The Mass: why we should focus on its essence

The Mass: why we should focus on its essence

Fr John O'Neill PP

One could start a few rows - quite heated ones, too - by stating that the Mass has not changed essentially in two thousand years; but the statement is quite true, because, in its essence, the Mass has not changed, nor can it.

One can become heartily sick of the controversies surrounding what is the summit of Christian life, and the ongoing source of salvation. For example, some Latin Mass Catholics look askance at the attendees of the Ordinary Rite Mass, and, in extreme cases, declare the Ordinary Rite invalid if not heretical because of the words "for all" instead of "for many": the famous pro multis war.

Incidentally, no one would doubt the validity of the Consecration if we used either Luke's or Paul's versions of the Lord's words of institution, neither of which have "pro multis" at all. In any case, the new English translation, Deo gratias, has "for many."

Two forms

At the other extreme there are those who opposed the preservation of the venerable ancient rite, and disfigured the new. The shocked reaction to all this was that the Novus Ordo was judged according to what people saw done, and that, all too often, was the widespread banal nonsense which passed for "creative liturgy." Perhaps most Catholics never saw the beauty it can have when celebrated with the reverence that comes from faith in Our Lord's Real Presence, and in obedience to the simple and dignified rubrics.

Thank God for our Holy Father's wisdom in setting out the Roman Rite as having two forms, Ordinary and Extraordinary.

Just as a man might wear his suit one day and speak English, and a soccer outfit the next and speak Italian, he, nevertheless remains the same man. So with the Mass, its essence is not the vestments or the language. We must look deeper and higher for its essence.

None of this is to say that liturgical traditions of dress, language and music should not be respected, provided they are of authentic Church tradition, necessary to preserve the wondrous dignity of the essence of the Mass; but we must distinguish between what is changeable and what is not.

Until Catholics mature in their knowledge of the Liturgy and the governing principles that are its foundations we shall continue to have these divisions and arguments, which can sometimes become quite bitter, even ripping the seamless garment of Christ.

The essence of the Mass is, of course, the action of God Himself: Our Divine Lord continues to teach (Word) and this prepares us for His presence as He renews, or continues, the infinite act of saving love that He offered on the Cross (Eucharistic Sacrifice).

That precious gift which we have all received in Baptism, namely faith, enables us to grow in our realisation of the action of God. This consciousness of His saving presence is what draws us together and is the source of our joy. And the priest's faith in that presence must radiate to his people! God help him indeed! Hence the need for prayerful silence, where appropriate, during Mass, and in our churches always.

Surely the appreciation of the Lord's essential role present in the Mass must be uppermost in our minds, and the consequent reverence expressed in the way we take part together in the words and actions of the Mass.

Then there is the action of man in the Mass, the form, or rite, in which the Word and Sacrifice are expressed. This must always be governed by the Church's authority, and she has done that through the centuries, incorporating the languages, dress, music and art of the many nations. The Mass has never been celebrated in only one kind of rite, one language.

From time to time, for all sorts of reasons, the Church alters the words and ceremonials of the Mass.

Divisions come when people get too attached to what is the human aspect of the Mass, and forget the wonder of the Divine. Patience is required when the human side gets it wrong, as it did with the English Missal after Vatican II. It was something of a mystery how this inadequate translation was approved yet, even so, consciousness of the Lord's presence has seen us through all that.

Meanwhile, one gets concerned hearing so much about "the reform of the reform." Surely we will get a century or two's relief from further change!

First things

We all need to be a bit like Peter at the Transfiguration, bearing in mind that the Mass is even greater than that glorious event: "Lord, it is good for us to be here!"

One cannot help feel that all this arguing over translations and legitimately changeable traditions might earn the kind of condemnation the Lord delivered to the pharisees about their long prayers and tassels!

First things first. Christ is first, and He is there upon our altars. Although important and helpful, provided they are performed in obedience to the will of God through His Church's loving guidance, language, music and art remain at the changeable level of expression, not at the level of the essence of the Mass.

What a unity and joy Peter, James and John must have experienced during and after the Transfiguration: even deeper and stronger should be our unity and joy during and after Mass, in which occurs, as He Himself described, "As I draw life from the Father so he who eats me will draw life from me."

Father John O'Neill, PP, STB, MASA, is parish priest of St John Vianney's Church, Doonside, in the Parramatta Diocese.

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