What you must know about the Mass

Too few understand the true meaning of eucharistic sacrifice and what is meant by ‘active participation’

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

I will come to the altar of God, to God, my joy and gladness. Psalm 43:4

When I began a yearlong reflection upon the Mass and the Eucharist in my columns beginning last January, I did so because of the incredibly sad statistic reported by Pew Research in its 2019 survey: only 31 percent of practicing Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

In other words, two-thirds of those likely to attend Mass each Sunday are essentially Protestant in their understanding of the “source and summit” of our Catholic faith. Though the reasons for this are many, my intent here is to stress the importance of certain basic truths that are critical if someone is to correctly understand the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to truly participate in it.

Why the Mass? Why do we celebrate the Mass? The answer is quite simple—because Christ commanded us to do so. Father Clifford Howell, SJ, (1902-1981) asked, “Why did Christ entrust [the Mass] to His Church? So that it might become the sacrifice of the Church.” The Mass is the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice upon Calvary—offered once in time, but eternally offered in the heavenly liturgy of which our earthly Mass is a participation (cf. Hebrews 12:22-24).

The Mass is a sacrificeits fourfold purpose. As baptized Catholics, our greatest and most supreme dignity is that of participating in the eucharistic sacrifice of Christ to the Father. What a spiritual and terrible poverty it is that more Catholics do not know what the purpose or ends of the Mass are. The Mass is not a worship service, but a sacrifice—the highest and most supreme form of worship we can offer to God. And when we truly participate in the Mass, Christ unites the offering we make of ourselves to His eternal offering to the Father in a perfect sacrifice of adoration, thanksgiving, atonement, and petition—the fourfold purpose of the Mass.

The Gloria that the angels lead us in proclaiming reminds us of these four ends—to unite with Christ’s perfect sacrifice of praise, adoration, and blessing to the Father, and to offer Him thanks for His “great glory”; to offer with Christ the one and only sacrifice that “takes away the sins of the world”; and to petition the Father to “receive our prayer” with Christ, our great High Priest who “lives forever to make intercession for [us]” (Hebrews 7:25).

One sacrifice, one Mass. Here it is important to understand that there is only one Mass that is celebrated—the sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one and the same sacrifice! Though thousands of Masses are offered each day throughout the world, there is still but one Priest who offers, one and the same Victim that is offered—one Mass. “Only the manner of offering is different,” as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). Because Jesus is true God and true Man, “the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the Cross… is offered in an unbloody manner” upon the altar of the Mass (n. 1367).

Liturgy – work of God. When we speak of the Mass, we speak of the “liturgy,” which means a “public work” or “work for the people.” While some interpret it as the “people’s work,” this has led to many misunderstandings and errors about the true purpose and meaning of the Mass. Correctly understood, though, liturgy is the “work of God,” the work of our salvation in which the “people of God” participate as “God’s co-workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9). Although Christ accomplished for us what we could not possibly have done for ourselves—our redemption—that does not mean we have no share in His saving work. Our baptismal dignity calls for us to share in Christ’s sacrifice, for as King David said, “I cannot offer to the Lord my God holocausts that cost nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24).

Note: Though the Eucharist is “the supreme celebration of the liturgy, properly speaking, liturgy also includes the other sacraments as well, through which Jesus communicates His grace for our sanctification. It also includes the “Liturgy of the Hours,” the public prayer of the Church, as it is Christ’s prayer to the Father that we join our heart and voice to, which serves as “an extension of the Eucharistic celebration” (CCC, 1178).

Christ’s co-worker. Liturgy is written into the very fabric of our nature, for what God spoke of man and woman in creating us is repeated in a far more glorious way in our re-creation. For what God said of the first man, Adam, is true also of the new Adam: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and “I will make a helper suited to him” (Genesis 2:18). So as Jesus slept the deep sleep of death upon the cross, God formed from His pierced side the new Eve, the Church, as His Bride and helper. And at every baptism, Christ cries out as Adam did, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). So every Mass is a divine-human work of Christ the Head together with His Mystical Body, each of us, as His helper for the life and salvation of the world. To be Jesus’ “coworker,” though, means we must also be His “co-offerer” and “co-victim.”

Baptismal dignity. Many Catholics are sadly unaware of the great dignity of their baptism in sharing in Christ’s threefold mission as priest, prophet, and king. Because Christ is “a priest forever” (Hebrews 7:17, 21), our baptism unites us to Him and to His sacrifice as both the One who offers and is offered. Since the sacrifice of the Mass “is an exercise of the priestly office of Christ,” we, too, must exercise our baptismal priesthood in union with Him, otherwise we are but spectators at Mass. We must also exercise it throughout our week in the Mass that we live in the series of offertories we make of ourselves for love of God and neighbor. It is the exercise of our baptismal dignity that helps us to be the saints we are called to be, “to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

Note: There is a distinct difference between the “baptismal” or “common” priesthood of the laity and the “ministerial” priesthood of the ordained. For while there is but one priesthood of Christ that we all share in, there are different ways of participating in it. Baptism enables us to participate in the sacred liturgy as members of the Mystical Body of Christ. But through the sacrament of Holy Orders, the priest is configured to Christ the Head and enabled to act in the person of Christ and to serve and help the faithful to live out their priestly, prophetic, and kingly office.

Importance of the offertory. God’s command to the Israelites is a requirement we, too, must heed: “No one shall appear before the Lord emptyhanded, but each with his own gift” (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). The offertory is that very important part of our “active participation” in the Mass where we offer our gifts and our very life and place them upon the altar with the gifts of bread and wine to be consecrated. We offer all that we are and have, all our crosses and sufferings, joys and sadness, our vocation and work.

In every Mass we are like St. Joseph, poor and unable to afford the sacrificial lamb “who takes away the sin of the world” (cf. Luke 2:24). We are only able to bring our poor substitute of two turtledoves—our body and soul. Insufficient as our offering is, something incredible will occur during the consecration. Christ takes what we offer, as unworthy as it is in the sight of God, and sprinkles His Precious Blood upon it and joins it to His perfect sacrifice as the “Lamb of God.” And the Father, in seeing the Son’s perfect offering and ours united together, receives it as a sacrifice truly “pleasing and acceptable.”

This is why during the Mass when incense is used, the priest and all the faithful are also incensed along with the gifts and the altar. For each of us is a holy temple and our heart is a spiritual altar that is mystically united with the altar of the Mass in the offering we make of ourselves. This is why the priest says, “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” And in responding, we express the purpose of our offering, “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.”

Sacrifice and sacrament. If we are invited to receive Jesus in the most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar in holy Communion, it is because we have first been invited to participate in His sacrificial offering. Father Clifford Howell reminded us that “in a sacrifice something (a victim) is given by man to God, while in a sacrament something (a grace) is given by God to man.”

We must first participate as Christ’s co-offerers and co-victims if we are to rightly approach to receive Him sacramentally and be intimately united with Him. But sadly, too many Catholics think of the Mass as but a ritual preparation of sorts for receiving holy Communion.

Think of what occurs in the Great Doxology of the Mass following the consecration: “Through Him, with Him and in Him, O God, Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever.” It is at this time when, as Father Joseph Putz, SJ, describes in his book, My Mass, that “the gates of Heaven are thrown open, our gifts are transformed into the heavenly Victim, and our offering goes up to God in union with our Savior’s sacrifice.” Could anything be more glorious?

A beautiful quote from a French priest, Father Raoul Plus, SJ (1882-1958), expresses this:

Christ, the High Priest, we as subordinate priests;
Christ, the Chief Victim, we as co-victims!
But, Christ and we—total Priest, and total Victim!

Holy Communion. Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen reminded us of the law of nature “that nothing lives unless it consumes.” But because we are a composite of both body and soul, we not only need bodily food but even more importantly spiritual nourishment. For as Christ tells us, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53).

Archbishop Sheen further explained that “in the natural order, a living thing assimilates its food and incorporates it into its own substance. However, in the Eucharist the roles are reversed…. It is not Christ who is changed into us, as is the food we eat; it is we who are incorporated in Him.”

So one of the first effects of holy Communion, he tells us, is that “we receive from Christ what we gave to Him.” What might that be? “We gave Him our human nature—when, in the name of all humanity, Mary gave Him manhood, like us in all things except sin. Christ divinized that human nature because it was made substantially one with His Divine Person. In Communion, Jesus gives it back to us, purified, regenerated, and ennobled, a promise and a pledge of what our nature is to be on the Last Day in the Resurrection of the just!” If that does not make you say, “Wow,” I don’t know what will.

Regular confession. Briefly, I wish to remind everyone of the great need to frequent the sacrament of reconciliation, particularly if one has unconfessed mortal (deadly) sins. For just “as a corpse cannot receive nourishment,” Archbishop Sheen reminded us, “so neither may one without the divine life in his soul receive the divine nourishment.” To approach Communion without sacramentally being cleansed in the confessional of serious sin is to “eat and drink a condemnation upon yourself” (1 Corinthians 11:29).

Something beautifully nuptial. St. John Paul II beautifully describes the Eucharist as “the Sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride.” Because by virtue of our baptism, we are brides in the Church, we “are called to respond—as a bride—with the gift of our lives to the inexpressible gift of the love of Christ…, the Church’s Bridegroom.”

When we hear the words of Christ Our Bridegroom, who says for love of us, “This is my Body…, This is the Chalice of my Blood,” what other reciprocal response can we possibly give but to say, “This too is my body…, this too is my blood!” The measure with which Christ has given Himself to you is the measure you must strive to give to Him! “Holiness,” then, as St. John Paul II reminds us, “is measured according to the ‘great mystery’ in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom.”

As God commanded the first man and woman in the garden to “Be fruitful and multiply!” (Genesis 1:28), so, too, must we be fruitful in our relationship with Our Heavenly Bridegroom. But a contracepted heart can bear no fruit, so we must always strive to be a fruitful bride of Christ.

Real presence. The Church speaks of the Eucharist as Christ’s “real presence” for that is what it is—Christ is truly present in His flesh as true Man and in His divinity as true God. It is true that He is present to us in other ways, but in the Eucharist Jesus is present in a way that surpasses all other ways, a presence “par excellence” in the reality of His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.

Jesus is truly present in the tabernacle of our church as He was in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying and offering Himself to the Father for us, longing for us to join Him, and to “watch and pray” with Him (Mark 14:38). Although He is shrouded in darkness to our body’s eye as He was to His disciples in the Garden, the more time we spend with Him, the more our heart sees Him, the more “real” His presence and friendship becomes. He awaits us to join Him in His offering for the salvation of the world.

Living the Mass. With the final blessing and dismissal, the Mass does not end—we must now go and “live the Mass”—to be God’s “little liturgy” in the world about us. We do so in the series of offertories we continue to make throughout our day and week, in the sacrifices we make for love of God and neighbor. And as we do, the heavenly hymn of praise resounds in our lives: “You made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth” (Revelation 5:10).

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