Obviously, the Mass is a glorious thing. It is the way God continues to feed his people; it is the way Jesus Christ—God made flesh—keeps his promise never to leave us orphans.
Those who attend daily Mass have been given an unmatchable grace. Each day, we are given the grace to receive the Lord Jesus in his very flesh, to hear the Spirit speak to each of us in both the words of the Mass, as well as the silence such worship offers. We realize how we have been adopted into the Father’s own family as his beloved children, now gathered together as ecclesia—those who have been called out of our families and communities for this solemn half-hour each morning. Yet, the daily ritual can, at times, so familiarize us with the awesome glory of the Mass, that we might lose sight of how special it is. And, if we who are priests lose that vision, how much more will our parishioners lose it? This essay, accordingly, wants to remind each of us how special the Mass is.
First, the Mass is the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Christ, and the sacrifice of the Eucharist, are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same (One) now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ, who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross, is contained, and is offered in an unbloody manner” (Catechism of The Catholic Church (henceforth CCC) §1367). Furthermore, St. John Paul II taught, “The Eucharist is, above all else, a sacrifice.” And, it is more: “The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated, and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood” (CCC §1382).
So, the Mass is above all the re-presentation of the one sacrifice of Jesus’ death on the cross. And more, it is also a sacred banquet of communion with our Eucharistic Lord. As such, it is, of course, the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrifices. As the Council of Trent (1545-63) taught, “(The Mass) is, finally, that (sacrifice) which was prefigured by various types of sacrifices during the period of nature (before Moses) and that of the law (after Moses), which, namely, comprises all the good things signified by them, as being the consummation and perfection of them all” (Council of Trent, Decree on The Sacrifice of the Mass, Ch. 2). This means that all the Old Testament sacrifices—the lambs, the bulls, the goats, and the scapegoat, in particular—were all foreshadowings of the true sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Those sacrifices had no power in themselves to remit sins, but insofar as they were related to the true sacrifice of Jesus, they had that power.
The Real Presence
Now, just about all priests and faithful Catholics know that the bread and wine become the most holy body and blood of Jesus, and that this is a Real Presence, not just a symbolic one. But, how often do we remind our people of this doctrine? We should explain clearly that for the Mass to truly be the re-offering of the sacrifice of Jesus’ death on Calvary, he would have to be truly present in the Eucharistic species. And, he is. Jesus himself proclaimed:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (Jn 6:53-56).
Right from the first century, the Church has taken that literally—that the substance of bread and wine is changed miraculously into the substance of Jesus’ body and blood. The “accidents”—the appearance, taste, shape, etc.—remain that of bread and wine, but the substance (i.e., what it is) is different. When the Protestants doubted the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in the 16th century, the Council of Trent made clear the Church’s position. In fact, with the first canon addressing the Real Presence of the Eucharist, the Fathers at Trent declared that, “If anyone denies that in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ, but says that he is in it only as in a sign, or figure or force, let him be anathema.”
The Church’s Witness: Miracles and Saints Galore!
Furthermore, there have been a good number of miracles over the centuries, which have confirmed the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. One involved a monk in Lanciano, Italy, in the eighth century who doubted the Real Presence as he said Mass one day. Then, just after the consecration, he noticed that the host had been transformed into a circle of flesh, and the wine was changed into visible blood. As he began to weep with joy, he announced to the congregation: “Oh fortunate witnesses to whom the Blessed God, to confound my unbelief, has wished to reveal himself…. Come, brethren, and marvel at our God, so close to us. Behold the flesh and blood of our most Beloved Christ” (Joan Carroll Cruz, Eucharistic Miracles p. 3).
The congregation quickly came forward to see the miracle and after Mass, went out to spread the news. Over the centuries many scientific tests have been made on these elements. In one such investigation, it was discovered that the flesh was muscle tissue from the myocardium, which is the wall of the heart, and contained no trace of a preservative. The flesh and the blood were of human origin, with the blood matching the blood type in the flesh. These miraculous relics can still be seen in the church now dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi in Lanciano, Italy. (Cruz, op. cit., pp. 3-7). There have been over 30 such miracles, reassurances from God that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ.
The Lord himself and the saints had great things to say about the Mass, things we should tell our people, especially when we preach on Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi. Our Lord said to St. Mechtilde:
In Mass, I come with such humility that there is no sinner, no matter how depraved he be, that I am not ready to receive, if only he desires it. I come with such sweetness and mercy that I will pardon my greatest enemies, if they ask for pardon. I come with such generosity that there is no one so poor that I will not fill him with the riches of my love. I come with such heavenly food as will strengthen the weakest, with such light as will illumine the blindest, with such a plenitude of graces as will remove all miseries, overcome all obstinacy, and dissipate all fears.
Once, St. Teresa of Ávila was overwhelmed with God’s goodness and asked Jesus, “How can I thank you?” Our Lord replied, “Attend one Mass.” More recently, St. Padre Pio said, “If we only knew how God regards this Sacrifice, we would risk our lives to be present at a single Mass.” Such moments of insight are thankfully numerous. So many saints want to yell from heaven, still, on how glorious the Mass is:
St. John Vianney: If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy … All good works taken together cannot have the value of one Holy Mass, because they are the works of men, whereas the Holy Mass is the work of God.
St. Alphonsus Ligouri: One single Mass gives more honor to God than all the penances of the saints, the labors of the Apostles, the sufferings of the martyrs, and even the burning love of the Blessed Mother of God.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux: One merits more by devoutly attending a holy Mass, than by distributing all he owns to the poor, and traveling all over the world on pilgrimage.
St. Francis de Sales: The sum of all spiritual exercises, (is) the most holy, sacred, and Sovereign Sacrifice and Sacrament of the Eucharist, the very center of our Christian religion, the heart of all devotion, the soul of piety; that Ineffable Mystery which embraces the whole depth of Divine Love, by which God, giving himself really to us, conveys all his graces and favors to men with royal magnificence … Prayer made in union with this Divine Sacrifice has untold power…
St. Leonard of Port Maurice: Take my advice, and in every Mass ask God to make you a great saint. Does this seem too much? It is not too much. Is it not our good Master who proclaims in the Gospel that, for a cup of cold water given out of love of him, he will, in return, give paradise? How, then, while offering to God the blood of his most blessed Son, should he not give you a hundred heavens, were there so many?
Can we ignore such an array of witnesses?
The Mass Is the Sacred Banquet
As a “sacred banquet” of communion, the Mass was prefigured by several sacred meals. It echoes the life-saving meal offered as hospitality to one who was encountered in the desert by nomads, and all the joyful feasts recorded in the Old Testament celebrating the covenant renewal with God. It, of course, has roots in the Passover meal, celebrating the Jews passing over from their slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, and God’s passing over the Israelites when he struck down all the firstborn of the Egyptians. We also see traces of the Jewish feast of the Unleavened Bread, when they celebrated new beginnings at the time of the wheat harvest in the spring—the leaven (a part of the previous bread-making dough) was used up, and unleavened bread eaten for a week before returning to (yeast-aided) leavened bread.
In the Mass, we celebrate our passing over from the slavery of sin and death to the new life of grace of the final Promised Land. This passing over was made possible by the saving event of Christ’s death on the cross. In the Mass, we offer the Lamb of God, Jesus, and then partake in this Eucharistic feast as a sign of our covenant renewal with the Lord. This new covenant is Christ and his law of love. What a rich background the Mass has! And how important that we preach about it!
These ancient roots come to fulfillment, of course, in the incarnation of God’s Son, who came to earth to free us from our sins, to effect in us love and holiness, and to make us like himself (CCC §457-60). That is why Vatican II emphasized the Mass’ ability to impart grace to a pilgrim people: “From the liturgy … especially from the Eucharist, grace is poured forth upon us as from a fountain, and the sanctification of men in Christ, and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed, as toward their end, are achieved with maximum effectiveness” (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium §10). In other words, nothing we might do, no prayer we might offer, no reception of a sacrament, could ever equal the superabundant power of the Mass. The Mass is the “Source and Summit of the Christian Life” (Lumen Gentium §11). The Council of Trent taught that the best way to aid the souls in purgatory is through the “sacrifice of the altar,” i.e., the Mass. This, of course, is why Catholics have for centuries had Masses said for their beloved dead.
It is also why we priests should make every effort to say Mass at least every day. The souls in purgatory are waiting for the grace of our Masses. As priests we should be deeply aware of the plight of the holy souls, and most assiduous in praying for them.
And, there are two days each year when we may say three Masses: All Souls Day, and at Christmas (three different Christmas Masses—The Vigil, Mass at midnight, Mass at dawn, or Mass during the day). We should never treat that privilege lightly, and we should move mountains, if necessary, to say those three Masses to help the holy souls.
We should remind our parishioners that every Catholic has an obligation to attend Mass at least every Sunday. In light of all God has done for us, and the third commandment, the least we could do is spend one hour every Sunday giving thanks (Eucharist means thanksgiving) to him. This is why the Church teaches in the Catechism, “On Sundays, and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass (CCC §2180; citing Canon 1247),” and furthermore, “…the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (CCC §2181).
All parishes should provide information in the bulletin on where to find Masses when people travel, namely, by going to www.masstimes.org. By entering the address of where they will be on this website, Catholics can find the ten closest churches, and at what times their Masses (and confessions) are.
Many Catholics would be open to going to Mass daily if only we priests would nudge them, from time to time, to consider it. Again, the saints give us plenty of material to quote when we promote daily Mass among our parishioners:
St. Peter Julian Eymard: Hear Mass daily; it will prosper the whole day. All your duties will be performed the better for it, and your soul will be stronger to bear its daily cross. The Mass is the most holy act of religion; you can do nothing that can give greater glory to God, or be more profitable for your soul, than to hear Mass both frequently and devoutly. It is the favorite devotion of the saints.
St. Francis de Sales: Strive, then, to your utmost to be present every day at this holy Celebration, in order that with the priest you may offer the Sacrifice of your Redeemer on behalf of yourself, and the whole Church, to God the Father.
St. Joseph Cottolengo recommended daily Mass for everyone, and said that those who do not go to daily Mass practice bad time management:
Whenever people come to me for spiritual direction, I ask if they attend Mass daily. If they don’t, I ask them to pray that God will arrange it so they can do that. Often, within a year, their job or their residence changed, so that they could attend daily. It seems this is the type of prayer that God wants to answer!
Obviously, the Mass is a glorious thing. It is the way God continues to feed his people; it is the way Jesus Christ—God made flesh—keeps his promise never to leave us orphans. We priests, therefore, have a special duty to speak a great deal about its glory to our parishioners and, perhaps, our love for the Mass will grow in the process.