What the early Church tells us about the celebration of Mass

What the early Church tells us about the celebration of Mass

Fr Sebastian Camilleri OFM

During the current year of the Eucharist, it is most pertinent for us Catholics to foster a deeper appreciation of the sacred nobility of the Holy Mass, lovingly tendered by our Lord Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, the night before he offered his life as a victim on the cross for our redemption.

Out of intense love for Christ, during the early persecutions in Pagan Rome, many thousands of gallant Christians, challenged to deny their faith in Christ, died as martyrs in his defence and for the Sacrifice of the Mass. Likewise, as history gloriously testifies, through the following centuries in various unbelieving countries, many more thousands of brave Christians, laity and clergy alike, defied dungeon, fire and sword and died as martyrs for their staunch belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Good advice

St Caesarius of Arles (470-542) was Papal Vicar for Gaul and Spain at a critical time for the world when the barbarian invaders were making inroads across the Roman Empire.

Writing to his flock, numbers of whom were newly converted barbarians or former followers of the heretic Arius (230-356), the venerable Archbishop gave them this good advice: "When you are at Mass, my dearest brethren, I beg you out of a Father's love, not to leave the Church before the Mass is concluded ... for if you reflect a little you will realise that the reading of the Scripture lessons is not the celebration of Mass.

"That is the Mass, when the offerings have been and when the Body and Blood of the Lord have been consecrated. You could read the Scriptures at home, or listen to others read them there. Whoever wishes to attend Mass fully for the profit of his soul, must with contrite heart and humble posture, remain in the Church until the Pater Noster has been said and the final blessing given."

The Archbishop of Aries here was stressing what was well known from earliest Christian times that the introductory part of the liturgy, made up of prayers, Scripture readings and the sermon Mass of the Catechumens, while important, could never be regarded as the whole Mass. The unbaptised catechumens were obliged to leave after the various Scripture passages had been proclaimed and explained.

The baptised faithful, he says, should wait for the central point of the liturgy, which is the Canon of the Mass or what is called the "Mass of the Sacrifice", including the Consecration, Communion and final blessing. Thus Word and Sacrifice are integral parts of the Mass.

St Caesarius could well have been addressing his remarks to some of us. These days, in the aftermath of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, some misguided people, with little knowledge of Catholic tradition and practice, like some in Arles 1500 years ago, are attracted by the false notion that the most important element of the Mass consists of the Scripture readings.

This was the view of the 16th century Protestants, whose new churches did away with the altar and the tabernacle in the apse, replacing them with a huge pulpit from which the Scriptures were read and explained at great length by Bible preachers who had replaced the sacrificial priests of the Catholic Church.

Admitting with pleasure that in recent years many Protestant clergy, with due dispensation, have become Catholic priests with pride, one must always realise that a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, mocked the sacrificial aspect of the Mass and ridiculed the adoration paid to the Real Presence of Our Lord in the consecrated bread and wine, calling it "that thing that the priest held in his hands".

The consistent view of the Catholic Church has been that the revealed Scriptures form an integral part of the liturgical action, with Our Lord's presence in his revealed Word complementing his Real Presence in the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass.

Lessons from the Holy Scriptures have always formed part of the Mass. We know from the Apologia of St Justin Martyr (100-165) that they were drawn from the Old and especially the New Testament, followed by what our ancestors used to call Bidding Prayers, or what we call today Prayers of the Faithful.

New Testament

The early Catholics had tremendous respect and love towards the Blessed Eucharist and were familiar with the Scriptures. St John Chrysostom (347-407), in a letter that reveals how accessible the Scriptures were to Catholics in the early centuries, advises his hearers to ponder at home beforehand the readings that they know will be expounded at the following Sunday's Mass. That assumes that the ordinary faithful in the fourth century could read and kept lists of the readings scheduled to be read at Mass, and also had copies of the New Testament texts from which to read them privately at home.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Origen (185-194), St Augustine (354-430) and St Ambrose (339-397).

The words that St Augustine addressed to his congregation, speaking of the Gospel expounded during a Eucharistic celebration, may be applied to the whole of the Scriptures: "Listen to the Holy Gospel as if our Lord himself were speaking to us. The precious words that fell from his lips have been written down, preserved and repeated by us. The Lord is in heaven, but he is truth and he is also here with us in this celebration. Listen to the Lord."

Fr Sebastian Camilleri OFM has been a regular contributor to 'AD2000' and recently returned to his native land, Malta, after many years of ministry in Australia.

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