Through every century, the Mass is the same: tell the story, pray the prayers, break the bread
By Bob Hunt
Every so often, I am struck by the catholicity of the Catholic Church. This usually happens when I am attending Mass on an occasion that brings together Catholics from all over the country, such as when I attended the “Mass on the Mall” when Pope St. John Paul II visited Washington, D.C., or when I was in seminary and students from all over the country regularly gathered to celebrate the Eucharist together. I am struck that these people from such disparate places, some having traveled great distances, nevertheless proclaim the same creed, respond with the same responses, perform the same gestures, and pray the same prayers.
I recall once being on retreat in a suburb of Chicago. During a break, a fellow retreatant and I decided to explore the nearby town and search out the local Catholic parish. We found it and went inside, and there everything was: the altar, the font, the crucifix, the Stations of the Cross. I thought to myself, here I am in this building for the first time in my life, yet I am at home. We saw a man in the back cleaning up and thought that must be the pastor. He was. We introduced ourselves, and he invited us to the rectory for tea and cookies. There we engaged in a robust conversation about things Catholic, even including purgatory. I thought to myself how grand is this that men from various parts of the country who had only met moments ago can enjoy a conversation about the faith we share in common.
Recently, another sense of catholicity struck me. I was at Mass reciting the creed with my fellow confreres when the thought came to my mind that, here we are reciting the same creed that Catholics across the centuries have recited. One Lord. One faith. One baptism. So, the catholicity of the Church is more than Catholics of the present age across the globe sharing the one universal faith. The catholicity of the Church extends to all ages, to all the past centuries. We share the faith of the Apostles with those who first heard the Gospel at Pentecost, with those who protected the faith at Nicea, with those who formed the creed at Constantinople, with those who brought the Gospel to Europe, to Asia, to Africa, to the Americas, with all the saints and all the holy men and women of every age, race, culture, and continent who somehow found their home here, in this Catholic Church.
Consider this description of the Mass by St. Justin Martyr from the middle of the second century:
“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president [that is, the one who presides] verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who … takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.”
We gather. We listen to the Word of God. The priest instructs and exhorts us. We pray together. We celebrate and distribute the Eucharist. We collect money for those in need. What the Catholics of the middle second century did on Sundays is what we do on Sundays. In St. Justin’s description of the Mass of the middle second century, we recognize the Mass we celebrate today. Indeed, through every century, the Mass is the same: tell the story, pray the prayers, break the bread.
There is cause for rejoicing here. The faith and practice of the Church is what unites us across the world and across the ages.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.
Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville and is a candidate for the permanent diaconate.