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Mass (Liturgy)

This article discusses the Mass as part of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. For the Mass as a genre of classical music composition, see Mass (music). For mass as a concept in physics, see Mass..

The Sacramentary[?] is the liturgical book containing the prayers and rubrics of the Roman Mass, used by the priest at the altar. The Mass, as the principal worship service of the Roman Catholic Church, has acquired through its long history several names, like Eucharist, Agape, the Lord's Supper, and Holy Communion. It is divided into the following sections:

Introductory Rites

The celebration of a
pre-Vatican II Tridentine High Mass

    Synopsis: The beginning of the Mass usually begins with a hymn and an exchange of greetings between the priest and the congregation. Following this, in the Penitential Rite, the congregation is invited to reflect on the acts and thoughts that fell short of Christian code of conduct. They ask for forgiveness in the Kyrie eleison ( = Greek "Lord, have mercy") and then receive a general absolution[?]. On Sundays and feast days the Gloria is sung to praise God. Then an opening prayer, peculiar to the day, is recited.
    • Entrance Hymn
    • Greeting
    • Penitential Rite
    • Kyrie
    • Gloria
    • Opening Prayer
Liturgy of the Word
    Synopsis: On Sundays and major feast days three readings from the Bible are heard: the first from the Old Testament, and the second generally from the Epistles or letters (mostly from St. Paul) or Acts of the Apostles. Since the first four books of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) of the New Testament are held in particularly high regard, reading from one of them is preceded by special ceremonies which generally include singing the Alleluia and censing. Following the readings, the priest delivers a homily or sermon, frequently an elucidation of one of the readings.
    • First Reading
    • Second Reading
    • Gospel Acclamation
    • Alleluia
    • Gospel
    • Homily or sermon
    • Credo[?] - During most of the year the Creed is then recited to remind the congregation of the fundamentals of the Catholic faith. There are two versions: the long Nicene Creed and the shorter Apostles Creed.
    • Intercessions - Here various needs of the parish and the world are brought to mind. The congregation pleads that God will answer the petitions presented to Him.

Liturgy of the Eucharist

    Synopsis: This is the center of the Mass where, it is believed, the bread (called a host) and the wine undergo the miracle of transubstantiation. The elements of bread and wine are brought to the altar and the attention of the congregation is directed there with the prayer Sursum Corda ( = Lat. "lift up your hearts"). The hymn of the angels called the Sanctus is sung just before the Eucharistic prayer, during which the miracle occurs at the "words of institution:" THIS IS MY BODY...THIS IS MY BLOOD.

    The congregation is again united in reciting the "Mystery of Faith:" which reads, "Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again."

    • Preparation of Altar and Gifts
    • Sursum Corda
    • Preface
    • Sanctus[?]
    • Mystery of Faith


    Synopsis: The congregation reaffirms its unity in praying the "Our Father". This prayer is also called the "The Lord's Prayer" or "Pater Noster." The "Doxology" is not the hymn favored by Protestants and Evangelicals, but a brief statement of praise to the three Persons of the Trinity. The "Sign of Peace" affirms that all those assisting at Mass are of one body. Greetings are exchanged with a (non-moving) handclasp and a statement of "Peace be with you" or very similar. Those who are very close may kiss on the cheek; but it is not an expected act among the general congregation. The consecrated host is broken (= "fracture") and distributed to the congregation during Communion. The rite closes with a special prayer peculiar to the day.
    • Our Father
    • Doxology
    • Sign of Peace
    • Breaking of the Bread
    • Communion
    • Prayer after Communion

The "New" Mass and the "Old" Mass

An example of a remodelled altar for the "New" Mass
The altar, which once stood against the reredos in the background, has been moved away, with the celebrant saying Mass facing the congregation over the newly located altar. Unlike many churches, this church kept its carved reredos and inset tabernacle.

In the late 1960s a revised Roman Missal was introduced to replace the previous Tridentine Missal published in 1570, following the Council of Trent. For four centuries, what is loosely called a Tridentine Mass, that is the Mass celebrated in accordance with the Tridentine Missal, only underwent minor changes. Among the principal reforms of the new Missal were:

  • the option (universally availed of) to use a vernacular translation of the Roman Missal, in place of the traditional Latin;
  • a redesigning of the sanctuary to facilitate the celebration in accordance with the new Missal. This included
    • the moving of the altar from its previous location, up against a reredos (decorative back mounting) so as to allow the priest to face the congregation when celebrating Mass. Previously (as the above image showed) the celebrant had his back to the congregation and faced the Tabernacle;
    • The removal in some cases of Altar rails which separated the congregation from the sanctuary where the altar was located;
    • The replacement of high pulpits by ambos. Where a pulpit had not existed, an ambo was installed;
  • the replacement of traditional priestly vestments by less decorated more freeflowing vestments based on the form worn in the early church;
  • the use of vernacular hymns in place of gregorian chant and latin hymns;
  • the introduction of Ministers of the Eucharist to help the celebrant in the distribution of Holy Communion;
  • the introduction of Ministers of the Word, so that the laity could participate in the Mass through readings other than the gospel;
  • the scrapping of the ban imposed by Pope Pius X on women entering the sanctuary.

A small minority of catholics continue to campaign for the reinstatement of the Tridentine Mass. While the rules laid down in the new Missal allow and recommend the celebration of Mass in Latin, the use of the earlier Missal was prohibited for some years following its successor's introduction. (Today it is allowed, given as special dispense.)

Many of the resigned altars have proved controversial, with public opposition to the removal of altar rails and the reredos.

Other critics have alleged that the celebration of Mass according to the new Missal (Novus Ordo called by some) is unattractive and unappealing, and lacks the degree of ceremony and ritual that marked its predecessor. Some conservative critics have claimed that the rapid decline in religious attendance is due to the allegedly boring nature of the modern ceremony. Its defenders argue that without the reform, religious attendance would have declined even further.


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