying to me through it?”
The Responsorial Psalm
The Psalm is called “responsorial” because of its structure; it is designed to be sung in alternation between the psalmist and the congregation. The Psalm is chosen based upon one of themes of the first or second readings or the Gospel. It is meant to allow the people to meditate on the Word of God and the theme for that day. Since the Psalms are part of Sacred Scripture, it is always sung from the ambo: the place reserved for the proclamation of the Scriptures. The Second Vatican Council restored the use of the term “psalmist” for the title of the person who sings the Psalm. This title was used in the early Church but fell out of use during the 19th century in favour of the title “cantor.”
The Second Reading
The second reading from Scripture is always taken from one of the letters contained in the New Testament. It is a sequential proclamation of the letter and therefore it does not follow the theme of the first reading or the Gospel. The importance of the second reading lies in the fact that it often describes the challenges that the early Christians faced and shows the development of Christian practice, doctrine and community. It gives us a guide for right living as many of the challenges then, are challenges that we still face today. In the silence that follows the reading, ask yourself: “What image or phrase stuck with me from the reading, and what is God saying to me through it?”.
The Gospel Acclamation
This acclamation announces the coming of the Gospel and accompanies the procession to the ambo. In all of the liturgical seasons except Lent the “Alleluia” is sung, which means “Praise God” in Hebrew. The acclamation finds its origins in Jewish worship prior to the proclamation of the Scripture readings from the Torah. Since the first Christians were Jewish, they carried this practice into Christian worship. Since it is a acclamation of great joy, it is omitted during Lent as it is out of character with the penitential nature of the Lenten season. It exists to call to mind the importance of the Gospel in which Christ himself speaks to his people. The Gospel Acclamation is always sung; if it cannot be sung then it is omitted.
Several marks of respect are given to the Gospel to indicate how important it is within the Church. Since the time of the Apostles, we have believed that when the Gospel is proclaimed, it is Christ himself who speaks to his people. For this reason only an ordained minister proclaims the Gospel. This designation goes back to the 3rd century when Cyprian ordained Aurelian a deacon for this specific purpose. Before proclaiming the Gospel, the deacon asks a blessing from the priest that the Lord be “in his heart and on his lips” that by his proclamation the people may come to fall in love with the Scriptures and marvel at the work of Jesus who saves us from our sins.
Immediately before the proclamation of the Gospel, everyone makes the sign of the cross three times over their bodies, once on the forehead, on the lips and over the heart. These signings number three for the Trinity: one God revealed in three Persons. The areas of the body that we sign with the cross are also significant: the forehead, that we may always reflect and meditate on the Gospel; the lips, that we may always proclaim the Word of God in our speech; the heart, that the Gospel may dwell there by faith.
The proclamation of the Gospel has a preeminent place among all the readings of Scripture. While all the readings form the Word of God, God speaks directly and clearly to his people through the words and actions of Jesus in the Gospel. It is for this reason that we stand during the Gospel, out of respect and veneration for Christ who is made present in our midst. The response “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ” at the conclusion of the proclamation of the Gospel affirms our belief in the presence of Christ in the Gospel.
The homily is to be based on the Scriptures of the day or of the liturgical texts used for Mass, to encourage and challenge the people to live the Christian life. The homily has its origins in the story of Jesus with the disciples of Emmaus, where he explained the Scriptures to them before breaking bread with them. Many of the Church Fathers are remembered for their homilies and how they brought together the practice of the Faith in the daily lives of Christians. Homilies vary in quality from preacher to preacher and Sunday to Sunday; yet the purpose reminds the same: applying the Scriptures to the daily practice of our faith. A homily is mandatory for Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation, but optional for a weekday Mass.
Time of Silence
Following the Gospel, there is a prolonged moment of silent reflection on the readings and the homily. This moment of silence while always part of the Mass, was usually skipped over. Now with the recent changes to the Mass, the Church has been reminded of the importance of this moment of silence. Through singing, proclamation and prayer we give praise and glory to God. In silence God speaks to us. What image or phrase from the readings or the homily struck you? What direction does it give you in life? Does it help you make a decision?
The Profession of Faith
Or Creed, appears in two forms in the new edition of the Roman Missal; the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed and is recited at every Sunday Mass. The Apostles’ Creed is normally recited during Lent and Easter as it is the creed used at Baptism which is usually celebrated during Easter. The Nicene Creed is generally used throughout the remainder of the year. The Creed has been recited during the Mass since the year 589 AD. Through it, week by week, generation after generation, the faith of the Church is handed on and unites Catholics in the one Faith that we all share.
Nicene Creed – “Consubstantial”
In the Nicene Creed we now say that Jesus is “consubstantial” instead of “one in Being” with the Father. It is the literal translation of the Greek word homoousios (or in Latin consubstantialis) which is used in the Creed. Consubstantial means “having the same substance” and is only used by the Church to describe Jesus’ relationship to the Father. The question of how Jesus relates to the Father has great importance. Heresies have divided Christians over this issue and the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD coined this word to precisely articulate the nature of this relationship. By it, the Church expresses that the divinity of Jesus is the same divinity of the Father. “Consubstantial” is an important word; it was fought over by theologians and bishops for centuries as they sought the best word to clarify this great truth about Jesus. It deserves our respect and attention.
Apostles’ Creed – “descended into hell”
The phrase that Jesus “descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed has caused much concern for some people. “Hell” in popular culture is the place of devils and eternal damnation for all who reject God. However in the Bible, it refers to the place where the souls of all the dead went before the Resurrection of Jesus. In the Bible, the Hebrew name for this place is Sheol and in Greek it is called Hades, which in English is literally translated as Hell.
This phrase in the creed, describes the work that Christ was doing while his body lay in the tomb. Prior to the Resurrection, no one was able to go to heaven due to original sin. In order to save those who died before him, Jesus although without sin, took on sin and willingly experienced its effects which is death. Thus he went to the place of the dead (or to Sheol or Hades or Hell) to retrieve the souls of all the just to take them to heaven. By dying, Jesus brought salvation to all those who died before his Resurrection; and by rising from the dead, they ascended into heaven with him.
There are numerous Biblical references to this mystery of the Faith: the main ones are Psalm 68; Acts 2.31; Romans 10.7; Ephesians 4.8-10; 1 Peter 3.18-19; Hebrews 2.14-15; Matthew 12.40; and Revelation 1.17-18 among many others.
The Universal Prayer
We have come to know this part of the Mass as the Prayers of the Faithful, for by it the baptized offer prayers and intercessions for the Church, for the salvation of the world, for all in need and for the local community. This practice of praying for specific groups is recommended in the First Letter to Timothy. The revised instruction on the Mass insists that the petitions be offered by a deacon when present. This underscores the ministry of the deacon, as he is primarily responsible for charity in the community therefore the one who would be most aware of local needs.
The Universal Prayer concludes the Liturgy of the Word and the focus of the Mass now shifts to the Liturgy of the Eucharist and its two high points: the Eucharistic Prayer and the distribution of Holy Communion. The set of rites that precedes the Eucharistic Prayer are collectively called the Preparation of the Gifts. The altar is prepared, the gifts are brought forward and God is praised for them.
The Collection & the Offering of the Gifts
The collection and the offering of the bread and wine have been present in Christian worship since the very beginning. The gifts of the community are presented to the priest for the needs of the Church and of the poor. Justin the Martyr describes this collection and offering of gifts in his letter dating from the 2nd century: “Then someone brings bread and wine to him who presides over the assembly. They who have the means, give freely what they wish; and what is collected is placed in reserve with the presider, who provides help to the orphans, widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in need, and prisoners, and traveling strangers; in a word, he takes care of all who are in need.” By the collection, we exercise Christian charity; sharing our abundance with those who have nothing.
The Preparation of the Gifts
Once the gifts of bread and wine have been carried to the altar, the priest offers a prayer of blessing to God for his generosity, for the produce of the earth and for human labour which have created the gifts to be used for the Eucharist. This prayer “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation…” actually comes from the Jewish prayers for the Passover meal. Its inclusion in the Mass reminds us of our Jewish roots: that Jesus and the first disciples were of Jewish descend and that Christian worship developed out of Jewish rituals and practices.
It is also highly certain that Jesus himself would have offered this prayer at the Last Supper, as according to the Scriptures, this final meal with his disciples was the Passover supper (Matthew 26.17; Mark 14.12; Luke 22.15; John 13.1). This prayer of blessing may be spoken aloud by the priest, or silently while the people are singing the Offertory Chant.
The Mixing of Water and Wine
After the prayer of thanksgiving for the bread, the deacon or priest quietly says the following prayer as he pours water into the chalice of wine: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” This action represents the two natures of Christ: wine for his divinity and water for his humanity.
It also represents our relationship with Christ and our sharing in this Sacrament. Saint Cyprian in the 3rd century said this about it: “In the cup of the Lord, water alone cannot be offered, as wine alone cannot be. For if a person offers wine only, it starts to become the blood of Christ without us. But if the water is alone, it starts to become the people without Christ. But when both are mingled, and are joined with one another by a close union, a spiritual and heavenly sacrament is completed.”
The Private Prayer of Priest
The priest offers a private prayer, humbly asking God to accept the sacrifice that will be offered along with the people who have gathered to participate in it. The prayer originates from the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace (see Daniel 3.39). Azariah offers this prayer from within the flames, asking that the sacrifice of his very life be pleasing to God. The priest, mindful of his sins, offers his suffering together with the gifts on the altar. Since this is a private prayer, it is said quietly by the priest. This prayer has been a part of the Mass since the beginning of the 15th century.
The Incensing of the Gifts, Priest & People
The use of incense signifies a solemn occasion, the holiness of that which is incensed, and the prayers of the people going up to God. At more solemn Masses, for example Christmas and Easter, during the Preparation of the Gifts the offerings, the altar, the cross, the priest and the people are incensed. The practice of using incense at Mass originated around the 11th century in Gaul (now France). It was rarely used in Rome before this time, due to its former use in the pagan worship of the Roman Emperor. The incensation of the gifts, priest and people is a reminder that it is not only the bread and wine that are offered to God, but our very selves as well.
The Washing of the Priest’s Hands
Following the Preparation of the Gifts, and the incensing of the altar if done, the priest washes his hands at the side of the altar with the assistance of the servers. At this time, the priest quietly says: “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51.4). The washing of hands was added to the Mass in the 7th century and since then, has occurred during various parts of the Mass before it settled into its present location at the conclusion of the Preparation of the Gifts. The practical nature of the washing was to clean the priest’s hands after he handled the censer, thus the washing occurred whenever the priest used incense. The spiritual significance springs from the practical, just as the priest’s hands are cleansed after preparing the gifts, so may his soul be cleansed so that he may worthily offer the Eucharistic sacrifice.
“Pray, brothers and sisters”
Following the washing of hands, the assembly stands and the priest calls on them to pray to God to accept the sacrifice which they entrusted to his hands. This dialogue between priest and the people has been part of the Mass since the 8th century. Since that time, the Latin text to this dialogue has remained almost unchanged. In the revised English translation, this Latin text was literally translated to better illustrate that both the priest and the people offer the sacrifice in their own ways.
The word “holy”, which has always been present in the Latin edition, once again appears in reference to the Church in the revised English translation. It is a reminder, that although we are individually sinners, when the community gathers in the Lord’s name and offer the sacrifice we exercise our sacred or holy duty “for our good and for the good of all his holy Church.”
The Prayer over the Offerings
The priest offers a Prayer over the Offerings. This prayer asks that the gifts be pleasing to God, and it makes reference to the liturgical season or feast that is being celebrated. The assembly responds “Amen” to make this prayer their own.
As early as the 4th century, an unique Prayer over the Offerings had been written for every Mass in the liturgical calendar. This prayer was usually recited quietly by the priest while the congregation sang the offertory chant. It was only in 1964 AD, that Pope Paul VI required that this prayer be said aloud by the priest after the offertory chant has ended.
The Eucharistic Prayer
The Eucharistic Prayer is the center and high point of the entire liturgical celebration. It offers praise and asks God to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
For most of the Middle Ages, the priest recited this prayer quietly often as the choir sang. With the liturgical changes of Vatican II, the people were given acclamations to recite and at other times to join their hearts and minds with the priest as he offers aloud the prayer on their behalf.
The Preface is a prayer of thanksgiving in which the priest, on behalf of the assembly, glorifies and gives thanks to God the Father for the work of salvation. It is written to reflect the feast that is being celebrated or the liturgical season. By the 5th century each day of the liturgical year had its own unique Preface, however in the Middle Ages that number diminished. Vatican II restored many of these Prefaces, and in the current Roman Missal the priest has 99 from which to choose for each Mass.
The opening dialogue to the Preface (“Lift up your hearts… Let us give thanks to the Lord….”) finds its origins in the Old Testament and from Jewish worship. This dialogue has existed within the Mass since the beginning of the 4th century, and has not been altered in any way.
The Sanctus – “Lord God of Hosts”
The conclusion of the Preface calls us to join with the angels and the saints in praising God by singing or saying the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy). This text combines the Scripture passages of Isaiah 6.3, Revelation 4.8, Matthew 21.9 and Psalm 118.26. The Sanctus has been sung at Mass since the 2nd century, and by the 6th century this text was in the form as we know it today.
The Sanctus gathers into one voice the praise of the all Church not only throughout the world, but all of heaven as well. Through it, our worship of God on earth is joined to the worship of the angels and saints in heaven. Let us all sing this hymn of praise on earth, in the hope that one day we will sing it as a Saint in the heavenly kingdom.
In the new English translation of the Sanctus, we now proclaim “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts” which is the literal translation of the original Latin text. This term “Lord God of Hosts” refers back to the conclusion of the Preface where the priest calls upon everyone to join the angels and saints in praising God. The term “Host” refers to the angels. Just as a flock is a group of birds, a herd is a group of cattle, a host is a group of angels. The former translation which said “Lord God of power and might” omits this reference to angels and completely changed the meaning and context of this prayer. The revised English translation corrects this omission and brings this prayer back into its proper context.
The Ringing of the Altar Bell
Following the Sanctus, the server may ring the altar bell and the people kneel. The altar bell was introduced into the Liturgy during the Middle Ages when the priest faced the altar and said the Mass prayers in a low voice. The bell was meant to alert the people that it was time for the Consecration. Following the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, the 1970 Roman Missal discontinued the ringing of the altar bell after the Sanctus. The reason for this was because Vatican II restored the custom of the early Church of having the priest face the people and speak the prayers in a loud voice, thereby allowing the people to see and to hear what was happening at the altar. This made the ringing of the bell redundant.
In the reforms of the 2011 Roman Missal, the ringing of the altar bell was made optional and is left to the preference of the priest. Whether or not the altar bell is rung, the people in a sign of respect, honour and adoration the kneel in anticipation of the Consecration, when our Lord himself becomes truly present in the bread and wine.
The Eucharistic Prayers
From the time of the Council of Trent until Vatican II, Roman Catholics were accustomed to hearing the Roman Canon as the only Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. There are many others that were composed and used in the early Church which were translated and placed in the Roman Missal for use following Vatican II. Today there are twelve Eucharistic Prayers available for use depending upon the liturgical season or feast being celebrated: the four traditional Eucharistic Prayers; two for Masses with Children; two for Masses of Reconciliation (can be used in Advent and Lent); and four for Masses for Various Needs and Occasions. All twelve Eucharistic Prayers follow the same format: the Epiclesis, Institution Narrative and Consecration, Memorial Acclamation, Anamnesis, Oblation, Intercessions, Doxology and Great Amen.
Following an introductory passage, the priest places his hands over the gifts and invokes the Holy Spirit, that by his power the gifts presented and offered will be consecrated and become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ for the salvation of all who partake in Holy Communion.
During the epiclesis in Eucharistic Prayer II, the people hear the word “dewfall.” This word is found in the Old Testament. In Hosea (14.5-6) God promises to be like dew for the sake of Israel, bringing forth new life. In the Psalms, dew is a symbol of God’s blessing descending upon the Israelites. A prophecy from Isaiah (45.8) refers to the coming of the Messiah as a dewfall on the earth, since the Messiah will bring salvation and justice to a morally parched earth. The epiclesis, or invocation of the Holy Spirit, concludes with the priest making a sign of the cross over the gifts.
The Institution Narrative & Consecration
The priest recounts the events of the Last Supper, holding the bread and the chalice as Jesus did, and repeating the words that Jesus said. The constant Faith of the Church understands these to be the words of Consecration, in which the bread and wine are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit and truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. The words of Consecration conclude with the Lord’s command to do this in memory of him.
In this single moment, the priest fulfills his purpose of being ordained, to offer the sacrifice for the salvation of the people entrusted to his care. As well, in this single moment the Church fully realizes her identity, for as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains “without the Eucharist, the Church simply does not exist.”
The Memorial Acclamation
Following the Consecration, all stand and the priest introduces the Memorial Acclamation by saying “The mystery of faith.” Before 1970, this statement by the priest was said during the Consecration of the wine. In 1970 when the liturgical reforms of Vatican II took effect, this phrase was moved to its present place following the Consecration, and the Memorial Acclamation of the people was added. The texts of the three options for the Memorial Acclamation are all derived from Scripture. By the Memorial Acclamation, the people who up to this point, have listened devoutly and quietly to the Priest, actively acclaim that they will hold to the mystery of faith until Jesus comes again.
The Eucharistic Prayer then continues with the Anamnesis, or the prayers of remembering and the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass to God the Father. We remember and celebrate the major events of Jesus’ life through which he achieved our salvation: his suffering and Passion, his Resurrection and his Ascension into heaven. These events in the life of Christ are referred to as the “Paschal Mystery.”
The Eucharistic Prayer then continues with the Oblation, the prayer in which the Priest on behalf of the people gathered for that particular Mass, offers the sacrifice in the Holy Spirit to the Father. The intention of the Oblation prayer is for the people to learn to offer not only the sacrifice of the Mass to the Father, but by living holy lives offer their very selves to God and to work for unity in the Church.
The Eucharistic Prayer then concludes with the Intercessions, the reasons for which the Mass is being celebrated. They are offered in the name of the entire Church, both in heaven and on earth, and for all its members, the living and the dead. It concludes with a prayer that all who partake of the Body and Blood of Christ on earth will one day be united with the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and all the Saints in heaven. During the commemoration of the dead, the people should quietly call to mind their deceased loved ones and pray for the repose of their souls.
The Eucharistic Prayer reaches its conclusion with the Doxology. All honour and glory for ever is offered to the Father, through, with and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The people’s response is commonly called the “Great Amen.”
This practice can be traced back to the 2nd century. During the Middle Ages, the priest generally said this prayer in a low voice thus not allowing the people to respond “Amen.” In 1964 AD, Pope Paul VI ordered the clergy to once again say this prayer aloud, so that the people may acclaim their great amen to this great prayer.
The Communion Rite
The Liturgy of the Eucharist continues with the Communion Rite when the faithful immediately prepare themselves to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. The Lord’s Prayer is offered, signs of peace and reconciliation are made, the consecrated Host is broken and prepared for distribution.
The Lord’s Prayer
The Gospels illustrate that Jesus was a person of deep prayer and his disciples were amazed at his ability to pray. After being asked to teach them how to pray, Jesus gives them his own prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer is the perfect prayer: offering praise to God, imploring surrender to God’s will, petitioning for our daily bread (signified by the Eucharistic Bread), forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of the soul against temptation and evil. Pope Gregory the Great assigned the Lord’s Prayer to its current place at the beginning of the Communion Rite in the 4th century.
It was only in 1958, that Pope Pius XII gave permission for the faithful to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Latin during Mass. Prior to that, the priest alone said it in a low voice. In 1964, Pope Paul VI permitted the praying of the Lord’s Prayer in the vernacular.
“Deliver us, O Lord…”
Following the Lord’s Prayer, the priest prays that the entire community may be delivered from every evil and all distress as it awaits the second coming of Christ. This prayer is called the “embolism” as it develops the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer was in use in the Mass by the 7th century.
Prior to 1964, the embolism was recited by the priest in a low voice and was quite lengthy. In 1964, Pope Paul VI decreed that the priest must recite this prayer aloud so that the people may hear it. For this reason, the prayer was shortened to its current length.
This prayer is based upon Titus 2.13 which is the second reading for Christmas Midnight Mass. It reminds us that Jesus will come again and until that time, he will protect us from the dangers and temptations that we encounter in life.
“For the kingdom…”
The embolism prayer ends with a doxology that is well known among Protestant Christians, but that Catholics did not retain as the conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer. This doxology “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and for ever” was in use as a conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer in the early Church and it appeared in versions of Matthew’s Gospel and in the Didache.
Its use during Mass became less popular among Catholics when King Henry VIII decreed its use in Anglican services of his newly established Church of England. During the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the doxology was once restored to the Mass. There were several reasons for this: this prayer was part of the early tradition of the Catholic Faith, it is biblical in nature, for ecumenical reasons and to add another element of participation for the people.
The Rite of Peace
The Rite of Peace begins with the priest asking Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to bestow his peace on the community just as he once did upon the Apostles when they were gathered in the upper room (see John 20.19-23). This prayer can be traced back to the 11th century and was officially added to the Mass in the 1474 edition of the Roman Missal. The priest originally said this prayer on his own behalf. Following Vatican II, the text was edited to include the entire community. While the priest still says this prayer alone, the people assent to it by their “Amen.”
The Exchange of Peace
The sign of peace is then exchanged by all present. This practice comes directly from Scripture (Matthew 5.23-24) where Jesus admonishes his followers to be reconciled with one another before offering their gift at the altar. From the very beginning, this practice was a very important element of the Mass. In the early Church, individuals that had a grievance with one another went and asked for forgiveness. It was only after everyone was reconciled that the Mass continued. However in the Middle Ages, the exchange of peace among the people slowly declined, and in 1474 was made optional.
Following the reforms of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI required the exchange of peace be restored to the Mass. The exchange of peace is a serious moment of reconciliation and preparation to receive Holy Communion. It is to be carried out in a respectful and appropriate manner either by a handshake or a bow of the head. In 2014, the Congregation for Divine Worship granted the priest permission to omit the exchange of peace if it can be foreseen by him, that this moment of reconciliation will be abused or taken light-heartedly by the congregation (for example, use it as a time for social conversation).
The Fraction Rite
During the Fraction Rite, the priest breaks the consecrated Host over the paten, places a small piece in the chalice and offers a prayer that this mingling will bring eternal life to those who receive it. The practice of reserving part of the consecrated bread from the general Communion appeared in the 3rd century when Pope Innocent would send a piece from the host he consecrated at his Mass to the other churches in Rome. Before Communion, the priest would take this piece of the Host and place it in his chalice. This practice symbolized the Eucharistic communion among all the churches in Rome with the Pope. As the Church grew, it was impossible to maintain such a practice, but a vestige of it remained. Now all priests break off a small piece of the consecrated Host and places it in the chalice as a reminder of the shared communion held throughout the entire scattered around the world.
“Lamb of God”
During the Fraction Rite, the people sing or say the “Lamb of God.” When the first Christians gathered for Mass, they called this action “the breaking of bread” (see Acts 2.42). The significance of this activity gave its name to Eucharistic worship. The breaking of the bread symbolizes the suffering that Jesus endured for us, while sharing it recalls the Last Supper. In the breaking of the bread the many individuals who have gathered are made one body by receiving Communion from the one bread that is broken and shared for the life of the world. The Lamb of God is meant to be said or sung during the entire Fraction Rite. The invocation is to be repeated as many times as is necessary, and only on the final time is “grant us peace” said.
The Preparation Prayer of the Priest
The priest says a private prayer to prepare himself for receiving Holy Communion. Private prayers of the priest became common in the Middle Ages, and this prayer alludes to 1 Corinthians 11.29, where Saint Paul warned the faithful not to receive Holy Communion unworthily. The people after singing the Lamb of God, also pray silently preparing their hearts to receive the Lord present in the Eucharist.
“Behold the Lamb…”
Prior to receiving Holy Communion, the people express their unworthiness and pray for healing. The priest invites them to make this statement of faith by showing them the consecrated Host, now broken in two, above the chalice as he says “Behold the Lamb of God….” This statement first appeared in the Mass around the 15th century and is taken from two passages of Scripture. First, the priest quotes John the Baptist, who points out the Lamb of God to his disciples (see John 1.29), then he quotes Revelation (19.9), that those invited to the supper of the Lamb are blessed. This text reminds us that those who faithfully gather around the Lord’s altar and receive his Body and Blood in this life, will hopefully be gathered together one day to share in the rich fare in the banquet halls of heaven.
“Lord I am not worthy…”
The priest and the people then express their unworthiness to receive so great a Sacrament. The text is only recited once and the striking of the breast was omitted, as this gesture was incorporated into the recitation of the Confiteor during the Penitential Act in the Introductory Rites. This text originates in the story of the healing of the centurion’s slave (see Matthew 8.8 and Luke 7.6). The biblical words “my child” become the liturgical words “my soul” since the congregation seeks a general spiritual healing more than a specific physical one. Although we are unworthy of Jesus’ healing power, he gives himself anyway to those who have faith.
The Communion Prayer of the Priest
The priest receives Holy Communion while reciting prayers quietly. He is to receive from the bread and wine consecrated at that Mass and not from consecrated Hosts kept in the tabernacle. The texts (“May the Body/ Blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.”) that accompany the receiving of Holy Communion by the priest came into use during the Middle Ages. Various texts were in use and none became universal until 1474, when the current texts were adopted.
The Communion Chant
The people sing a hymn for the Communion procession. It begins when the priest receives Holy Communion in order to unite his communion with that of the rest of the assembly. Evidence for singing hymns during Holy Communion is quite ancient going back as far as the 4th century.
For most of the Middle Ages, only the priest received Communion at Mass and the people received usually only once a year. Their Communion had little connection to the rest of the Mass, and they received from previously consecrated hosts reserved in the tabernacle, just as the sick and the homebound did. It was only in 1970, that Communion for the people was integrated into the official ritual books of the Church. It was also at this time that the offering of the chalice to the people became permissible as well. Today, in Canada, Holy Communion under both forms may be administered to the people.
As the Communion chant is sung, the faithful process to the altar and receive Holy Communion. The deacon and other ministers, if required, assist the priest. In Canada, the faithful make a simple bow of the head before receiving Holy Communion. The priest and other ministers say “The Body (Blood) of Christ” and each person answers, “Amen.” The communicant is not to add anything to their response, for in answering “Amen” each person affirms his/ her belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The formula “The Body (Blood) of Christ” and the response “Amen” have been in constant use since the time of Saint Ambrose in the 4th century.
The Purification of the Vessels
Following the distribution of Holy Communion, the priest or deacon reposes the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. The priest then purifies the chalice and the paten, or may do so after Mass. As he dries the chalice, the priest quietly says this prayer: “What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity.” The words of this prayer have remained unchanged since the 6th century.
The Silent Prayer of Thanksgiving
The priest returns to his chair and all observe a time of silent prayer; praising and thanking the Lord for his many gifts, especially for receiving him in the Eucharist. This period of silent prayer is not to be rushed nor is it a time of “dead air.” During this time you can reflect on the following questions: What are you most thankful for? Having been nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, in what areas of your life do you need the Lord’s help this coming week? How can I be more like Christ to others in my life?
The Prayer after Communion
The Prayer after Communion concludes the Communion Rite and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, summing up its purpose in a single prayer to God. The priest leads the prayer and the people respond “Amen.” Together with the Collect and Prayer over the Offerings, the Prayer after Communion forms the presidential prayers. This prayer has existed as a part of the Mass since the earliest of times. The priest has the option to offer this prayer from his chair or from the altar.
The Concluding Rites
The fourth part of the Mass is the Concluding Rites which consist of announcements (if required), the final or solemn blessing, the dismissal, the procession and recessional chant. The Concluding Rites prepare us to be sent back out into the world to live the Gospel having been nourished by God’s Word and by the Body and Blood of his Son, Jesus.
A parish community gathers for more than the celebration of Sunday Eucharist. Prior to be dismissed, announcements can be made to inform the congregation of various events and activities taking place in the parish. The announcements are to be brief, made only when necessary and usually by the priest. In most parishes, general announcements are made as part of the welcome at the beginning of Mass, while more important announcements are made by the priest following the Prayer after Communion.
The Final or Solemn Blessing
Before dismissing the people, the priest offers them God’s blessing. This blessing comes from the devotional practice of receiving a bishop’s blessing following Mass and originates from the 4th century. A blessing is a sign of God’s protection over our lives and activities for the coming week. It is also a reminder that God walks with us in our journey of life. On Solemnities, the final blessing takes a more solemn form when the deacon invites the people to bow their heads and a threefold blessing is prayed over the people by the priest. When a Bishop offers the blessing he always makes the Sign of the Cross three times as he mentions the Persons of the Trinity.
The Dismissal is the final dialogue of the Mass and is begun by the deacon if present, who sends the people forth from Mass into the world and to perform the works of the Gospel in the week to come. While the dismissal has always been part of the Mass, it was not always at the end. For many centuries the dismissal was given prior to the final blessing. The Second Vatican Council restored the dismissal as the final element of the Mass. The new translation of the Mass has several new formulas for the dismissal, some of which were written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Following the dismissal, the priest and deacon once again show reverence for the altar by kissing it, just as they did upon entering the sanctuary at the beginning of Mass. The kissing of the altar is a sign of honour to the Lord for the sacrifice he made upon the cross, which is now made present to us on the altar. They then genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle and process down the aisle with the altar servers.
Just as in the procession at the beginning of Mass, this procession reminds the people that the priest is the shepherd of the parish community, who journeys with them in the struggles and joys of life. Out of respect for the priest who represents Christ the Good Shepherd and to maintain order and decorum in the church, the faithful never leave before the altar servers and priest have first exited the church.
The Recessional Chant
Although a recessional chant is not necessary, when it is sung, it does form the final part of the Mass and accompanies the procession of the servers and the priest out of the church, therefore none of the faithful should ever leave the church before the recessional chant has concluded so that they may fully participate in the celebration of Mass.
Following the conclusion of the recessional chant, it is customary for all the faithful to kneel and pray silently in thanksgiving for God’s blessings and for the grace to live the Gospel during the coming week. After this time of personal prayer, the faithful depart the church to joyfully live out the Gospel with renewed faith, hope and charity."
Gratefully used by permission of the author, Fr. Victor De Gagne, Diocese of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. Fr. Victor was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Thunder Bay, in Ontario, Canada in 2010. He completed his Masters of Divinity from St. Peter's Seminary in London, Ontario. Since 2016, he has been the chair of the Diocesan Office of Worship. He is currently the pastor of a large urban parish in the City of Thunder Bay, Ontario.