Fr. Gavin - The Sacrifice of the Mass - Essence of the Mass

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WE have to distinguish between the essence of the Mass and an integral portion of the Mass.


By the essence of a thing we mean that by which the thing is what it is; flour and water are of the essence of a loaf of bread. By the integral portion of a thing we mean something needed to its completeness though not to its existence. The body of a man with an arm cut off is still a human body though not perfect.


Nearly all theologians are agreed that the essence of the Mass consists in the consecration of the bread and wine at the Elevation. Most certainly were a priest to say all the prayers at Mass and to omit the Consecration, there would be no Sacrifice. There would then be a bare commemoration of the Sacrifice of Calvary just what the Council of Trent defines the Mass not to be. (Sess. ii. can. 3.)


Why are nearly all the theologians agreed that the essence of the Mass consists in the Consecration under two kinds? Because the Consecration under two kinds represents the mystical death of Jesus Christ.


The Council of Trent defines the Mass to be a real Sacrifice also a re-presentation of the death of our Lord. Mass is a commemoration of the death of the Lord, a showing forth of the death of our Lord. In the consecration of the bread and wine you find all that is needed. For the Sacrifice of the Cross consisted in the death of our Lord, and the death of our Lord was caused by the shedding of His Blood. To be a sacrifice there must either be a real death or a mystical destruction of the victim. A real death there cannot be in the Man Christ, for Christ died once, and dies no more.


The mystical destruction (mystical, that is, by sign or symbol, not real), a showing forth of the death of our Lord, is seen in the double Consecration. For in virtue of the words of consecration the Body only is under the appearance of bread, and the Blood only is under the appearance of wine. Our Lord s death was due to the separation of His Body and Blood, and as by the force of the words at the consecration there is a separation of the Body and Blood, there is a re-presentation, a re-enactment, a showing forth of the death of the Lord.


By these words, "Do this in commemoration of Me," as the Council of Trent (Trent, Sess. xxiii. can. 2) has defined, our Lord commands all priests to consecrate in both kinds, bread and wine, and the consecration in both kinds makes the Sacrifice. If the priest consecrates bread only, or wine only there is no Eucharistic Sacrifice our Lord’s command has not been fulfilled.


Receiving under both kinds is for the priest a strict obligation because of our Lord’s command. The Communion of the priest belongs to the integrity or completeness of the Sacrifice.


So strictly does the Church interpret this obligation that should a priest faint or die after consecration of the bread, another priest, if one be available, must consecrate the wine and finish the Mass, even though he has broken the fast. The Communion of the priest under both kinds is enjoined, as just stated, by Divine command and required for the completeness of the Sacrifice; in such a case the law of fasting before Communion yields to the higher law of God to complete the Sacrifice by receiving under the appearance of wine. It may be asked what is the difference between the Mass at the Last Supper and the Mass said today by the priest? In the Mass at the Last Supper (1) Christ celebrated in person, and He now celebrates by the ministry of His priests ; (2) Christ at the Last Supper consecrated a mortal Body, His own, which was to die on the morrow ; the priest now consecrates the immortal Body of Jesus Christ ; (3) Christ at the Last Supper by His Mass merited and satisfied afresh ; in the Mass as said by the priest, there is no new merit or satisfaction. The Mass is only the application of the merits and satisfactions gained by Jesus Christ on the Cross.

The four ends of Sacrifice are (1) for God s honour and glory; (2) in thanksgiving for all His benefits ; (3) to obtain pardon for our sins; (4) to obtain all graces and blessings through Jesus Christ.


First; for God s honour and glory. Honour is the outward expression of the inward respect the heart feels ; glory means knowledge and praise. The honour is greater in proportion to the thing offered, to the service rendered; its value chiefly depends on the position of the person who pays the honour. In Mass the thing offered is infinite, namely, Jesus Christ the Victim, and the Offerer is infinite also, the same Jesus Christ. From every point of view then the Sacrifice is of infinite value.


Once more. The Mass is Calvary over again. Not by His life but by His death He redeemed our sins on the Cross. In the Mass there is the repetition of the humiliation of the Cross. Christ as a Victim is shown to us under the appearance of bread and wine the double consecration which by force of the words parts the Body from the Blood and the Blood from the Body, is by this, as we have just seen, the "memorial" of the death of Christ, a re-presentation of the shedding of His Blood on the Cross, a showing forth of the death of the Lord. Consummatum est means, amongst other things, that the greatest act of honour and worship has been paid to God.


Secondly; Mass is offered in thanksgiving for all His benefits.


The word Eucharist means thanksgiving, and the Church in calling the Eucharist thanksgiving teaches us one of the ends of Its institution. The Preface is the introduction to the Canon as a preface is the introduction to the book. The introduction often explains the purpose of the book. The words of the Preface, Vere dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere " It is truly meet and just, right and salutary, that we should always, and in all places, give thanks to Thee," would be meaningless unless thanks giving were included in the Sacrifice about to begin.


Since everything that we have and all that we are come from God, reason teaches that we are bound to thank God for all that He has done for us. Our thanks are unworthy of Him, as we are sinners and He is infinitely holy. Mass supplies our deficiencies, and the offering of the Divine Victim to the Father by Jesus Christ Himself is of infinite value independently of the virtues and vices of the priest who celebrates. The Church again insists on thanksgiving in the Gloria in excelsis, in the familiar words: Gratias agimus tibi, propter magnam gloriam tuam "We give Thee thanks for Thy great glory." This is the very highest form of thanksgiving in which all thought of self is lost in gratitude for the glory which encircles the Godhead. Mass then infallibly, as the work of Christ and offered by Christ, gives glory and thanksgiving to God.


Thirdly; Mass is offered to obtain pardon of our sins. Two things are to be considered in sin (1) its guilt; (2) its punishment. Mass as it helps to the forgiveness of sin is propitiatory, in its power of cancelling punishment it is satisfactory. The Council of Trent teaches (Sess.xxii. ch. 2) that this "Sacrifice is truly propitiatory, and that forgiveness of sins and of enormous crimes is obtained by those who with a true heart and right faith, with fear and reverence, contrite and penitent, approach to God." The Mass then obtains the pardon of mortal and venial sins and of the temporal punishment due to sin.


The Mass as propitiatory appeases the anger and justice of God. "The Lord, being appeased by the offering of this Sacrifice, granting grace and the gift of repentance, wipes away crimes and even enormous sins." (Council of Trent, Sess. xxii. ch. 2.) A distinctive effect of this Sacrifice is that by it God is appeased, as a man forgives an offence on account of some homage which is paid him. For Mass does not forgive sins directly and immediately, like Baptism and Penance. Mass appeases the anger of God, and obtains from Him the grace of repentance. Man can, if he chooses, reject the grace and remain in sin; the free acceptance of this grace enables the creature to turn to God by Faith, Hope, Charity, and Sorrow, and thus to receive worthily those sacraments which of them selves forgive all his sins.


The propitiatory power of the Mass disarms God's justice; the impetratory power draws down His mercy. Indirectly Mass causes the conversion of sinners as a propitiatory Sacrifice appeasing God s anger, leaving scope for His mercy; in so far as it is impetratory, it obtains the grace of repentance, which may be accepted or rejected. The propitiatory power is infallible as Christ s work, that is, the Lord is in some ways appeased, though to what extent never can be known. This depends on the free-will of God and on the dispositions of the creature.


The power of the Mass to forgive sins is more clearly understood by selecting a particular case. Let us take a simple illustration. Suppose a mother has a Mass offered for each of her sons, John and James. John is leading a bad life ; James is a practical Catholic and is free from mortal sin. What effect on John has the Mass said for him? It may be altogether barren of result, because John can reject, if he likes, "the grace and gift of repentance," which the Council of Trent speaks of. (Sess. xxii. ch. 2.) We are certain at least of this ; first, that Mass necessarily and infallibly appeases to some extent the anger of God which John has provoked by his sins; secondly, that it obtains from God necessarily and infallibly grace which, though not always of itself sufficient at the moment to cause John’s conversion, goes some way towards it. Many Masses may be needed before John s conversion is secured. If John does what in him lies he will get further grace to stir his heart to repentance and to seek reconciliation and pardon in the Tribunal of Penance. The Council of Trent, in the passage quoted above, must not be under stood to teach that Mass of itself forgives "enormous crimes." Mass does not forgive the sins of John. Mass wins for John, supposing he accepts and uses the grace offered, the additional grace to make a good confession, and thus to have his sins forgiven. Let us now turn to James, who is free from grave sin. What benefit does he receive from the Mass said for him? First, that Mass as the action of Christ, who is the chief Celebrant in every Mass, necessarily and infallibly satisfies for some of the temporal punishment due to past sins, the guilt of which has been forgiven; secondly, it obtains fresh graces for James, strengthening him against temptation or fall, enabling him to lead a holier life and to persevere in God s service.


By Mass also (Council of Trent, Sess. xxii. ch. i) we obtain forgiveness of daily small faults through those actual graces which stir us to sorrow and repentance. For no sin great or small is ever forgiven after we have come to the use of reason without sorrow and purpose of amendment.


Mass remits the punishment of the living due to mortal and venial sins after the guilt has been forgiven in virtue of its being satisfactory. This remission is infallible, relying on the merits of Christ; but to what extent punishment is remitted remains unknown. St. Thomas says: "Although this offering of the Mass, so far as its quality goes, is sufficient to cancel all the pain due to sin on this earth, nevertheless it is satisfactory to those for whom it is offered or to the offerer according to the quality of his devotion, and not for all the punishment due to his sin." (S. Th. 3. q. 79. ad 3.)


In the case of the dead, Mass infallibly cancels a portion of the punishment in Purgatory, though how much we cannot tell. The Church sanctions a perpetual Mass for the same soul, and thereby admits that she does not know how far the satisfactions of Christ are applied to that soul.


Again, it should be remembered that the propitiatory or appeasing power of the Mass saves the world in general and men in particular from many punishments which otherwise their sins would receive, such as war, famine, plague, sickness, and other temporal misfortunes.


Fourthly; the impetratory power of the Mass obtains all graces and blessings through Jesus Christ. If all prayer be a means of obtaining graces and blessings from God, prayer joined with Sacrifice, as in the Mass, ought to be more powerful still. Are our petitions as made through the Mass infallibly heard? Yes, if they be for our good and in accordance with God's Providence. But the power of the Mass as a means of obtaining a favourable answer to our prayers depends on the dispositions of the person for whom it is offered, and of the person who offers.


We have considered the Mass with Jesus Christ as Chief Celebrant, and those graces and advantages which, because of the Chief Offerer, are placed within our reach, if we choose to take them. These graces are obtained ex opere opemto, by virtue of the act done.


Mass for the Dead, or a Black Mass, as we call it, so far as concerns the essential part of the Sacrifice, the offering of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, is the same in value as Mass for the living. But if we consider the value of the prayers, that Mass, according to the teaching of St. Thomas, is more profitable to the soul in which there are fixed prayers for the dead and the dead only. The devotion of the priest who says Mass for the dead, or of him who has the Mass offered, or the intercession of the Saint in whose honour the Holy Sacrifice is celebrated, may more than compensate for the loss of those accidental graces which belong to the Requiem Mass. (S. Th. Supplem. q. 72. a. g. ad 5.)


Mass said by a bad priest is of the same value as said by a good one, so far as the essential value of the Mass is concerned. But it is certain that the better disposed, the holier, the more fervent a priest is, the greater grace and glory he merits with God: he obtains more graces for others and secures for himself a larger share in our Lord's satisfactions. (Sporer, Theol. Sacram. p. ii. ch. 5.)

  • CHAPTER THE FIRST. The Doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass 
  • CHAPTER THE SECOND. The Essence of the Mass 
  • CHAPTER THE THIRD. The Consecration of the Altar 
  • CHAPTER THE FOURTH. The Vestments 
  • CHAPTER THE FIFTH. The Asperges
  • CHAPTER THE SIXTH. The Ordinary of the Mass. Part the First: From the Beginning to the Offertory                                    
  • CHAPTER THE SEVENTH. The Introit, Kyrie, and Gloria in excelsis
  • CHAPTER THE EIGHTH. The Dominus vobiscum, Collect, Epistle                                   
  • CHAPTER THE NINTH. The Gradual, Alleluia, Tract, and Sequence   
  • CHAPTER THE TENTH. The Gospel and the Creed                               
  • CHAPTER THE ELEVENTH. Part the Second: The Offertory to the Canon                                   
  • CHAPTER THE TWELFTH. Part the Third: The Canon of the Mass                                   
  • CHAPTER THE THIRTEENTH. Part the Fourth: From the Pater Noster to the end of Mass                                    
  • CHAPTER THE FOURTEENTH. The Ceremonies of High Mass                                   
  • CHAPTER THE FIFTEENTH. Mass for the Dead                                    
  • APPENDIX: The Language of the Mass