According to the Second Vatican Council, the Eucharist “is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #2). The Eucharist “is a sacred action surpassing all others” (#7), “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” and “the font from which all her power flows” (#10).
In order for the liturgy to produce its full effects, the Council said, “it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions,” “fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects” (#11). “Fully conscious and active participation” is both a right and a duty given to Christians by their baptism, and pastors are required to “zealously strive to achieve it” (#14).
This Guide to the Mass is designed to help Catholics appreciate the deep significance of the Church's liturgy. Although it includes an overview of the various components of the liturgy, the main emphasis is on the four general "movements" or parts of the Eucharist: The Liturgy of the Wordand the Liturgy of the Eucharist, preceeded by the Introductory Rite and followed by the Concluding Rite.
According to the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, these parts “are so closely interconnected that they form but one single act of worship,” -- “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, of propitiation and satisfaction” which proclaims “the wondrous mystery of the Lord’s real presence under the Eucharistic species” (GIRM, #28; 2; 3). Taken as a whole, they represent the solemn way in which the People of God are regularly gathered to remember, celebrate and give thanks for God's redeeming love, expressed most perfectly in the life, death and resurrection (the Paschal Mystery) of Jesus Christ. As his disciples and members of his Body on earth, we re-dedicate ourselves in the Eucharist to live as Jesus does.
As Catholic Christians, we believe that the saving action of the Creator is transforming reality. These aspects of the liturgy -- the gathering, remembering, celebrating, and the commitment to mission -- reflect the fundamental Catholic conviction that time, space and material reality, human beings, human relationships and human activity are capable of embodying and reflecting God's saving love and redeeming presence. This Catholic conviction that reality is sacramental, communal, historical, and hopeful exists in a certain amount of tension within a secular culture which emphasizes what is material, scientific, individual and self-contained.
To fully appreciate and participate in the Eucharist, we need to be more aware of this deeper, broader reality which is too often denied or under-valued by conventional society.
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The parts of the Mass which precede the Liturgy of the Word are called the Introductory Rite. According to the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (1999), these rites “have the character of a beginning, introduction and preparation;” they are designed “to ensure that the faithful who come together as one establish communion” and properly dispose themselves to celebrate the liturgy (#46).
The Introductory Rites include the Entrance and Greeting, the Penitential Rite, Kyrie ("Lord have mercy"), Gloria and Opening Prayer.
• The Entrance includes the procession of the priest, deacon and ministers, accompanied by an Entrance Hymn or Chant. The purpose of the hymn or chant is “to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers” (GIRM, #47). When the priest and ministers reach the sanctuary they reverence the altar with a profound bow and the priest and deacon kiss the altar.
• The Penitential Rite follows the Entrance and Greeting. The priest invites the assembly to take part in the Act of Penitence by which the community expresses its personal and communal sinfulness. The Penitential Rite may consist of reciting the Confiteor (“I confess”) or a series of acclamations which remind us of God’s mercy. These acclamations conclude with the words “Lord have mercy…,” “Christ have mercy…,” “Lord have mercy…” and may replace the chanting of the Kyrie.
• The Gloria is an “ancient and venerable hymn in which the Church, gathered together in the Holy Spirit, glorifies and entreats God the Father and the Lamb.” It is generally sung by the entire assembly, or by the assembly and choir alternating, on Sundays outside the seasons of Advent and Lent, on solemnities and feasts, and at special celebrations.
• The Opening Prayer begins with a short silence, during which members of the assembly may recall particular petitions mentally, followed by a prayer prayed out loud by the priest. This prayer is traditionally called the “Collect” and expresses the character or special concern of the day’s liturgy.
The assembly generally stands for the entire Introductory Rite.
Appreciating the Introductory Rite
We live in a society which emphasizes the importance of personal freedom and individual autonomy. We admire the self-made individual who appears to be self-sufficient. While these values are important, we also have to remember that none of us is totally free or completely independent.
Catholics believe that human beings are essentially social beings. We are all members of the human community and God’s family. We are by nature inter-connected and inter-dependent. We are responsible to and for one another and for the common good. No human person is an island, entirely independent and self-sufficient.
As we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist, the Introductory Rite invites us to deliberately and intentionally "re-focus" on our membership in the community we call the People of God, the Body of Christ. We pause to remember our connected-ness and our inter-dependence. We acknowledge this common-unity, even as we confess that it is imperfect because we are all imperfect and sinful persons.
Suggestions for Reflection and Discussion
• Think about the ways have you experienced a tension between individual freedom and community responsibilities in your own life.
• Remember the occasions or circumstances in which you have experienced the value -- and the challenge -- of living in a community or family.
• Imagine how might you enter more fully into an awareness of belonging to the community which gathers to celebrate the Eucharist.
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The Liturgy of the Word consists of readings from Sacred Scripture the chants or responses which occur between the readings, the homily, Profession of Faith, and Prayer of the Faithful.
• The Scripture Readings. Through the readings, “God speaks to his people, opening up to them the mystery of redemption and salvation” (GIRM #55). The readings should "promote meditation,” and may include brief periods of silence so that “at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, the word of God may be grasped by the heart” (GIRM #56). The readings include:
-- First Reading, which is usually taken from the Old Testament;
-- Responsorial Psalm which is sung or chanted by the assembly and
choir, led by the cantor;
-- Second Reading (on Sundays, feast days and solemnities), which
taken from the Acts of the Apostles or one of the New Testament
-- Acclamation, led by the cantor and sung or changed by the choir and
The first and second readings are normally proclaimed by a lector; the Gospel is proclaimed by a deacon or the presiding priest.
The Lectionary, which contains the designated readings, is divided into three cycles for Sunday Masses and two cycles for weekday Masses. This insures that over the course of the Lectionary cycles, Catholics hear most of the four Gospels, a selection from the other New Testament books, and significant parts of the Old Testament.
• The Homily follows the readings and is intended to explain some aspect of the readings or in a way which considers “both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners” (GIRM #55). The homily is ordinarily given by the presiding priest, but may be given by the deacon, a visiting priest or bishop.
If catechumens (unbaptized persons) participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults are present at the Mass, they are dismissed followed the homily.
• The Profession of Faith or Creed is sung or proclaimed by the presiding priest and the entire assembly following the readings and homily on Sundays and feasts or solemnities. It gives the assembly an opportunity to “respond to the word of God proclaimed in the readings” and “confess the great mysteries of the faith…celebrated in the Eucharist” (GIRM #67).
• The Prayer of the Faithful is the community’s response to the word of God. Having been nourished by the Word, the Assembly prays for the needs of the Church, for the world, for individuals and groups burdened by special difficulties, and for the needs of the local community. The intentions are announced by the deacon, the cantor, lector, or another member of the assembly.
The Assembly customarily sits for the readings and the homily, but stands for the proclamation of the Gospel, the Creed and the Prayer of the Faithful.
Appreciating the Liturgy of the Word
There is a tendency in our society to devalue history, to forget the past, and to over-emphasize individual autonomy and self-determination. We teach our children that they can do anything they want to do and be anyone they want to be -- a worthy vision which is in some ways an unrealistic dream.
No person or community exists entirely disconnected from history. We are all shaped to some degree by our past and limited to some extent by the circumstances in which we live -- that's a normal condition of being human persons confined by time and space. More importantly, who we are and how we lived are shaped by our vision of the way things could be, our vision of the future.
The Liturgy of the Word reminds us that we have a past and a future as God's people, the Body of Christ. If we take that seriously, we are not absolutely free to do or be whatever we wish. Our concrete choices as individuals and as a community must be consistent with a deeper truth, revealed over time, about who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going as children of God.
Suggestions for Reflection and Discussion
• Think about some of the ways in which you have experienced limitations or restrictions on your desire or ability to be the person you want to be. Were these limitations positive or negative?
• Recall where, when or how have you experienced the value of history – of belonging to a family or community whose identity and behavior is shaped to some degree by its past and its future.
• Consider the benefits and the challenges of belonging to the People of God, a community whose behavior is shaped by its past and by its destiny.
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The Liturgy of the Eucharist corresponds to the words and actions of Christ at the Last Supper: the priest receives the gifts of bread and wine, consecrates them, and then distributes them so that all may share in the Paschal Sacrifice.
• The Preparation and Prayer Over the Gifts. In preparation for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the altar is prepared and the bread and wine are presented to the priest, who places them on the altar. Whenever possible, the gifts are presented by members of the assembly while the assembly and choir sing a hymn or chant. The priest then invites the assembly to pray with him over the gifts which will become the body and blood of Christ.
• The Eucharistic Prayer begins with the priest’s invitation, “Lift up your hearts….” This prayer “of thanksgiving and sanctification” is “the center and summit” of the entire Eucharist. Through this prayer “the entire congregation of the faithful [joins] itself with Christ in confessing the great deeds of God and in the offering of Sacrifice” (GIRM, #78).
The Eucharist Prayer includes:
-- Thanksgiving, expressed in the Preface, which gives thanks to God the
Father for the whole work of salvation;
-- Acclamation, expressed in the "Holy, Holy, Holy" which is said or sung
by the entire assembly;
-- Epiclesis, which invokes the power of the Holy Spirit over the gifts;
-- Institution narrative and consecration, which repeats the words and
actions of Christ at the Last Supper: "Take, all of you and eat... this is
my body... this is my blood."
-- Anamnesis: in which the assembly remembers the saving power of
Christ’s passion, resurrection and ascension;
-- Offering: in which the Church offers the Holy Spirit as the spotless
Victim to the Father. At the same time, the Church intends "that the
faithful...learn to offer themselves, and so day by day...be
consummated through Christ the Mediator into unity with God and with
each other" (GIRM #79).
-- Intercessions: which we pray for the whole Church, both the living and
the dead, in heaven and on earth.
-- Final doxology: which declares our intention to offer the Eucharist in,
through and with Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
The assembly responds to the Eucharistic Prayer with the acclamation“Amen.”
• The Communion Rite. This rite is the part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist in which the whole assembly prepares for and receives Holy Communion, the body and blood of the Lord. The Communion Rite consists of:
-- The Lord’s Prayer, which is prayed out loud (or sung) by the assembly.
In the Catholic Mass, the priest adds the embolism, an extension to the
last petition of the Prayer, to which the assembly adds a doxology: “for
thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory….”
-- The Rite of Peace, the Church’s prayer for peace and unity --
communion -- which is symbolically expressed within the assembly by
a handshake or another gesture recommended by the national
Conference of Bishops.
-- The Fraction, in which the priest (or the assisting deacon) breaks a
piece of the Eucharistic bread to symbolize “that the many faithful are
made one body (1 Cor 10:17) by receiving Communion from the one
Bread of Life which is Christ, who died and rose for the salvation of the
world." The priest then breaks off a piece of the Bread and puts it into
the chalice “to signify the unity of the Body and Blood of the Lord in the
work of salvation, namely, of the living and glorious Body of Jesus
Christ” (GIRM #83). The assembly and choir sing the Agnus Dei during
the fraction rite.
-- Communion, during which the body of blood are received first by the
presiding priest and then by the assembly. According to the General
Instruction, “It is most desirable that the faithful, just as the priest
himself is bound to do, receive the Lord’s Body from hosts consecrated
at the same Mass and that, in the instances when it is permitted, they
partake of the chalice so that even by means of the signs Communion
will stand out more clearly as a participation in the sacrifice actually
being celebrated” (GIRM #85).
-- Prayer After Communion, read out loud by the priest, which brings the
Communion Rite and the Liturgy of the Eucharist to a conclusion.
The assembly sits during the Preparation of the Gifts, kneels (or in some cases stands) during most of the Eucharistic Prayer and the Communion Rite, and stands during the Preface, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Rite of Peace.
The assembly and choir sing or chant a Communion song during Communion “to express the communicants’ union in spirit,...to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ nature of the procession to receive Communion” (GIRM #86). When Communion is finished the priest and faithful may spend some time praying privately or a hymn may be sung by the congregation.
Appreciating the Liturgy of the Eucharist
We live in a "disenchanted" secular society which is uncomfortable with mysteries of any kind, especially sacred mysteries, or truths which cannot be “proven” by human reason or science alone. We tend to expect that there ought to be a "perfectly reasonable" (which is to say, a totally understandable) explanation for everything that happens. We demand concrete, "objective," material proof.
While human knowledge and science are important, Christians believe that there is more to reality than "meets the eye." We believe that there is another, deeper, transcendent dimension to reality which is not entirely subject to perfectly reasonable or concrete proof. We believe that God is present in time and space, first through the mystery of Creation, and even more fully through the mystery of the Incarnation. For us, material reality points to this sacred mystery and reveals this sacred presence, even though we cannot "prove" it scientifically or explain it by human reason alone. This is what we call the principle of sacramentality.
The ultimate expression of our belief in the sacramentality of material things is our belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. As Catholics, we believe that the bread and wine become the real, sacramental body and blood of Christ, even though it is difficult to explain how this happens; we believe that by receiving the body and blood of Christ we too are transformed into the living Body of Christ, a reality which is more likely to be experienced than explained.
Suggestions for Reflection and Discussion
• Think about times when you have experienced the tension that exists between the mysteries of life and factual knowledge revealed to us by human reason or science.
• Recall examples of where, when or how have you experienced God’s presence in nature, in other people, in the sacraments or in the Eucharist.
• Consider why it is important to you that the bread and wine -- and the assembly -- are transformed into the Body of Christ on earth.
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The concluding rites consist of the following components:
-- Brief announcements, if they are necessary;
-- Greeting and blessing, which on certain days and special occasions
may expressed in an extended prayer over the People or another more
-- Dismissal of the people by the deacon or the priest, using the ancient
formula from which the term “Mass” was derived: “Ita missa est – Go,
the Mass is ended.”
-- Closing Procession, by which the priest, deacon and other ministers
leave the sanctuary as the choir and assembly sing a closing hymn.
The assembly stands during the Concluding Rites.
Appreciating the Concluding Rites
We live in a society which promises equal opportunity to all, but often empowers only a few exceptional people and under-values the contributions of many others. Even theologically, there are voices which under-value the role of human activity in the world, or theologies which believe that only a chosen few are saved. As a result, many people feel useless, discouraged and powerless in a society where their only purpose is consuming goods and services other people produce; and the chosen few are preoccupied protecting their privileges and hard-earned "success."
Catholic Christians, however, are people of mission and hope. We believe that what human beings do in this world makes a difference and that every human being has both the responsibility and the right to contribute in some way to God’s saving work in the world. We believe that the human race is saved by faith expressed in works of the human body, mind and spirit.
The Dismissal Rite reminds us that we all share in Jesus' mission to proclaim the Good News and transform the world. God's continuing effort in history to create a world which anticipates the Kingdom relies on our cooperation and our effort, even if it does not ultimately depend on us. This conviction gives a sense of purpose and value to every human life; it is a source of both hope and gratitude.
Suggestions for Reflection and Discussion
• Think about some of the concrete circumstances in which you have felt under-valued, discouraged or powerless as an individual or as a family member in our society.
• Recall examples of where, when or how you have experienced a sense of purpose, meaning and hope about your life?
• Consider the difference it makes to individuals and to society if each human life is considered to have a purpose and meaning.
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Guide to the Mass
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy/Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963)
Eucharist in the Church/Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003)
General Instruction on the Roman Missal (2003)
Real Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Eucharist (2001)
Resources About the Revised Roman Missal
A Walk Through the Mass (Catholic Update, 1989)
Changes in the Mass (Catholic Update, 2003)
Eucharist--What Has Happened to My Devotion (Catholic Update, 1992)
The Eucharist--Understanding Christ's Body (Catholic Update, 1999)
How to Participate More Actively in the Mass (Catholic Update, 1982)
Participating Fully at Sunday Mass (Catholic Update, 1998)
The Real Presence (Catholic Update, 2001)
Why I Go to Mass (Catholic Update, 2002)
Written by Dave Cushing