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What is happening at Mass?

Christianity is not a philosophy, ideology, or religious program; it is a friendship with the Son of God, risen from the dead. There is simply no more intense union with Jesus than the Mass.

Pope Francis celebrates morning Mass in the chapel of his residence at the Domus Sanctae Marthae at the Vatican Sept. 25. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

As many Catholics know, the Second Vatican Council famously referred to the liturgy as the “source and summit of the Christian life.” And following the prompts of the great figures of the liturgical movement in the first half of the twentieth century, the Council Fathers called for a fuller, more conscious, and more active participation in the liturgy on the part of Catholics.

That the Vatican II dream of a revived liturgical awareness and practice has, at least in the West, largely remained unrealized goes without saying. In the years following the Council, Mass attendance in Europe, North America, and Australia has plummeted. The numbers of Catholics who regularly attend Mass in those parts of the world hover between 10% and 25%. Therefore, it is not surprising that an extraordinary number of those who self-identify as Catholics in the West have very little idea what the Mass actually is. My thirty-one years of priestly ministry convince me that, even for a great number of those who attend Mass, the liturgy is a kind of religiously-themed jamboree.

So what is the Mass? What happens during this paradigmatic prayer? Why is it the beginning and culmination of what it means to be a Christian? In the course of this brief article, I will share just a couple of basic insights.

First, the Mass is a privileged encounter with the living Christ. Christianity is not a philosophy, ideology, or religious program; it is a friendship with the Son of God, risen from the dead. There is simply no more intense union with Jesus than the Mass. Consider for a moment the two major divisions of the Mass: the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. When we meet with another person in a formal setting, we typically do two things. We get together and talk, and then we eat. Think of the first part of Mass as an exchange, a conversation, between the Son of God and members of his mystical body. In the prayers and interventions of the priest, and especially in the words of the Scriptures, Jesus speaks to his people, and in the songs, responses, and psalms, the people talk back. There is, if you will, a lovely call and response between the Lord and those who have been grafted onto him through baptism. In the course of this spirited conversation, the union between head and members is intensified, strengthened, confirmed. Having talked, we then sit down to eat, not an ordinary meal, but the banquet of the Lord’s body and blood, hosted by Jesus himself. The communion that commenced with the call and response during the first part of Mass is now brought to a point of unsurpassed intensity (at least this side of heaven), as the faithful come to eat the body and drink the lifeblood of Jesus.

A second rubric under which to consider the Mass is that of play. We tend quite naturally to think of play as something less than serious, something frivolous and far less important than work. But nothing could be further from the truth. Work is always subordinated to an end beyond itself; it is for the sake of a higher good. So I work on my car that I might drive it; I work at my place of employment that I might make money; I work around the house so that it might be a more pleasant place to live, etc. But play has no ulterior motive, no end to which it is subordinated. Hence, I play baseball or watch golf or attend a symphony or engage in philosophical speculation or get lost in a sprawling novel simply because it is good so to do. These activities are referred to in the classical tradition as “liberal,” precisely because they are free (<i liber) from utility. When I was teaching philosophy years ago in the seminary, I would gleefully tell my students that they were engaging in the most useless study of all. Invariably they laughed—revealing the utilitarian prejudice of our culture—but I always reminded them that this meant the highest and most noble kind of study.

The Mass, as an act of union with the highest good, is therefore the supreme instance of play. It is the most useless and hence sublimest activity in which one could possibly engage. Recently, I had the privilege of attending the Mass for the installation of new members of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher. For the solemn liturgy, the Knights wore dashing capes emblazoned with the Jerusalem cross and jaunty black berets, while the ladies donned elegant black gowns, gloves, and lace mantillas. Two bishops, in full Mass vestments and tall mitres, welcomed the new members into the order by dubbing them on both shoulders with impressively large swords. As I watched the proceedings, I couldn’t help but think of G.K. Chesterton’s remark that children often dress up when they engage in their “serious play.” Capes, hats, ceremonial gloves, vestments, and swords for dubbing are all perfectly useless, which is precisely their point. So all of the colorful accouterments and stately actions of the Mass are part of the sublime play.

Why is the Mass so important? Why is it the “source and summit” of the Christian life? I could say many more things in answer to these questions, but suffice it to say for the moment that it is the most beautiful encounter between friends and that it is an anticipation of the play that will be our permanent preoccupation in heaven.

About Bishop Robert Barron 122 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

19 Comments

  1. Good grief, a sure sign that the “theology” of the Mass has changed for the worse: a bishop speaking about the Mass with no mention of the main elements: sacrifice, worship. Instead we see the same contemporary stuff, essentially sociological: it is about an “encounter between friends,” a community banquet. And the bishop wonders why mass attendance has plummeted since VII?

    • Gosh, indeed! I am awaiting some more information in this regard. When I have more of his original intent re writing this article, I will be able to form a better thought on the matter. However, at this point in time, I concur, this is a rather unfortunate 1970s ‘Holy Banquet’ themed article. The implications of which are, to say the least, worrying…..

    • Exactly, Chris. That’s why I had to leave my old parish. The priest had no sense whatsoever of the Mass being THE Sacrifice of Christ! So if he has to have the intention of offering the Sacrifice to make it valid, how can it be effected if he doesn’t believe?

  2. Lighten up, Chris. Bishop Barron’s article does talk about worship and sacrifice but in a novel and illuminating way. Novel and illuminating for me, at least. This is what I so love about Bishop Barron: his way of talking about faith in ways that help me see it ever more clearly. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” God Bless you, Chris, and you, Bishop Barron.

  3. The good bishop’s point about ‘play’ harkens back to a book i read years ago on Liesure, by Piper. I think. He is very good at presenting the faith in a new (this case old as per Piper) way. For that i read his things with an open mind. Thank you Bishop.

  4. Am I now to forget that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has three vital elements without which there is no Mass, namely, the Offertory, the Consecration, and the Priest’s Communion?

  5. We use Bishop Barron’s W-O-F courses in our adult stody group in our parish. In fact, we have used all of them and are now beginning the latest on David. His courses are without equal. We especially value and enjoy his insightful and lively commentaries. When I saw this article on CWR I thought, “Good, an exposition of what the Mass is really about.” Sadly, the article turned out to be another social, party-time distortion of the Mass. When I got to the end and saw Bishop Barron as author . . . Is there a ghost writer masquerading as the bishop? We can hope.

  6. Apparently a good number of the commentators for Bishop Barron’s article on what the Mass is have missed the good Bishop’s point altogether…!

    “First, the Mass is a privileged encounter with the living Christ. Christianity is not a philosophy, ideology, or religious program; it is a friendship with the Son of God, risen from the dead. There is simply no more intense union with Jesus than the Mass. Consider for a moment the two major divisions of the Mass: the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. When we meet with another person in a formal setting, we typically do two things. We get together and talk, and then we eat. Think of the first part of Mass as an exchange, a conversation, between the Son of God and members of his mystical body. In the prayers and interventions of the priest, and especially in the words of the Scriptures, Jesus speaks to his people, and in the songs, responses, and psalms, the people talk back. There is, if you will, a lovely call and response between the Lord and those who have been grafted onto him through baptism. In the course of this spirited conversation, the union between head and members is intensified, strengthened, confirmed. Having talked, we then sit down to eat, not an ordinary meal, but the banquet of the Lord’s body and blood, hosted by Jesus himself. The communion that commenced with the call and response during the first part of Mass is now brought to a point of unsurpassed intensity (at least this side of heaven), as the faithful come to eat the body and drink the lifeblood of Jesus.”

    Put your pre-conceived ideas and your egos away and try a listen to what this very Holy Bishop is trying to express to all about what the Mass really is…!

    ‘First, the Mass is a privileged encounter with the living Christ’ a representation of the sacrifice of Calvary across space and time, so that we can be fully present in this act of love…! So we can participate…!! Hopefully you can too…!

    • Except what you label as pre-concieved idea and ego are what the Church has taught the Mass is. It is only recently, beginning in the 1970’s, that certain folks began to promote a different idea. A main point is that it is no accident that the the latter ideas, which Barron repeats, coincide with the same period of unprecedented decline in mass attendance, contradicting the whole reason for his piece- it is not that people don’t know this, but precisely because they do & have substituted it for the true, primary reality. It it not hard to see how that happens when people see the mass as a social thing, all about them, their subjective experience, their participation, etc.

  7. At least the Bishop acknowledges that Vatll regarded the Mass as the “source and summit”….I have seen that quote
    turned into the Eucharistic Celebration is the source and summit. Eucharistic Celebration is a Protestant term for their
    whole ceremony but Catholics think it means Holy Communion….which totally eliminates the sacrificial aspect of Holy Mass. The Bishop goes on to neglect the propitiatory Sacrifice of our Divine Savior .When priests are no longer aware
    of offering the actual sacrifice of Christ to God the Father to make up for sins then the question arises …will their Masses be valid?

  8. Bishop Barron, in attempting to make his point about “play”, may have omitted a modifier to the word “useless”. Surely he meant to describe the Mass and reception of the Body and Blood of Christ as “useless” as far as pragmatic, utilitarian matters are concerned – no money is earned; no visible works of art are created; no academic credits to count toward a degree are awarded. Nothing “useful” in worldly affairs.

    But reception of the Body and Blood of Christ cannot be “useless” to the soul of the one who devoutly receives and experiences Communion with Jesus. At the level of our being, we advance closer to God; we are more closely conformed to Christ. We are changed.

    This post may have been intended as a simple introduction to those who seek the Truth about the Mass. Bishop Barron perhaps chose simple, familiar, comfortable imagery as a beginning, intending to go further in his series.

  9. Upon reading this article on the Mass I grabbed my “Modern Catholic Dictionary” by John A Hardon S.J. Turning to pg 338 on the Mass. Let the young generation read this once and I promise they will flock to the nearest Catholic Church to attend Mass and “receive” at the banquet of the altar the “paschal meal” where Fr. Hardon states that “The entire tradition of the Church teaches that the faithful participate more perfectly in the Eucharistic celebration through sacramental Communion”. They do not “eat” the body but instead, as Fr Hardon states, “receive Christ himself sacramentally so as to receive more fully the fruits of this most holy sacrifice”. Where are all the words that go with the Mass that bring to us all the beautiful mystery of the great Sacrament? Words like re-presentation, memorial,Calvary, merits, sacrifice. We are told that the young are flocking to the Latin Mass. Bishop Barron find these young people and you will find the future of the Catholic Church.

  10. With all due respect, your Excellency, but if you take away the actual theology of the sacrifice of the mass you lose all of the power of the crucifixion of Christ who fulfilled all offerings that were possible to made due for the forgiveness of sins. To go to mass is more than just meeting God with all our friends. It is a powerful active participation where we offer our joys and sufferings of our life with Christ who makes those joys and sufferings efficacious through his own sacrifice. Your sense of the mass seems minimized if all it is is just a representation of the Lord’s Supper vs the both/and of his offering of his self for us.

  11. “Having talked, we then sit down to eat, not an ordinary meal, but the banquet of the Lord’s body and blood, hosted by Jesus himself.”
    — Bishop Barron

    Yes, Christ had said to His disciples:

    “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.” (John 6:53-56)

    He didn’t back down at all when many of His disciples left Him because He had said these things. He didn’t say to them as they left “Whoa! Wait a minute. Let me explain what I meant. I was speaking metaphorically …” Instead He asked the twelve, “Will you also go away?”

    So, the Church has always used the language the Lord used in terms of our consumption of His body and blood, and doesn’t back down from a quite literal interpretation of His words, after the example of Jesus. Even so, Christ didn’t explain what He meant in terms of a “banquet of the Lord’s body and blood, hosted by Jesus himself.” He explained it as “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” This union with Him, He explains, has an effect: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” And if you don’t, by consuming His flesh and blood, enter into this union with the very life of Christ — which is divine life, eternal life — then “you have no life in you.”

    The disciples who abandoned Christ were thinking of a “banquet of the Lord’s body and blood, hosted by Jesus himself.” So of course they left. It sounded like Christ was not only advocating cannibalism, but also violating the prohibition of the drinking of blood that is scattered throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There are a few places where the reason why that was prohibited is explained. Gen 9:1-7 is one of them. There it is explained that life itself is in the blood. Another place where this is explained is Deut. 12:23 and another is Lev 17:10-12. I don’t think the twelve had a clue as to what Christ was getting at anymore than those who left Him. But the twelve remained with Him.

    According to the Hebrew Scriptures life is in the blood. Consuming the blood of Christ — divine life, eternal life — was a step up for humanity, not a step down like the consumption of animal life would have been, which is why the Hebrew Scriptures prohibited it. Indeed, as has been said countless times at Holy Mass, “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

    In my opinion this union with the life of Christ, this mingling of the divine humanity with our own through the consumption of His flesh and blood, is what we ought to think of when receiving the Eucharist, rather than a “banquet of the Lord’s body and blood, hosted by Jesus himself.” This union should eventually lead us to be able to say with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh [the life of Christ] I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)

  12. People, it’s one article of 800 words! There is more to come. Why is everyone in the Internet space loaded for bear every moment?

    • 😉 Everyone is a little sensitive due to AL and the politics ranging from the Holy Father down to every Catholic blog. I can only vouch for myself and state that I hate seeing the mass minimized to just a communion meal or theatrics (not setting a straw man against your point. Just that this has been stated before by certain types of Catholics).

  13. I was interested in the comments about Bishop Barron’s article.
    They accurately point out that various essential elements about the Mass were not mentioned. But to conclude from this that the theology of the Mass has therefore been changed by the Bishop is going too far. After all, the article was short, only 800 words as the Bishop himself has replied.

    Consider an example from the Gospel of Saint John. After the opening Prologue, he starts his account with the appearance of John the Baptist. There is no mention of the stories of Luke relating to the birth of Christ. Does this mean that John by his omission is changing the theology or truths about the life of Christ? Of course not.
    In fact, the answer to the concerns of those commenting on Bishop Barron’s article appear at the end of Saint John’s Gospel. He records “There were many other things that Jesus did; if all were written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not hold all the books that would have to be written”.
    No written account can do full justice as to what the Mass is for us because it will only become better understood by each of us in the fullness of eternity.

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