The Mass: More Important than the Rite

Edwin Gordon, Diocese of Clifton FAITH Magazine September-October 2007

At the time when the Red Army was invading China, a priest I knew was on loan to a certain diocese there. As the Red Guards approached his church he consumed the Blessed Sacrament to avoid profanation. The Red Guards threw him into prison where he remained for two years in solitary confinement. While there he received a bottle of medicine via the Red Cross which contained wine, and in the cap of the bottle, altar breads. With this he was able to celebrate Mass on several occasions undetected by the Guards.

He recited only the words of consecration and whatever he could remember. That Mass would have made present the very same sacrifice of Calvary as the Mass celebrated in Saint Peter’s Basilica with all the external splendour that is fitting for the Lord of Hosts. Both masses would have made us present at the Last Supper, the death and the resurrection of our divine saviour.

At the last supper, Our Lord offered Himself in sacrifice fulfilling all the sacrifices of the Old Testament. This was the Passover meal in which the chosen people sacrificed a lamb, calling to mind their protection from the angel of death and the Passover across the Red Sea in their journey to the Promised Land. Our Blessed Lord was the fulfilment of all the promises and sacrifices of the Old Testament. As the Exultet puts it:

“This is the Passover meal when Christ the true Lamb is slain; whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers”.

Our Lord would have used the same prayers and psalms as the Levitical priests used, and these would have been in Aramaic.

The chosen people offered animal sacrifices but these sacrifices could never take away sin except in so far as they pointed to the one supreme sacrifice that Our Lord would offer on Mount Calvary. By this sacrifice the words of Isaiah would indeed be fulfilled:

“If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow; and if they be red as crimson, they shall be white as wool” (Isaiah 1:18)

At the Last Supper, Our Lord offered Himself in a sacrificial banquet: “This is my Body which is to be handed over for you” and “This is the chalice of my Blood which is to be shed for you”. That sacrifice was consummated on Calvary. Our Lord went on to tell His disciples: “Do this in memory of me” and by these very words He ordained them priests to make present that one sacrifice to the end of time. In the words of Saint John Chrysostom:

“And just as the words (Increase and multiply and fill the earth) were once spoken but throughout all time give to our human nature the power of generation, so also the words (This is My Body) once pronounced produce a perfect sacrifice at each table in the churches, from that day to this and from now to Our Lord’s second advent.”

The words of consecration at every Mass are, as it were, the echo of Our Lord’s own words, the priest acting in persona Christi.

The different rites that developed over the years, written very often by different authors, are the vehicle conveying that very same reality, namely the Last Supper, the death and resurrection of Our Saviour. The reality enacted by the particular rites is infinitely more beautiful than words could express.

The Curé of Ars, Saint John Vianney puts it this way “If we could comprehend the full meaning of the Mass we would die of love”. While all the different rites convey the very same reality, nevertheless because of the limitations of human weakness the spirit of the world can very easily enter into the liturgy. Saint Paul warned of this in his letter to the Corinthians:

“When you come therefore into one place, it is not now to eat the Lord’s supper, for everyone taketh before his own supper to eat. And indeed one is hungry and another is drunk”(1Cor. 11: 20-21).

This spirit of the world can continue to enter into the different rites that were celebrated during the history of the Church. As Saint Aelred of Rivaux some 800 years ago wrote:

“We hear monks doing all sorts of ridiculous things with their voices, plaguing us with womanish falsettos, spavined cleating, and tremolos. I myself have seen monks with open mouths, not so much singing, as doing ludicrous feats of breathing, as that they looked as if they were in their last agony or lost in rapture. I have seen them waving their arms about beating time to the music, and contorting their bodies in all directions. And they honestly do this in the name of religion; for they think that they are giving God a greater honour than if they sang without all this fuss. The simple folk who hear them may well be impressed by the organ music, but they cannot help laughing as they see such a ridiculous show going on in the choir. They are more likely to think that they are watching astage play than praying in church. There is no awe here before the dread majesty of God, and no respect for the Holy Table at which Christ is wrapped in linen and His most Precious Blood poured out, where heaven opens and angels throng about us, bringing earth and heaven together...the mere sound of singing is preferred to the meaning of the words that are sung”. (Mirror of Charity, Chap.21).

Likewise St. Pius X at the beginning of the twentieth century said:

“Characteristic of modern theatrical church singing is the constant repetition of a theme, which goes on and on ad nauseam with regular beats which cause the toes to tap on the floor and the heart to thirst for distracting novelty rather than for the love of God. Otherwise there is some soothing melody which lulls to sleep or wafts the mind on its gentle breezes over a garden of delightful reminiscences or sensuous desires. In place of the solemn chants of the Church, ballroom ditties are taken and twisted, and adapted to the sacred words by some make-shift dabbler in the science of harmony, without art and in most cases without even intelligence. By this means the liturgical functions, rich in meaning and significance, are lowered to the level of worldly shows, and the mysteries of faithare so profaned as to deserve the reproach of Christ: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer to all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves’ (Mark 11:17)... and this in the Tridentine rite (or ‘usage’)! All these examples show the importance of celebrating the liturgy with reverence and the dignity due to the great reality that is taking place. We turn in a special way to Our Blessed Lady who at the foot of the Cross offered Her Divine Son in sacrifice for poor sinners. She, more than any other, can teach us to reverence and love her crucified Son made present at every Mass.

Much of the opposition to the new rite brought in after Vatican Council II was caused by making it an excuse for introducing all kinds of experiments which were not really permitted by the rubrics. The music and lack of reverence often gave the impression that the Mass was just a party and a sing-song. Many look back with nostalgia to the old days of Gregorian chant and prayer, and so many turn against what they thought was the new rite.

Furthermore acceptance of the new rite was not helped by incorrect translations and alterations of the Latin. For instance in the response to the “Oráte Fratres... suscipiat totiúsque Ecclesiae sue sanctae (of all Thy Holy Church)”, the word “Holy” has been left out in the English translation. It is correctly translated in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese as “Holy”. Why has the word “Holy” been left out? Surely this is one of the essential marks of the Church!

There are numerous other alterations and mistranslations. Fortunately many of theses errors will be put right following on the document issued by Cardinal Arinze Redemptionis Sacramentum.

Having been ordained in 1962 I have often said Mass in the Tridentine rite and love many of the beautiful prayers contained in it. Indeed I often pray the Offertory prayer in my own private devotions before the Blessed Sacrament: (Suscipe Sancte Pater...) “Accept O Holy Father Almighty and Eternal God, this holy and unblemished victim which I thy unworthy servant offered unto Thee, my living and true God for my own innumerable sins, offences and negligence and for all here present and for all the faithful living and dead that it may profit me and them for salvation to eternal life”.

Those who have been brought up in the new rite should respect and appreciate the beauty of the Tridentine form which has been said by and has sanctified numerous saints. At the same time, those who have been nourished in the Tridentine rite should respect some of the insights of the new rite as sacramentalising our whole life.

The bread and wine that are offered by the people at the offertory of the Mass represent truly the offering of their whole life to God. Bread does not grow on trees and wine does not simply flow from the grapes. They demand human work and sacrifice. The bread “which earth has given and human hands have made” represents the work that has gone into the making of the bread; not only the work of the farmer and the miller but the work of industry, of man’s labour in the office, in the factory, or in the surgery. The crushed wheat which becomes flour represents sacrifice, the sacrifice of the sick who are not able to go to Mass, the sacrifice of the persecuted Church – all these through the action of the priest become the bread of life. Similarly, the wine brings to mind man’s labour, produceof the earth and joy of man’s life; the wine that rejoices the heart of man becomes our spiritual drink.

The offertory in other words represents the offering of man’s whole life to God, his joys and sufferings. His cross and his ideals united to the sacrifice of Calvary and the death of the Lord lead to the joy of Easter morning and the risen Christ.

Indeed one could say that without human work and sacrifice there would be no bread and no wine and the priest would be unable to celebrate Mass. Moreover, the new cycle of readings enhances one’s knowledge of the Scriptures. For instance, the story of the prodigal son, one of the most moving parables in the Gospels, was never read in the Sunday readings of the old rite.

In summary, the offertory prayers in the new rite emphasise that the whole of man’s life is sacramentalised and becomes the outward sign of God’s presence in the world. Saint Paul reminded the Corinthians that there should be unity amongst them:

“For it hath been signified unto me, my brethren, of you,... that there are contentions among you...I indeed am of Paul; and I am of Apollo; and I of Cephas and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul then crucified for you?” (1Cor. 1: 10-13).

To reiterate what has been said before, the one reality and event expressed by each ‘usage’ of the one Roman Rite is much more beautiful and profound than any words can express. The Mass is more important than the particular rite.

“For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink of the chalice you shall show the death of the Lord until He comes” (1Cor. 11:26)

Faith Magazine