Editorial, January 2009
The text of the Roman Missal at the consecration of the wine refers to it as “the Mystery of Faith” (Myssterium Fidei). It is a mystery of faith because wonderful, miraculous things take place during the celebration that have eternal effects and because, during the Mass, ultimate worship of God is given and grace is poured out on those present and on those for whom the Mass is offered.
The celebration of the Mass is the most important thing that the Church does each day. It is the most important daily activity of priests. St. John Vianney said that, if we really understood what is happening at Mass, we would die. I assume that he was referring here to the statement in the Old Testament that no one can see God and live—and God becomes present on the altar during the Mass.
The Mass is a mystery of faith because there is an essential connection between it and the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on Calvary two thousand years ago. The Mass is not a new sacrifice of Christ because Jesus is now glorified at the right hand of the Father in heaven. Death no longer has power over him so he cannot suffer. The Christ present at Mass is the glorified Christ, as he now is in heaven.
Because of the words of Jesus directing his apostles to repeat what he did at the Last Supper when he said, “Do this in memory of me,” we know from divine revelation what happens at Mass, but we do not know how it takes place. So when the ordained priest says the words of consecration over the bread and wine, by the almighty power of God the bread is changed into the Body of Christ and the wine is changed into his Blood.
In his book on the Mass, Cardinal Charles Journet, a Swiss theologian, defined the Mass as “the unbloody presence of the unique bloody sacrifice of the cross.” The Mass and Calvary are the same sacrifice, only the mode of offering is different. On the cross it was bloody and brutal, while in the Mass it is unbloody and peaceful.
The Mass, therefore, is not a different sacrifice from that of Calvary—it is the same offering, only the presence is different. Journet says that “presence” here must be understood as analogous. So the glorified Christ is substantially present under the appearances of bread and wine. That is why the marvelous change effected at Mass is called “transubstantiation” by the Catholic Church. When the grace of Calvary is applied to those who partake of the Mass, this is his “operative presence.” Christ is present in various ways—in Scripture, in the Church, in the other sacraments, in the Eucharist, in grace in the soul.
A sacrifice requires the offering of something; if it is living, it is called a victim. In the Mass Christ is both the victim and the priest, the same as on Calvary, but now Christ operates through the priest and offers himself to the Father in reparation for our sins.
The heart of the Mass, the most important part, is the consecration, when the priest, acting in persona Christi, says in the first person, “This is my Body” and “this is my Blood.”
Cardinal Journet stresses that the Mass today is not a repetition of Calvary; it is rather making the unique sacrifice of Calvary present now on the altar in an unbloody manner.
The importance of the Mass in the life of a Catholic is obvious from the fact that all are required, under pain of mortal sin, to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. Receiving Communion is required only once a year.
The miraculous change into the Body and Blood of Christ is called “transubstantiation.” This means that the substance of bread and wine is changed by the power of God into the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Church rejects the view of Luther who said that Christ is present along with the bread—a theory that is called “impanation.”
In the Mass Christ offers himself to the Father. To gain spiritual fruit from the Mass we should interiorly offer ourselves with Christ to the Father. This is truly the “active participation” recommended by Vatican II.