The Sacrifice of the Mass

Since the end of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic liturgy has been more communal, involving all in responding and singing, as well as serving in various ministries; it has been more of a meal, with most of the faithful communing, and receiving also from the cup; it has been in the vernacular, with more Scripture readings, with prayers for local needs, and with the priest facing the people and relating more directly to them. Some have accused it of having been “Protestantized.” Liturgical Protestants visiting have come to feel that the historic differences have been minimized.

Now the Tridentine mass is back in the news, with the pope having given permission for it to be celebrated, according to the 1962 Missal, with greater freedom. It isn’t a liturgy dating from 1962, however, or even from Trent–rather, it goes back pretty much untouched to the Gallicanization of the rite in the time of Charlemagne. It is the mass of the Middle Ages–and the mass that the Protestant Reformers railed against.

The Reformers protested that it had become a “work” offered by a priest to God, rather than a proclamation of the Gospel to the people. It didn’t need the people–most masses were celebrated with a priest and a server. Even when people were present, they rarely communed; and if they did, it was only from the bread, and that was taken from the tabernacle (and usually after mass was over). And these masses were piled one on top the other in cathedral churches with their multiple side altars and in monasteries–offered for the intention of whomever had paid the obligatory stipend. It was the mass as sacrifice to which the Reformers objected–it had come far from that upper room where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, where he gave them bread and said, “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you; Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”

Those who went to the Tridentine mass never mistook the sacrifice for a meal. It was performed at an altar, by a priest. He said the most sacred parts silently while all looked on in a reverent hush. It was an awe-inspiring sight. If you have never seen it, you may watch it on YouTube (high mass) (low mass).

Most people followed along in Latin-English missals, and so they knew what he was saying up at the altar. Here are some extracts:

I will go to the altar of God.

Take away [our iniquities] from us, O Lord, we beseech You, that we may enter with pure minds into the Holy of Holies.

Accept, O Holy Father, Almighty and eternal God, this spotless host, which I, your unworthy servant, offer to You, my living and true God, to atone for my numberless sins, offenses and negligences; on behalf of all here present and likewise for all faithful Christians living and dead, that it may profit me and them as a means of salvation to life everlasting.

We offer You, O Lord, the chalice of salvation, humbly begging of Your mercy that it may arise before Your divine Majesty, with a pleasing fragrance, for our salvation and for that of the whole world.

In a humble spirit and with a contrite heart, may we be accepted by You, O Lord, and may our sacrifice so be offered in Your sight this day as to please You, O Lord God.

Come, O Sanctifier, Almighty and Eternal God, and bless, this sacrifice prepared for the glory of Your holy Name.

Let my prayer, O Lord, come like incense before You; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice.

I wash my hands in innocence, and I go around Your altar, O Lord …

Accept, most Holy Trinity, this offering which we are making to You in remembrance of the passion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, Our Lord; and in honor of blessed Mary, ever Virgin, Blessed John the Baptist, the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and of (name of the Saints whose relics are in the Altar) and of all the Saints; that it may add to their honor and aid our salvation; and may they deign to intercede in heaven for us who honor their memory here on earth. Through the same Christ our Lord.

Pray brethren, that my Sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty.

May the Lord receive the Sacrifice from your hands to the praise and glory of His Name, for our good, and that of all His holy Church.

*Therefore, most gracious Father, we humbly beg of You and entreat You through Jesus Christ Your Son, Our Lord. Hold acceptable and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unspotted oblations which, in the first place, we offer You for your Holy Catholic Church.

Remember, O Lord, Your servants and handmaids, (name) and (name), and all here present, whose faith and devotion are known to You. On whose behalf we offer to You, or who themselves offer to You this sacrifice of praise for themselves, families and friends, for the good of their souls, for their hope of salvation and deliverance from all harm, and who offer their homage to You, eternal, living and true God.

O God, deign to bless what we offer, and make it approved, effective, right, and wholly pleasing in every way, that it may become for our good, the Body and Blood of Your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Mindful, therefore, Lord, we, Your ministers, as also Your holy people, of the same Christ, Your Son, our Lord, remember His blessed passion, and also of His Resurrection from the dead, and finally of His glorious Ascension into heaven, offer to Your supreme Majesty, of the gifts bestowed upon us, the pure Victim, the holy Victim, the all-perfect Victim: the holy Bread of life eternal and the Chalice of perpetual salvation.

Deign to regard with gracious and kindly attention and hold acceptable, as You deigned to accept the offerings of Abel, Your just servant, and the sacrifice of Abraham our Patriarch, and that which Your chief priest Melchisedech offered to You, a holy Sacrifice and a spotless victim.

Most humbly we implore You, Almighty God, bid these offerings to be brought by the hands of Your Holy Angel to Your altar above, before the face of Your Divine Majesty. And may those of us who by sharing in the Sacrifice of this altar shall receive the Most Sacred Body and Blood of Your Son, be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing, Through Christ our Lord. Amen.*

May the tribute of my worship be pleasing to You, most Holy Trinity, and grant that the sacrifice which I, all unworthy, have offered in the presence of Your Majesty, may be acceptable to You, and through Your mercy obtain forgiveness for me and all for whom I have offered it.

Vatican 2 changed little of this. The portions between the asterisks (*) is from the Roman Canon, which was retained in the 1970 Missal (as Eucharistic Prayer I) . Granted, the English translation watered it down considerably, but the new English translation of the 1970 Missal will correct that. And with the greater freedom given to the Tridentine rite, it will be clear that if the “hermeneutic of continuity” applies anywhere, it is here. The mass is still a sacrifice, it is still offered by a priest (who must be validly ordained), it is still offered for the living and the dead (for a modest stipend).

(It can even be offered in a 30 day series of “Gregorian Masses” for the dead (examples: here, here, here, and here)–it’s a great source of revenue for missionary orders, who charge prices ranging from $150 to $500.)

Some, Catholic and Protestant alike, gloss over the differences between Episcopalians and Lutherans and Catholics on the matter of the Eucharist. After all, these churches all speak of “real presence,” they all use similar liturgies today. But the differences remain great, and go back to the time of the Reformation–the issue of sacrifice is the critical point. One example of this is Luther’s first revision of the mass, the Formula Missae et Communionis of 1523, which kept the liturgy in Latin, retained incense and candles, altars and candlestands, vestments and ceremony–but gutted what for Catholics then and now must be the most important elements: every mention of sacrifice. He omitted offertory prayers and most of the canon, so that the pastor went from the Sanctus to the Words of Institution to the Lord’s Prayer. Of course, all these parts were said silently while the choir sang, so most of the people in the pews wouldn’t have noticed anything had changed. But the critical elements had.

Luther spoke bluntly in the Smalcald Articles of 1537:

This article concerning the Mass will be the whole business of the Council [of Trent]. For if it were [although it would be] possible for them to concede to us all the other articles, yet they could not concede this. As Campegius said at Augsburg that he would be torn to pieces before he would relinquish the Mass, so, by the help of God, I, too, would suffer myself to be reduced to ashes before I would allow a hireling of the Mass, be he good or bad, to be made equal to Christ Jesus, my Lord and Savior, or to be exalted above Him. Thus we are and remain eternally separated and opposed to one another. They feel well enough that when the Mass falls, the Papacy lies in ruins. Before they will permit this to occur, they will put us all to death if they can.

Luther saw the mass does not stand alone: to it is connected the priesthood, indulgences, pilgrimages, fraternities, relics, purgatory, and a host of other teachings and practices. The mass itself, he said, “is nothing else and can be nothing else (as the Canon and all books declare), than a work of men (even of wicked scoundrels), by which one attempts to reconcile himself and others to God, and to obtain and merit the remission of sins and grace.” It is, he said, totally opposed to the first and chief article, namely, justification by faith alone:

The first and chief article is this,

That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4, 25.

And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1, 29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53, 6.

Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3, 23 f.

Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3, 28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise v. 26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.

Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4, 12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53, 5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.

Why should it surprise anyone that the pope drew a line in the sand on the matter of the church the other day? That line has been there for a long time. When Pope Leo X drew it with a stick, Luther took a hoe to it to make sure all saw it. The Catholic definition of church requires pope, bishops, priests, and the mass. The Protestant Reformers said: take them all, we don’t need them to be the Church of Jesus Christ.

The Catholic Counter Reformation also grasped the importance of this issue. While the 13th Session of the Council of Trent dealt with the Eucharist in general, including the question of the real presence, the Council devoted the 22d Session to the issue of the mass as a sacrifice.

…[Jesus,] in the last supper, on the night in which He was betrayed,–that He might leave, to His own beloved Spouse the Church, a visible sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, whereby that bloody sacrifice, once to be accomplished on the cross, might be represented, and the memory thereof remain even unto the end of the world, and its salutary virtue be applied to the remission of those sins which we daily commit,–declaring Himself constituted a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedech, He offered up to God the Father His own body and blood under the species of bread and wine; and, under the symbols of those same things, He delivered (His own body and blood) to be received by His apostles, whom He then constituted priests of the New Testament; and by those words, Do this in commemoration of me, He commanded them and their successors in the priesthood, to offer (them)…. [T]his is indeed that clean oblation, which cannot be defiled by any unworthiness, or malice of those that offer (it) ….

And forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy Synod teaches, that this sacrifice is truly propritiatory and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid, if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. The fruits indeed of which oblation, of that bloody one to wit, are received most plentifully through this unbloody one; so far is this (latter) from derogating in any way from that (former oblation). Wherefore, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those who are departed in Christ, and who are not as yet fully purified, is it rightly offered, agreebly to a tradition of the apostles….

CANON I.–If any one saith, that in the mass a true and proper sacriflce is not offered to God; or, that to be offered is nothing else but that Christ is given us to eat; let him be anathema.

CANON III.–If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits him only who receives; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema.

Vatican 2 did not change the theology of Trent. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, shows plainly–referencing Trent–that the mass is still a sacrifice, still “propitiatory,” still offered for the dead in purgatory. It “re-presents” the sacrifice of Christ, but also joins to it “the lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work”(1032, 1366-1372).

Let’s look at some terms used. What does it mean to “propitiate”? From Latin, propitiareMerriam-Webster defines it as “to gain or regain the favor or goodwill of” or to “appease”–another term used by the Catholic Church, which M-W says means “to conciliate” or “bring to a state of peace” (from Latin, ad + pais). And to “immolate” (from Latin, immolare) is to sacrifice.

I’ve underscored the use of these words in the citation from Trent. While the sacrifice is said to be that of Christ on Calvary, “re-presented,” Trent says it is a real offering–he is “immolated” again, albeit in an “unbloody manner,” and this sacrifice is meant to propitiate and appease God. It is offered by the priest, for the living and dead, for the payment of a stipend. The priest doesn’t say–look back at what Jesus did, which we are remembering–he says, “Look at this sacrifice; accept this sacrifice; take this sacrifice.”

The question is, do we need another sacrifice to appease or propitiate God? Protestants believe Scripture to be clear:

(Romans 3:25) Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;

(Romans 5:10-11) For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

(2 Cor 5:18) And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ

(Colossians 1:20) And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself

(Hebrews 2:17) Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.

(Hebrews 7:27) Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself.

(Hebrews 9:26) Now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

(Hebrews 10:10-14) By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.

(1 John 2:2) And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

(1 John 4:10) Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Protestants, at the time of the Reformation and since, emphasize that nowhere in the New Testament does it speak of us having to appease or propitiate God. Nowhere does it speak of new covenant priests offering sacrifices to appease or propitiate him. Nowhere does God call us to pray or sacrifice or offer works for the dead.

Applying the “hermeneutic of continuity” to Catholic teaching on this point and we see, once again, the gulf between Protestant and Catholic thought. Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio on the traditional mass shines a light on one of our major differences, one of those differences that must lead the Catholic Church to see “defects” in Protestant theology, ecclesiology, and sacraments.