Understanding the Sacraments: The ‘peculiar graces’ of the Mass

The saints, including St. John of the Cross and St. Faustina, experienced this liturgical presence in profound ways

By Father Randy Stice

The meaning and power of the liturgical year was elegantly summarized by Vatican Council II: “Within the cycle of a year, moreover, she [the Church] unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 102). As the mysteries of our redemption are liturgically recalled and celebrated, the riches of Christ’s “powers and merits” are opened to us “so that these are in some way made present for all time, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace” (SC, 102, italics added).

These events are “made present for all time” because Christ’s Paschal mystery is different from all other historical events, which “pass away, swallowed up in the past. The Paschal mystery of Christ, by contrast, cannot remain only the past, because by his death he destroyed death, and all that Christ is—all that he did and suffered for all men—participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them all” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1085).

Thus, in asserting that the liturgy makes these events present in a way that we can grasp them and receive their graces, the Church has laid out for us both the mystery and the power of the Mass. This is how the Austrian Father Pius Parsch (1884-1954), one of the leaders of the liturgical movement, described it in his masterwork, The Church’s Year of Grace (published in English in the United States between 1953 and 1959): “The Sacrifice of Mass offered on various feasts and ferials actualized the sacred event commemorated, making present its peculiar graces” (vol. IV, p. 10, italics added). At one and the same time the Mass makes present Christ’s Paschal mystery in its entirety and the “peculiar graces” specific to each celebration.

The saints experienced this unique liturgical presence in profound ways. For example, for St. John of the Cross, “The liturgical feasts and seasons meant more than an external commemoration; they were the occasion of an interior transformation in the spirit of the mystery being celebrated….One Christmas, seeing a statue of the Infant lying on a cushion, he cried out, ‘Lord, if love is to slay me, the hour has now come.’ His countenance, in fact, corresponded with the Church’s liturgy. Once during Holy Week he suffered so intensely from the Passion of Christ that he found it impossible to leave the monastery to hear the nuns’ confessions” (Kieran Kavanaugh, Introduction to the Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, p. 27).

St. Faustina, the Apostle of the Divine Mercy, described her experiences of the graces she received at different liturgical celebrations. After a Christmas Eve midnight Mass she wrote: “During Holy Mass, I again saw the little Infant Jesus, extremely beautiful, joyfully stretching out His little arms to me. After Holy Communion, I heard the words: I am always in your heart; not only when you receive Me in Holy Communion, but always.” (Diary, no. 575). And following the celebration of the feast of Christ the King she wrote, “During Holy Mass I prayed fervently that Jesus might become King of all hearts and that divine grace might shine in every soul. Then I saw Jesus as He is depicted in the image [of Divine Mercy], and He said to me, My daughter, you give Me the greatest glory by faithfully fulfilling my desires” (Diary, 500). “Almost every feast of the Church,” she observed, “gives me a deeper knowledge of God and a special grace” (Diary, no. 481).

The liturgy gives us many guides to the “peculiar graces” of each eucharistic celebration. The entrance antiphon introduces the assembly “to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity” (GIRM, 47). The opening prayer or Collect expresses “the character of the celebration” (GIRM, 54). In the readings, “Christ himself is present through his word in the midst of the faithful” (GIRM, 55). And the Prayer after Communion is a petition “for the fruits of the mystery just celebrated” (GIRM, 89).

Meditating on these texts, available in a variety of sources such as daily missals and periodicals such as Magnificat, prepares us to receive the graces specific to each celebration. This was St. Faustina’s practice: “I prepare myself for each feast and unite myself closely with the spirit of the Church. What a joy it is to be a faithful child of the Church! Oh, how much I love Holy Church and all those who live in it!” (St. Faustina, no. 481). May we follow her example so that we too can lay hold of the “powers and merits” of Christ’s saving work “made present” every time the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered (SC, 102).


Father Stice is pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens and directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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