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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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There is little in the way of evidence that the early Church gives much thought toward the preparation for the Eucharist.  I suppose this should not surprise us as the Gospels say little about the preliminaries of the first Mass or final Seder that Jesus shares with his apostles. Indeed, what we do discover in the Gospel story is first about Judas.  We read: 

“Now the feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was drawing near, and the chief priests and the scribes were seeking a way to put him [Jesus] to death, for they were afraid of the people. Then Satan entered into Judas, the one surnamed Iscariot, who was counted among the Twelve, and he went to the chief priests and temple guards to discuss a plan for handing him over to them. They were pleased and agreed to pay him money. He accepted their offer and sought a favorable opportunity to hand him over to them in the absence of a crowd” (Luke 22:1-6).

Judas is dismissed from the Supper table to do what he plots to do.  The next time we see him, he betrays his master with a kiss. Like all sacraments, the Mass has visible and invisible elements.  While the matter, ritual and words impact the senses; the invisible is the whole paschal mystery: the betrayal, passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ— our Lord’s saving work and the “real presence” in the Eucharist. It may surprise us but hidden from view Satan is himself actively engaged in the preparation of the Mass that liberates us from diabolical bondage. Working through his emissary Judas, certain fathers of the Church suggest that the devil is initially unaware that his plotting is counterproductive to his aims. I would interject that the devil is no intellectual fool but that he himself is a victim to his own hubris and cannot navigate outside of divine providence.  He very much wants to corrupt the apostles and to spoil the divine plan; but in the end, despite his temptations and the possession of one apostle’s heart and the abscondence of fortitude from the others, the death that he pursues would be not his victory but his ultimate defeat.

Jesus dies once and for all. He will never die again.  But this re-presentation of Christ’s saving work in the Mass has the devil playing out again and again his own counterproductive plan.  The Lord deliberately confounds the devil with a kingdom that stands in contradiction to the world.  That is why it perplexes the devil to the very moment that Jesus says, “It is finished” and dies. Satan has within his control the religious leaders. The Pharisees, who should have been kindred spirits to our Lord, oppose him instead. Those who should have been his allies seek to catch him in his speech and kill him.  Indeed, even his family thinks he is crazy.  Neighbors and friends of his home-town want him dead for teaching what they regard as blasphemy. His apostles are despised tax-collectors and smelly fishermen.  They would betray him and then run away and hide.  He has nothing in the way of riches.  The only crown he would ever wear is weaved from thorns.  His lead prophet John the Baptist is put to death over a ridiculous domestic issue. The devil’s victory seems assured but the fix is on.  The devil scratches his head when Christ teaches absurdities like turning the cheek to someone who strikes you, giving to those who take from you and worse yet, loving and forgiving those who hate and hurt you.  The devil has an intellect that would put the greatest of human genius to shame— but he could not fathom this Christ and his parables— and the greatest parable is realized in the Cross.  How can it be?  Jesus has to lose so as to win.  He would tell those who would be his followers— you have to die so as to rise with him.  Nonsense, such notions are beyond rationality!  The devil is so filled with himself that he has no room within for understanding the wisdom of God.  He could corrupt hearts but there is something about the sacred heart that is beyond his comprehension. His arrogance and conceit leaves no room for compassion and the meaning of mercy.  Talk about poetic justice— and now with every Mass his face is pushed headlong into his greatest defeat.  The devil is made to play the fool.  He is among the highest of the angels in the created order but he rebels against God and forfeits his standing. God would now use this angelic “greatness” against him.  Our Lord would become man, something infinitely small and vulnerable.  This is something to which Satan refuses to bend the knee.  Imagine the great surprise— the devil is defeated not by a God that could readily crush him with titanic expressions of power, and us along with him— but by becoming something very small, wounded, broken, betrayed, crushed, and destroyed. And more, having redeemed a people by his death, our Lord would not stay dead but rises by his own power.  Now Mary his Mother, and all those who follow him— creatures of flesh and blood and spirit— all have what the devil has forever forfeited, sanctifying grace that transforms creatures into sons and daughters of the Father.  Every Mass is offered to the glory of God and to the humiliation of Satan. This is the backdrop to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.    

The biblical reference to the preparation of the place and gifts is given nothing in the way of detail.  Jesus offers minimal instructions:

“When the day of the feast of Unleavened Bread arrived, the day for sacrificing the Passover lamb, he sent out Peter and John, instructing them, ‘Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.’ They asked him, ‘Where do you want us to make the preparations?’ And he answered them, ‘When you go into the city, a man will meet you carrying a jar of water. Follow him into the house that he enters and say to the master of the house, “The teacher says to you, ‘Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large upper room that is furnished. Make the preparations there.’ Then they went off and found everything exactly as he had told them, and there they prepared the Passover” (Luke 22:7-13).

No doubt more is done than just getting a room.  The lamb has to be cooked and the other required foods bought.  Someone has to provide the wine.  We often imagine the men who constitute his apostles around the table, but there are likely women in the house who also make ready for the Seder. All will be called to the banquet of the Lamb. 

Jewish Table Blessings over the Bread & Wine

The pre-Vatican II liturgy by comparison to the reformed of the post-conciliar, gives enhanced attention to the offertory, even speaking about it as a “natural” sacrifice prior to the “supernatural” oblation. Indeed, the transition in language from “offertory” to “preparation” highlights something a return to the early Church’s approach.  While there is a heavy anticipation in the Tridentine offertory as to what the gifts will become, the Mass of the Vatican II reform merely stresses the acquisition and blessing of bread and wine.  Indeed, this demarcation betrays a strong recovery. The significance of earthly bread and wine at the offertory is almost passed over so as to emphasize the spiritual gift of the Eucharist that follows with the consecration. The offertory blessings over the bread and wine are little more than table blessings. 

It should be acknowledged that after the second century there is a growing importance placed upon the “matter” of the offertory gifts, likely in response to the repudiation of matter by the Gnostic heretics.  Starting with St. Irenaeus, there is a new emphasis upon the earthly elements as the first fruits of creation. Mention is made of the congregants bringing up the offertory gifts. St. Hippolytus speaks of the deacons bringing up the gifts. He is among the first to make a comparison between earthly oblations and the sacred oblations of Holy Church.  By the time of St. Cyprian, the bringing up of the gifts by the faithful has become the general practice.  The offerings for the needs of the Church are logically attached to this procession with the bread and wine.  It confirms the virtue of charity as a necessary preparation of congregants for the Eucharist. An offertory chant or hymn would accompany the procession as is so often the case today. During the following centuries, practical directives are issued against placing either symbolic or other material gifts upon the altar with the bread and wine for consecration.  While donations are first only received from the faithful, Trent would change this and allow gifts from anyone.  Efforts would be made to correct any trafficking in Mass stipends.   

Exclusive Use of Unleavened Bread or Hosts

While the early Church always seems to view both leavened and unleavened bread as licit, from the ninth century on there is a general ordinance in favor of unleavened just as at the Last Supper.  The churches of the East would tend to retain the use of leavened bread. Concerns about the making of altar breads would see the transfer of its manufacture from the laity to religious houses. Starting in the twelfth century, the desire to create special bread would lead to the familiar disks, with the priest’s hosts being slightly larger.  Given scrupulosity about particles, multiple hosts are made for congregants that do not require fracturing.      

The round wafers come to be called hosts.  Originally the word “hostia” refers to the living thing that is the sacrificial victim to be killed.  The true “hostia” would be Christ; nevertheless, the name would stick with the unconsecrated wafers. Similarly, the word “oblata” or oblation is used for the bread offered. There seems no getting around an anticipation in the language used.

As for the wine, initially red is preferred in the East and West for symbolic reasons.  However, as the use of the purificator becomes common, the West transitions to white wine.  Either may be used today in the West but there is still a preference for white given the difficulty to remove red stains from linen.

The mingling of the water and wine is not a Palestinian custom but a Greek practice that becomes popular among the Jews during the time of Christ.  There are references to this practice in the second century liturgies. The insightful words of St. Cyprian are often repeated:  “When someone offers only wine, then the blood of Christ begins to exist without us; but when it is only water, then the people begin to exist without Christ.” Adding water to the wine symbolizes the intimate union of the faithful with Christ. There can be no separation.

The Lutheran reformer Martin Luther rejects the commingling of water and wine as “unfitting” because of its stress upon our oneness with Christ.  (We must remember that Luther only believes in juridical imputation and rejects the Catholic notion of justification by grace through transformation into Christ.  He argues that one is not changed or made holy by grace but rather disguised by it. Luther would also reject the Catholic notion of transubstantiation and argue for the presence of Christ and the bread and wine in the sacrament (consubstantiation).  He fails to fully appreciate the Mass as a sacrifice where bread and wine is destroyed and Christ is made present.  Other reformers go further in distancing themselves from Rome. Forfeiting a genuine priesthood, the Protestant churches would abandon an authentic Eucharist celebrated throughout history going back to Christ and his apostles. They would emphasize the Lord’s Supper as a meal but lose track of the ancient appreciation of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice. 

Mixing the Water into the Wine

There arises some debate about how much water should be added to the wine. While some of the rites would argue as much as one-third of the admixture should be water, the West reduces it to a drop. Indeed, to make sure of the amount there is even the addition of a small spoon the measures out one drop of water.  While not a big issue today, I can recall Cardinal Wuerl being quite insistent with a deacon that a drop only should be added to the wine in the chalice.

 The Subtraction & Adding of Offertory Ceremonials & Prayers

While there has been some variation of the prayers employed for the offertory, the one prayer that has been consistent is the “oratio super oblata” or the Prayer over the Offerings.  The Germanic Franks would add other preparatory prayer and rituals, like the washing of hands and the use of incense.  Before Trent, the Mass had become a jungle of mismatched prayers.  The process of weeding and sowing prayers would continue with Vatican II.

The Suscipe Sancta Trinitas prayer would survive Trent but not Vatican II.  While the wording of the prayers associated with the bread and wine have changed, the gifts are raised up and blessings are said over both. The use of incense is retained although it is not seen as an oblation of any sort, just symbolic of our offering being acceptable before God.  Just as the smoke of the incense would ascend to God, we beseeched that the Lord’s mercy might descend upon us.  

The Roman Rite tended to steer away from language that would see other sacrifices in the liturgy.  The Vatican II reform would continue this movement in replacing prayers during the preparation of the gifts that related it to a natural sacrifice.  However, by contrast, the West-Syrian liturgy would move in the other direction, interpreting a triune oblation in the Mass:  (1) the sacrifice of Mechisedech in the presentation of bread and wine; (2) the sacrifice of Aaron in the incensation; and (3) the sacrifice of Christ.  Certainly one might interpret a historical movement but the Roman Rite would not acknowledge any necessity to the first two supposed oblations.  Indeed, it has long been feared that such language while not heretical might compromise the real meaning of the Mass as the redemptive offering and perfect sacrifice of our Lord.

The Lavabo

Priests wash their hands before Mass and so the Lavabo of the offertory is wholly symbolic. Back in fourth century Jerusalem, the deacon would wash the hands of the priest at the start of Mass.  Of course, the use of incense and fumbling with charcoal might have been another rationale for its inclusion.  I am personally reminded of poor Pontius Pilate constantly washing his hands and yet lamenting that he could never get them clean.  Given our part in the passion and death of Christ, I suspect we are all Pilate.  The priest in particular wants clean hands as he is configured to Christ by his ordination and is regarded as acting at the altar in the person of Christ.  He above all is conscious of his sin as he stands at the altar for the one who is all holy.  Just as we have the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, here is a secret prayer and gesture that speaks to the sorrow for sin and the need for spiritual cleansing. The priest says: “With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God.” Washing his hands, he says: “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” It serves a purpose similar to the use of a holy-water stoup for the people to cross and sprinkle themselves at the church doors or entry.  We are reminded of our baptism and our need to be washed clean and holy.  The old Ethiopian Mass would have the priest wash his hands after unveiling the offertory gifts and instead of drying them he would wave his fingers at congregants so as to sprinkle the water upon them. He did this as no reminder of their baptism as we might today but with a verbal warning against approaching the altar unworthily.  

The Orate Fratres  

There is a long history to the Orate Fratres as always coming at the completion of the preparation of the gifts.  Many liturgists interpret it as not the end of the offertory but as a tag connecting it to the canon or anaphora or Eucharistic prayer.  The priest says: “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”  The congregants respond: “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.” Then is said the Prayer over the Offerings or the “oratio super oblata.” This part of the Mass delineates something of the intention of the priest from that of the congregants.  The priest will apply the fruits of his intention for those who have made a request and possibly who have given him a Mass Stipend.  The priest stands above or leads the people in the Mass.  This prayer makes it very clear— if there is no ordained priest then there can be no Mass. Congregants may dialogue with him and participate, but the priest is in the role of Christ and his role is thus necessarily one of mediation. 

The Prayer over the Offerings once said quietly is now said aloud.  It is a prayer of petition.  Here is an instance from the Second Sunday of Advent: “Be pleased, O Lord, with our humble prayers and offerings, and, since we have no merits to plead our cause, come, we pray, to our rescue with the protection of your mercy. Through Christ our Lord.”  The people respond, “Amen.”


Readings, Responsorial, Gospel Verse & Gospel

Many Protestant services end where Catholic Masses begin.  There are hymns, bible readings, Gospel proclamation, preaching and petitions for the faith community and the world.  If there is a communion service it may not be weekly and is directed more toward fellowship than to necessary divine worship.  The focus of Christ’s presence for most Protestants is the Word but not the sacrament.  Given that Catholics appreciate that the Word prepares us for the Eucharist, I have often been asked, might the Scriptures be sufficient for a saving faith?  While the original reformers deliberately broke away from the Catholic Church, many Protestants find themselves by accident of birth in non-Catholic churches through no fault of their own.  God understands ignorance and he also knows those who love him.  The answer to what is saving is located somewhere between one’s appreciation of the truth and the movement of hearts.  It is there that we leave judgment to God.  The sacraments are the normative instruments through which God gives grace but almighty God in his providence is not restricted to the sacraments.  That is why I argue that the culpability of a Catholic who falls away and defects to one of these non-Catholic ecclesial communities cannot be compared to those who are born and raised within them. The Catholic should know better.  While the Protestant is called to full conversion, God will not abandon him along the trajectory of his faith journey. 

Going back to the 11th century, this part of the liturgy is sometimes labeled the Mass of the Catechumens or the Mass of the Faithful. There is an obvious link to the old synagogue service. The table of the Word prepares us for the Table of the Eucharist.  After the expulsion of the Jewish Christians, the followers of Jesus would read Scripture and the epistles of the apostles at the beginning of their Agape and Eucharist on the morning of the Lord’s Day or Sunday. It is during this time of transition that there is an organic movement from the Hebrew Sabbath to the Sunday Observance on the Lord’s Day. The first commemorates creation and the day of rest; the second celebrates a re-creation in Christ and his resurrection.  This will modify the commandments just as severely as the incarnation would change the economy of images.  Cherishing their sacred books, during the time of the Talmud the Jews would read them continuously in their synagogue services, picking up where they leave off just as we do.  They would read first from the Law and then a passage from the Prophets. A homily follows the prophetic reading.  The chanting of psalms would also find its roots in the Jewish service. 

The early Christians would add their stories, writings and letters to the Hebrew Scriptures.  There would be no official canon of the New Testament until the fourth century.  Believers in Christ share their stories through an oral tradition which is later written down.  They also pass between their faith communities important letters from the apostles.  These are copied and preserved. 

The reformed liturgy of the Church after Vatican II would see a larger lectionary of readings, restoring much of the Old Testament previously dropped in favor of lessons from the epistles.  The proposal for a broader scope of readings is brought forward at the time of the Council of Trent but it would not be pursued for many centuries.  Pope Francis has been decidedly clear to Traditionalists who prefer the old Latin Mass that the readings cannot remain a symbol but must be in the vernacular and easily understood.     

The current pattern at Sunday Mass is a first reading from the Old Testament, the responsorial psalm, a second reading from the New Testament epistle, an alleluia or gospel verse and then the Gospel.  The latter is always read by either a deacon or priest, with the emphasis given the deacon.  This is patterned on ancient usage and may reflect an honor entrusted to all deacons given the martyrdom of Stephen who is among the first to lay down his life in proclaiming the Good News of Christ.  The one exception to having a cleric proclaim the Gospel would come on Christmas night when the Roman emperor, dressed in regal attire, would proclaim the “Exiit edictum a Caesare Augusto” from Luke 2.  This indulgence to the successors of Roman rule testifies to the conversion of the empire from paganism to Christianity and how even Caesar now joins the three kings of the Epiphany in bowing to the Christ Child and to his eternal kingdom.

The Council of Orange (441 AD) insists that catechumens (those in Christian formation for baptism) are not to be dismissed until after the Gospel, not before. This respects the command to take the Gospel to all the earth (Mark 16:15). It is the Good News of Christ that makes possible conversion. The deacon beseeches a blessing from the celebrant, goes to the altar for the Book of the Gospels and then accompanied by two servers with candles proceeds to the ambo.  As with the entry, they may be led by another server with the censor.  The deacon incenses the book prior to proclamation.  It is here that an ancient prescription mandates the lighting of tapers and candles for the Gospel. All this is to show heightened honor to the Gospel as the life and words of Christ.  The option of enthroning the Book of the Gospels is to symbolize that Jesus is presiding. The traditional posture for hearing the Gospel is standing. The priest kisses the book at the end of the proclamation.  When a higher prelate like a bishop presides, the deacon brings it to him to kiss.

Our Lord calls us to have faith in him.  We are admonished by St. Paul not to be ashamed of Christ and by our Lord to have a courageous faith.  Standing for the Gospel shows a readiness to act or to serve.  Bravery in taking up our crosses and following Jesus, embracing the two-edged sword of his Good News is likely why the priest or deacon makes a triple signing of the forehead, lips and breast, and in addition, a signing the book. We welcome Christ by standing with open minds to his truth, prepared to confess this truth with our lips, and to faithfully preserve this truth in our hearts.  This signing is sometimes regarded as symbolic of sewing seed for the harvest of Christ. 

The deacon and priest must fully appreciate that their privilege to proclaim the Gospel and to preach is a dire responsibility that can bring to them either singular graces or the most terrible conviction before almighty God. If the deacon attends the ambo then he is first blessed by the priest as a spiritual protection. If the priest will proclaim the Gospel and preach then he will pray inaudibly, from his lips to God’s ears, “Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.” This little prayer goes back to the sixteenth century.  It may go back earlier but it is mandated in an age when too many priests fail to be the holy shepherds they were called to be.  Remember Isaiah 6:6 and the burning coal brought to the lips of the seer— the one entrusted with the Word must be a prophet for all that the Gospel contains.  God’s Word is fire and if one is not properly prepared then this fire will consume the one that speaks!  I am talking about more than an occasional “damn” or “hell” that emerges from righteous indignation; too many today have unclean lips where they constantly give voice to the vulgar and derogatory, mouthing not love and truth but hatred and lies!  The priest or deacon must be the first to take the lessons of faith to heart.     


I am well aware that many make distinctions about what is and is not a homily.  Liturgists will often define the homily as an explication of the readings that is somehow connected to the lives of listeners.  This is a good definition but then efforts will be made at a demarcation from sermons or other religious talks.  I would not narrow the focus and allow that this part of the liturgy might also discuss a seasonal theme, an oration of the liturgy or a pressing need or challenge of the faith community. The homily can be traced to pre-Christian elements, such as the guidance of prophets and the reflections given in the synagogue services of the Jews.  Our Lord reads from Scripture at a synagogue and announces that the message of a coming Messiah is fulfilled in their hearing.  Paul and Barnabas are urged by the leaders of the synagogue in Antioch to speak encouragement or consolation to those gathered. 

While many priests do not preach at weekday Masses and/or leave out the General Intercessions, this is increasingly frowned upon.  It may be that the notion of the homily as a mere interpolation (independent insertion and not a constituent component) is due to ancient prohibitions against preaching given the poor quality of priestly instruction or formation.  Indeed, there are some deacons, men entrusted with the Gospel, and a few priests, who are not given faculties to preach even today because of concerns about what they might say. (I am reminded of junior priests from the days prior to Vatican II who were not given faculties for confessions until there was a certain spiritual growth or maturity.) All this seems somewhat ridiculous today.  How can we ordain a man to the diaconate and present him with the Lectionary of Readings while not giving him the authority to speak upon it?  How could we refuse a priest the faculties to preach and to forgive sins when his whole vocation is dedicated to the proclamation of the Good News and the forgiveness of sins?  Too often we have reduced deacons to the role of glorified altar boys.  They are clergy with holy orders!  Holy Orders cannot be given out as badges of honor to pious men; no, if a man cannot live out his vocation and lead the flock in the worship and service of God then he would best not be ordained.  Am I too judgmental about this?  I know of several priests who have never really served a day in the dioceses where they were ordained.  They dedicate their lives to causes that laymen could do as well or better.  Some make a living blogging or raising funds on YouTube or in writing sensational books.  They have gifts, that is for sure— but where is the obedience, the humility, and the community they are supposed to serve?  These vagrant clergy need to be disciplined by their bishops and given proper assignments.  If they refuse, then they should not be shifted to other dioceses or religious communities, but laicized.  Priesthood is a gift— a calling— not an entitlement to feign holiness and to bask in unearned respect. 

The Creed

The Nicene Creed is professed by celebrant and congregation on Sundays and special holy days.  The origins of the Creed are not with the Mass but with the bishops in council, usually trying to resolve a heresy afflicting the faith. The Holy Spirit is invoked. Then there is discussion, prayer and eventually a vote. Those who participate in the Mass and who receive the Eucharist must be in a “communion of faith” with each other.  It is for this reason quite logical that the Creed would be inserted into the liturgy following the readings and homily. Our Creed or symbol of faith develops or is utilized through a series of councils:  Nicea (325 AD), Chalcedon (451 AD), and Constantinople (381 AD). The Nicene Creed serves both the purpose of catechesis as did the old Roman or “Apostles’ Creed” prior to baptism as well as one of apologetics against heresy.  Creeds always answer the question as to what we most fundamentally believe. 

The Creed can be divided into five sections:  God the Father and our Creator, Christ our Lord and Redeemer, the Saving Work of Christ, God the Holy Spirit, and the Church as the Sacrament of Salvation. Against various heresies, the incarnation of Christ is affirmed, as is his divinity. Similarly, the divinity of the Holy Spirit is acknowledged. Throughout the mystery of the Trinity is presented:  one God (divine Nature) in three divine Persons.  The significance of baptism comes within the appreciation of the mystery of the Church that Jesus instituted as one, holy, catholic and apostolic.  Membership in the Church is not an optional affair or just for mutual support and fellowship.  It is the vehicle that Jesus gives us to know him and to be in relationship with him.  It is from the eighth to the eleventh centuries that the Creed is inserted into liturgies, at least the Sunday Mass.  At first, the Apostles’ Creed is regularly substituted given that before missals the lay people are more familiar with it.  The Nicene Creed proves difficult for many to master due to the Latin and its length. Thus, while it is preferred that the whole congregation recite it, often it has been chanted by clerics alone. (Pew missals for congregants, while available before Vatican II, are a modern novelty.  Indeed, books that translate the Latin had a long history of being prohibited. This changed, especially with efforts in the pre-Vatican II Church toward a dialogue Mass that would give some of the servers’ responses to congregants.)  My father learned as a child his responses to the Tridentine Mass with 78 LP records to which he would listen over and over again, parroting even that which he did not fully understand. He grew up in the 1920’s and served Mass into his adult years.   

While it might be a minority view in the Church, I have often thought that we might need another council and an amended Creed in the modern era to spell out our moral values as Christians.  If heresies in the past were about the identity of God or the divinity and unity of Christ’s natures or about the role of the Holy Spirit— the great questions of our day have to do, not with the Creator but with creation— good stewardship of the earth, the dignity and behavior of persons as male and female, and the sanctity of life at all stages of development. 

Back in 2012 I adapted a commissioning ceremony for catechists with this in mind.  As I recall the inspiration came from something similar in the Arlington, Virginia diocese.  After the recitation of the Creed, the catechists are asked to answer a few questions in the affirmative:

With firm faith, do you also believe everything contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed? Response: I do.

Do you also firmly accept and hold each and every thing definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals? Response: I do.

Moreover, do you adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act? Response: I do.

It finishes with the priest-celebrant praying that God might help them to be good stewards of what he entrusts to them. Creeds and such statements do not signify shackles over minds and wills but rather an opening of them to divine revelation and the deposit of faith entrusted to us so that all men and women might be free.   

While we often speak of the Table of the Word preparing us for the Table of the Eucharist, there is initially an independence of one from the other. As a practical illustration of this I recall experimentation back in my seminary days where the lectern or ambo is placed on one extreme side of the chapel and the altar is placed on the other.  This accentuated the movement between the parts of the liturgy.    

Prayer of the Faithful or Litany of Supplications

The petitions for Good Friday and the veneration service were traditionally rendered with nine petitions, now enlarged to ten:  (1) for holy Church, (2) for the Pope, (3) for the faithful, clergy and laity, (4) for catechumens, (5) for heretics and schismatics or Church unity, (6) for Jews, (7) for heathens not knowing Christ, (8) for atheists, (9) for rulers or elected officials, (10) for those facing tribulation. A distinction is now made between heathens and atheists. Given that they now came across as offensive, the petition for the Jews has been rewritten.   

Today, the rendering for Masses is restored (1) for the needs of the Church, (2) for the world, (3) for those in need, and (4) for the local community.

Pope Clement I wrote to the Corinthians (59-61 AD) an early sample of such petitions:

“We beseech you, O Lord, be our helper and provide for us; save those of us who are in tribulation; take pity on the oppressed, raise up those that have fallen, reveal yourself to those who beg, heal the sick, lead those of your people who have gone astray once more into the right path. Feed the hungry, deliver those in prison, bring health to the sick, and comfort to the faint-hearted. Let all peoples recognize that you are the one God and that Jesus Christ is your servant and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture . . . . Yes, Lord, make your face to shine upon us for our well-being and our peace, so that we may be protected by your strong hand and guarded against every sin by your mighty arm, and save us from those who hate us groundlessly. Give unity and peace to us and to all who dwell on earth, as you did give to our fathers when they called upon you devoutly with faith and sincerity. Let us be obedient to your all dominant and powerful name and to our rulers and princes on earth. . . . Grant them, O Lord, health, concord, peace and stability, that they may exercise unhindered the authority with which you have entrusted them . . . so that they may piously exercise in peace and meekness the authority which you have granted them, and may participate in your grace. . . . Who alone has power to give these and more good things, you we praise through the high priest and protector of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom be glory and majesty to you now and from generation to generation, forever and ever. Amen.”

The Roman Rite has restored the Prayer of the Faithful and places it after the homily or the Creed.  The Eastern liturgies have tended to more fully absorb the litany into the liturgical prayer or Eucharistic liturgy.  While a lector or a deacon might read the petitions in the West, the oriental rites make it essentially the diaconal litany and the celebrant’s prayer.  The Roman Rite retains petitions within the anaphora or Eucharistic prayer for the clergy, for the Church, for the dead and asks intercession from the saints. Indeed, it is a recovery in that previously the Kyrie litany (earlier in the Mass) had replaced these bidding prayers.  Note that the response of the current Prayer of the Faithful is often either “Lord, hear our prayer” or “Lord, have mercy on us.”


The Introit Chant or Hymn & Procession

A hymn or expanded Introit chant might accompany the procession to the altar.  If it is not recited or sung by the congregation then the priest will recite the antiphon verse at the altar, after the sign of the cross and greeting. The Introit opens the liturgical worship.  If not to accompany the procession then it should at least promote congregational unity and help turn minds to the mystery being celebrated.

An example of such an Introit is the following prescribed for Trinity Sunday: “Blest be God the Father, and the Only Begotten Son of God, and also the Holy Spirit, for he has shown us his merciful love.”  The antiphon for the Fifth Week in Ordinary time is as follows: “O come, let us worship God and bow low before the God who made us, for he is the Lord our God” (Psalm 95:6-7). As with psalms and chants used for the Offertory and Holy Communion, they might be expanded or sung antiphonally. The earliest liturgies do not use musical instruments but rely upon choruses of human voices. A trained schola becomes increasingly important. Today a hymn befitting the theme of the liturgy is often substituted on Sundays to allow for congregational singing during the processional from the church doors to the altar.

Kissing the Altar

Given the association of the altar with the sacrifice of Christ, the altar has come to signify something of Christ even though the real presence of Christ is acknowledged in the sacrament reserved in a tabernacle.  As so often happens after many centuries, there is an expansion of the meaning or symbolism of the gesture.  The kiss is augmented from a welcoming of Christ to a greeting of the Church, his bride. This latter meaning is advanced with the placement of relics from the saints within altars proper or in altar stones. Either way, the priest kissing the altar serves as a salutation toward the place where the divine mystery will be celebrated.  

Incensing the Altar

While the Jews traditionally employ incense in their worship and sacrifices, the early Christians in the gentile world often avoid it because of frequent use in the pagan cults.

“Thus shall Aaron offer his bull for the purification offering, to make atonement for himself and for his family. When he has slaughtered it, he shall take a censer full of glowing embers from the altar before the LORD, as well as a double handful of finely ground fragrant incense, and bringing them inside the veil, there before the LORD he shall put incense on the fire, so that a cloud of incense may shield the cover that is over the covenant, else he will die” (Leviticus 16:11-13).

However, with the final demise of paganism, there is a widespread transition from profane idol worship to sacred worship. Popular in the East, and employed in the West (particularly in processions) against the stench of filthy city streets, its use becomes increasingly esteemed.  The use of incense expresses a special festivity. Its perfume smell and the smoke readily lend themselves to religious symbolism.  Scripture affirms its use in Psalm 141:2 “Let my prayer be incense before you,” and the golden bowls of incense allude to the prayers of the saints in the Book of Revelation. Our prayers are compared to the smoke rising up to heaven.  The incensation of the altar shows it honor; but it is also a prayer gesture invoking purification (its singular usage) and divine protection for all who are drawn to it.  

The Sign of the Cross & Greeting

The liturgy will begin and end with the sign of the cross: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  We are all marked by this sacred sign as belonging to Christ.  The making of the cross is a dedication of all that we shall do as the work of our Lord.  It also expresses the great revelation of the Trinity that raises Christianity or Catholicism to a supernatural faith.  God reveals himself to us to facilitate a relationship with him. We participate or are in dialogue with the celebrant who is a sharer in the one high priesthood of Christ.  The Mass is our one great communitarian prayer or act of worship.  A priest offers one of several variations in greeting: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” or something as simple as “The Lord be with you.”  The congregation responds, “And with your spirit.”

The Penitential Rite

The Confiteor

As with the Creed, while we say the Confiteor together, the language is expressed in the first person singular.  The priest who would come to the altar (along with the people whom he takes spiritually with him) must possess the essential characteristic of personal humility.  Each of us freely admits that he or she is a sinner and the priest acknowledges that he is the first among them. This part of the Mass is not about announcing or telling our many sins as in sacramental confession but rather is an admission of our sinful condition.   Indeed, the more with which one has been entrusted, the more accountable will that one be before the judgment seat of almighty God.  Nothing can be feigned, nothing can be hidden.  Each of us stands spiritually naked before the Lord. While it is said that this prayer finds its roots in the private prayers of popes at the foot of the altar, one has to wonder if it might have far older origins, from the days when a penitent would confess his sins to a priest before the gathered congregation. The priest and then the people would acknowledge their unworthiness and dependence upon the Lord. Like the earth and moon, the Confiteor always possesses a companion prayer, the Misereatur: “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.”  A remnant prayer of sacramental absolution is removed with the Vatican II reforms, enhancing the moral weight of the Misereatur prayer.  What would serve as “a type of absolution,” the Misereatur, is more appropriately an intercessory prayer that works in tandem with the Confiteor: “. . . therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”  Our confession to God includes the Church, both in glory above and in pilgrimage here below.  Many other names and embellishments are eliminated centuries ago prior to the Missal of Pius V. Striking the breast is a common feature of the confession. The inspiration is Luke 18:13: “But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”

The Kyrie

The supplication, “Lord, have mercy” is very much the cry of God’s people that finds resonance in the sacerdotal (priestly) oration. This plea for clemency transports us to the very first days of the faith in the gentile or Greek speaking world.  Indeed, the fact that the Greek language is retained is a residual testimony of its antiquity.  Finding its source in the Gospel, it fits neatly into the admonitions of John the Baptizer, of Christ and later of his Church, “Repent and believe.”  While early Jewish Christians delight in being the chosen people who get to witness the realization of the ancient promise entrusted to them of a long-awaited messiah; the gentile believers initially wrestle with providence, finding it hard to believe the good fortune that has come to them.  They are made inheritors of a new faith that begins with another people. While not the direct beneficiaries of the covenant with Abraham and Moses; the new covenant of Christ consummates the old and is given to them as an unwarranted gift.  The apostle Paul struggles to get them to fully appreciate that they are now of the same standing as the believers in Jerusalem.  They keenly feel that they are undeserving.  The Kyrie Eleison is a cry for mercy but it is also a witness that this petition is efficacious and not made in vain. God hears their plea for mercy and he comes to their rescue.  Contrition and sorrow for sin is the necessary disposition for faith and for the graces that come from the divine mysteries. The Kyrie Eleison emerges in the worship of the Church as a repeated litany.  Why is it repeated?  Such reflects the fickle human condition.  We struggle to be good.  Despite our best intentions we sometimes fail.  Again and again, we ask for forgiveness and reaffirm our faith and desire to be faithful to the commandments.  When we look at the trajectory of this litany, it shares something of its history with the restored bidding prayers, general intercessions or Prayer of the Faithful.  “Lord, have mercy” is often interchangeable with “Lord, hear our prayer.” Given various attached intentions, tropes find themselves frequently inserted into the prayer.  While some authorities argue that the three petitions refer to the Trinity, the truth is that the prayer is directed to Christ.  This becomes clear with the second invocation, “Christ, have mercy.” Reconciliation with God is made possible by the saving intervention of Jesus Christ.  The priest or deacon may lead the congregation but oftentimes a choir or cantor assumes this direction— emphasizing once more that the Kyrie Eleison is a prayer from God’s people in the pews, not just the clergy.  While the direction is often neglected today, it remains customary for the priest and people to focus upon the crucifix during these petitions for mercy. 

The Gloria 

The “Glory to God” hymn like the “Lord, Have Mercy” litany is not a composition intended originally for Mass. Over time it is added to liturgies of great festivity, such as Sundays and solemn feasts. The Glory to God highlights the meaning and the obligation to give adulation to almighty God.  While praise is directed to God; in return, it brings us God’s peace. The early Church utilizes and imitates the Hebrew psalms in the creation of its own Christian treasury of sacred song. The sources for the texts come from the Scriptures and the living faith of the Church.  If the Kyrie is an expression of sorrow for sin and the need for mercy; the Gloria builds upon this sentiment by acknowledging divine forgiveness and breaking out in a hymn of great joy.

While there are varying versions of the Gloria, we can trace the development of what we know in the West through the Greek Alexandrian school of worship and faith. The teachers of Alexandria emphasize the mystery of the incarnation.  Thus, the Gloria begins with the hymn of angels over the nativity scene and later makes numerous references to Jesus in a Christology that emphasizes his divine identity or personhood and the profound unity between his human and divine natures. A defunct Nestorian version would tend toward the heresy of “adoptionism,” undermining this unity and his divinity.         

The oldest Western text is traced back to 690 AD. The Gloria is composed of three sections:  (1) the hymn of the angelic host at the nativity as detailed in Luke 2:14; (2) the various forms of praise enunciated of almighty God and claimed by various names or titles; and (3) the invocation of the Lord Jesus Christ who is “Only Begotten Son,” “Lord God,” “Lamb of God,” and literally the one Way to the Father.  The obvious emphasis is “God as God” and then Christ. The mention of the Holy Spirit at the end seems only tagged in passing or to make the hymn complete.  The Eastern churches and the more contemporary Charismatic movement in the Catholic Church have sometimes been critical of the minimization of the Holy Spirit in Western theology and worship. This issue is demonstrated in the Gloria.  Yes, our religion affirms the oneness of God (natural faith), the mystery of the Trinity (supernatural faith), the significance of Christ (redemption) and the importance and operation of the Holy Spirit (giver of life and sanctification); but the Holy Spirit is the least spelled out.  The tendency of the Gloria is to emphasize a duality between God the Father and God the Son just as similarly reinforced in the writings of St. Paul. 

The “peace” in the Gloria is brought down from heaven to earth by Jesus Christ.  The “people of good will” does not mean good or well-meaning recipients of the Lord’s peace; rather, it refers to “divine” good-will, pleasure, favor or grace.  Men are graced by the good news they receive.  The selection of these men is not a matter of capricious accident but of God’s providence and grace.  The two truths of the nativity hymn are in regard to the laud of God and the peace given to men.  This glory and peace must not be seen as something locked into the past or as just predictive of the future.  The hymn is realized every time it is sung, either by angels or by men in worship.  The truth of Romans 8:28-33 is realized:

“We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him? Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us.”

Various synonyms of praise give accent to what God gives. We thank him for his great glory.  Christ’s kingdom breaks into the world first through the person of Jesus and then through his mystical body, the Church. A new order is established through the grace and love of God.  The Gloria like a knife slices through any and all narcissism and egoism.  God is glorified just for being God. God is called by many names and then there is the saving name of Jesus Christ who is acclaimed as the Lamb of God and repeatedly invoked to “take away the sins of the world,” “have mercy on us,” “receive our prayer,” and “have mercy on us.”  Jesus Christ makes possible true worship.  The praise of God transitions to praise of Christ. Over time this festive hymn is applied to all festive Masses. 

The Collect

The Collect or Opening Prayer concludes the introductory rites of the Mass.  It is really the only priestly prayer within this section of the liturgy.  The celebrant makes the sign of the cross to start the Mass and extends a brief greeting to the assembled.  He may lead the people in the Confiteor and/or the Kyrie but these prayers are offered by the people. He acknowledges these prayers with a short absolution but that is about it.  He might intone the Gloria but here again all sing or recite the hymn.  The Collect or Opening Prayer is included in take-home missals but not pew missals.  After saying, “Let us pray,” he alone says the prescribed words. The prayers of the people are left unspoken, the quiet intentions they have brought to the Mass. It is the first of three important orations in the Mass, each coming after a significant section:  the introductory rites, the offertory, and the Eucharist and rite of Communion.  The priest collects or gathers the people and their intentions into the worship.  He speaks for them to the Lord.    

Some of the ancient fathers and modern day liturgists would argue that public prayers should follow this pattern:  (1) praising God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit; (2) thanksgiving to God; (3) confession of fault, weakness or dependence; (4) petitions for heavenly things; and (5) a closing doxology. However, the Collects of the Roman Rite do not do this and are predominately prayers of supplication or petition.  Note for instance the Collect for the Second Sunday of Easter or the Divine Mercy:  “God of everlasting mercy, who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast kindle the faith of the people you have made your own, increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed, that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

The petitions are either direct or subjunctive in nature.  While they can be descriptive, they are often quite brief.  As with the example here there can sometimes be a bit of a rhetorical flair about divine attributes or about what God has done for us.  The content of the Collects can be quite general with little in the way of a clear thematic link to the liturgy.  The priest on our behalf is asking to be heard.  As a supplication prayer, we beseech God for help from his benevolent good-will, assistance by his infinite power, light against the darkness of ignorance, protection against evil and danger, guidance to be good, forgiveness of sins, and the meriting of salvation.

The formulation of the Collects will sometimes include a mirroring of contrasting notions:

  • “. . . that we, who are bowed down by our conscience, may always be lifted up by your mercy” (3rd Sunday of Lent).
  • “. . . make this most sacred night radiant” (Easter Vigil).
  • “. . . have conquered death . . . rise up in the light of life” (Easter Sunday).
  • “. . . we may be worthy for him to live with us always on earth, and we with him in heaven” (Ascension Vigil).
  • “. . . where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope” (Ascension).
  • “. . . grant that from out of the scattered nations  . . . may be gathered by heavenly grace” / “. . . the confusion of many tongues. . . into one great confession of your name” (Pentecost).

This back and forth literary convention is frequently found in the writings of ancient Christian writers and in sermons.  Indeed, it is a pattern that echoes from the Bible and the kerygma of faith.  We must die in Christ so as to rise with him.  We have to be poor in forsaking material things so as to be rich in embracing spiritual treasure. We belong either to the world or to the kingdom of Christ. There is the comparison of the passive receptivity of Mary as the “better part” over Martha’s active “doing” in terms of discipleship. We can live for ourselves or for others. We can think of our bellies or mortify ourselves with fasting and abstinence.  We are children of the light, not of the darkness.  We must proclaim the truth and not be a people who succumb to deception.     

The appeal in the Collect is to almighty God.  Despite the Church’s dependence upon Christ, the Council of Hippo in 393 AD insists that these prayers address God the Father. However, the most recent translation of the Mass prayers into English restores a literal address to “God” where before there seems an excessive substitution of the word “Father.”  Further, the corrected translations restore the Latin use of dependent clauses were a simplification of the prayers previously seems to imply a pelagian view of salvation and violates the intercessory role of saints in the sanctoral calendar. We cannot save ourselves.  When a Collect announces the memorial or feast of a saint, the oration still addresses God and supplication is made to him through the intercession of the saintly patron.  The basic rule of thumb must be kept— true worship is always directed to almighty God.  Indeed, for the first thousand years of the Church’s history, despite our trust in the saving work of Christ, there is not one case where Christ is immediately addressed here instead of God the Father.  Given the influence of the French church, this would change.  A current exception to the rule is the Collect for Corpus Christ. It appeals to Christ, his Passion, his Body and Blood, and the fruits of his Redemption. The ordinary location for mention of Christ is as part of the closing doxology.  The prayers end with the following formula:  “Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” Our prayer, indeed the entire Mass and its saving mystery is made possible through the mediation of Jesus Christ. Jesus is our eternal high priest who stands before the Father. Look to his relationships.  He is God’s Son and he is our master.  We belong to him.  He has purchased us at the great price of his blood.  The “Amen” is our assent to the priestly prayer.