In every validly celebrated Catholic Mass, as well as those Eastern Rite Churches that have valid sacraments, the priest calls down the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine and they are transubstantiated into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, so that they are really changed and Jesus Christ is really present on our altars. We owe the highest worship and reverence to God, so we owe the highest worship and reverence to the Holy Eucharist, because God is really present there. Let’s look at how the Church asks us to pay reverence to God when we go up to receive Holy Communion.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which is the Church document that describes how Mass is supposed to be celebrated, says this, “The Priest prepared himself by a prayer, said quietly, so that he may fruitfully receive the Body and Blood of Christ. The faithful do the same, praying silently” (GIRM, 84). All the people, not only the priest, are to prepare themselves to receive by first praying. Every time we receive we are given grace, but that grace may be more or less effective, more or less fruitful, depending on how we receive it. There are two options for the priests prayer, here is the one I normally use, “May the receiving of your Body and Blood, Lord Jesus Christ, not bring me to judgement and condemnation, but through your loving mercy be for me protection in mind and body and a healing remedy.” As you’re coming up to receive, you may make an Act of Contrition, ask for a particular grace, or ask for growth in faith, hope, and charity.
When we go up to actually receive Communion, we have options on how to receive. First, we can choose to receive either kneeling or standing. The document Redemptionis Sacramentum (RS), which was put out in 2004 by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, says, “’The faithful should receive Communion kneeling or standing, as the Conference of Bishops will have determined’… ‘However, if they receive Communion standing, it is recommended that they give due reverence before the reception of the Sacrament” (RS, 90). You have the right to choose to receive kneeling or standing. If you stand, however, you should genuflect or bow before receiving to show reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. After all, you’re not in line for fast food but to receive the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. I’ve notice more people receiving Communion kneeling lately, and I want to make it easier for them, so we’re going to start putting kneelers out at the front Communion station.
Your second choice is to receive on the tongue or in the hand, “Although each of the faithful has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice, if any communicant should wish to receive the Sacrament in the hand, in areas where the Bishops’ Conference with the recognition of the Apostolic See has given permission, the sacred host is to be administered to him or her” (RS, 92). Basically, receiving on the tongue is the ordinary way, but the bishops can ask the Pope for permission to give Communion in the hand as well. You therefore have the right to receive either way. If you receive on the tongue, extend your tongue and open your mouth wide enough to receive the Host, but not so wide that we can check your tonsils. If you receive in the hand, follow the advice of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “When you approach, take care not to do so with your hand stretched out and your fingers open or apart, but rather place your left hand as a throne beneath your right, as befits one who is about to receive the King. Then receive him, taking care that nothing is lost” (Cat. Myst. V, 21-22).
You may have noticed that we recently added a veil, basically a white curtain, to the tabernacle. My mom actually made the veil with material left over from my Marian chasuble and some lace that she made. Aside from being beautiful, why should we have a tabernacle veil? A Vatican document from 1967 tells us the purpose of a tabernacle veil, “Care should be taken that the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle is indicated to the faithful by a tabernacle veil or some other suitable means prescribed by the competent authority” (Eucharisticum Mysterium, 57). The idea of the tabernacle veil goes back to the Old Testament, and that history can shed light on the Mass and the Eucharist.
In the book of Exodus the Lord tells Moses how to make the Tent of Meeting, called the Tabernacle, to be a place for the people to worship God and offer sacrifice to Him. The Temples in Jerusalem were copies of this original design. The innermost room was the Holy of Holies and was reserved for the High Priest, who could only enter it once a year on the Day of Atonement. The Ark of the Covenant was kept in the Holy of Holies. The Ark was a symbol of God’s covenant faithfulness to the people of Israel and was considered to be like a throne for God. The lid of the Ark was called the “Mercy Seat.” There was a veil separating the Holy of Holies. The veil represented the presence of God because this place, the Holy of Holies, was set apart for the Lord God. The entire Temple was God’s house, but the Holy of Holies was the holiest part of the Temple.
At the moment of Christ’s death on the Cross, the veil of the Temple was torn down the middle (Mt. 27:50-51). Why was the veil torn? Jesus Christ is the true Temple (Jn 2:21), the true presence of God on Earth. When Christ gave up His Spirit, the Spirit of God also left the Temple in Jerusalem because the True Temple had been destroyed. The veil was torn as a sign that God was no longer present in the Temple.
However, Christ has been raised from the tomb and has ascended to heaven, and He’s left us the Mass as the memorial of His Cross and Resurrection. In every Mass the Spirit of God descends and changes (through Transubstantiation) the bread and wine into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. After Mass, the consecrated hosts are placed in our own Tabernacle, which houses the True Presence of God. The veil in the tabernacle is a sign that God is truly present there, but that veil is drawn back during every Mass as a sign that faithful followers of Christ will share His presence forever in heaven.
The Vatican Council talks about the Mass as a prayer directed to God while also being meant for our instruction, saying, “Moreover, the prayers addressed to God by the priest who presides over the assembly in the person of Christ are said in the name of the entire holy people and all present. And the visible signs used by the liturgy to signify invisible divine things have been chosen by Christ or the Church. Thus not only when things are read ‘which were written for our instruction’ (Rom. 15:4), but also when the Church prays or sings or acts, the faith of those taking part is nourished and their minds are raised to God, so that they may offer Him their rational service and more abundantly receive His grace” (SC, 33).
Everything in the Mass is there for a reason and has a meaning. Of course, the readings and homily are meant to teach us about God and His will for our lives, but even the prayers, songs, and the actions of the Mass should lift our minds to God and teach us about the faith. In the readings we hear the written Word of God which prepares us to receive the living Word of God in the Eucharist. The prayers are addressed to God, not to us, but they’re for us. God already knows what we’re thinking and how we’re feeling, so He doesn’t need to hear our prayers to know what we want and need. The prayers are meant to direct us to pray for the graces that God wants to give us.
The things we sing in Mass should also be prayers. In fact, the entire Mass is a song and is set to music so that it can be sung. Singing is a higher form of praying since we’re putting more of ourselves into the prayer when we sing. After the Mass itself, the next most important thing to sing in Mass is the Bible. Every Mass has a set of Bible verses, the antiphons, which are chosen for that Mass and are meant to be sung at the opening, the Gospel, the offertory, and during Communion. After all, what better to sing to God than His own Words? Finally, the hymns chosen for Mass should be designed for the liturgy. Not every Christian song is fitting to be sung at Mass, so the hymns must be chosen carefully so that they help us to enter more fully into the Mass and don’t distract us from it.
Finally, the actions of the Mass have meaning and are directed at helping us to lift our hearts to the Lord. The actions of the priest, like the elevations of the Blessed Sacraments and various genuflections, have meanings, but so do the actions of all the people. When you stand, sit, or kneel, when you make the sign of the Cross, and when you go forward to receive Holy Communion you are uniting yourselves to the prayers and actions of the priest and the entire Church as we offer ourselves as “a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1).
Probably the largest change in the celebration of the Mass was the change from use of Latin for every prayer and reading of the Mass to the use of the vernacular or spoken language. Indeed, in many parish churches in the United States it seemed that, on November 22, 1964, Mass was celebrated as it had been their entire lives and on the next Sunday, November 29, 1964, the Mass had changed dramatically. The readings and many of the prayers were said in English and the people were encouraged to recite some of the prayers with him. By the end of 1969 the Church discontinued all use of Latin in the Mass. The problem was, this wasn’t what the Second Vatican Council called for or what Pope St. Paul VI envisioned.
This is what the Council said about it, “In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue. This is to apply in the first place to the readings and “the common prayer,” but also, as local conditions may warrant, to those parts which pertain to the people…Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (SC, 54). The Council called for the use of the mother tongue in the Mass, and the specifics were to be left to the bishops with the approval of the Pope, so that people could better understand the Mass and enter into it more fully. However, they also called for Latin to be retained in the Mass, especially for the Nicene Creed and the Our Father, along with many of the Eucharistic Prayers which are said only by the priest.
Why Latin? The first time I ever experienced a Mass in Latin was at St. Benilde Church in Metairie which had a Latin Mass every first Saturday. That’s why we celebrate a Latin Mass here at Lourdes every first Saturday, because I’m following that example. I was a seminarian at the time, and the experience actually opened up a new understanding of the Mass for me. Even though I couldn’t understand the language (I hadn’t started Latin classes yet), I was given a new understanding of the deep holiness and mystery of what is celebrated in the Mass. When we only celebrate Mass in a language that we understand, we can start to think that we know what’s going on, but the Mystery celebrated in the Mass, the Mystery of the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world, is infinitely huge. Every time we participate in Mass we participate in something bigger than ourselves; we participate in something eternal.
I believe the Council Fathers were wise to insist on a mix of Latin and the mother tongue. If we don’t understand anything that’s going on, then we’re tempted to mentally check out, or to think that the Mass is for the priest and we just happen to be there. The use of our own language in the Mass helps us see that the Lord is speaking to each one of us personally and inviting us to enter into the life of Christ. The use of Latin, on the other hand, connects us to centuries of Christian tradition, thousands of saints, and the Mysteries that are being celebrated right in front of us.
We use Greek (Kyrie Elieson) and Hebrew (Amen and Alleluia), and we sing some of the parts in Latin during Christmas and Easter, but if you’d like to experience a Mass celebrated with a mix of Latin (most of the prayers) and English (readings, homily, and prayers of the faithful), then come join us on any first Saturday at 8 AM.
“Holy Mother Church is conscious that she must celebrate the saving work of her divine Spouse by devoutly recalling it on certain days throughout the course of the year. Every week, on the day which she has called the Lord's day, she keeps the memory of the Lord's resurrection, which she also celebrates once in the year, together with His blessed passion, in the most solemn festival of Easter.
Within the cycle of a year, moreover, she unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord.
Recalling thus the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful the riches of her Lord's powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace (SC, 102).”
The Church celebrates the liturgy according to a liturgical calendar which celebrates the life of Christ throughout the course of the year. Every year, we celebrate the entire life of Christ, from His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary on March 25, to His birth at Christmas, His public ministry, His suffering and death at the Triduum, His Ascension to heaven, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We consecrate our lives and time itself by celebrating the life of Christ and uniting our lives to His.
There were some changes made to the calendar after Vatican II, and you can look up the details if you’d like. They mainly tried to simplify the calendar. To do that, they removed some things from the calendar, like the Octave of Pentecost, the ember days, and some saints feast days, although we’ve added quite a few saints since then. The ember days were 12 days of fasting and abstinence. They happened on the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays following the first Sunday of Lent, Pentecost Sunday, the Exaltation of the Cross (Sept 14), and the feast of St. Lucy (Dec 13), because Christ was betrayed on a Wednesday, crucified on a Friday, and in the tomb on Saturday. They were supposed to teach us to appreciate the gifts of nature, to use them in moderation, and to assist the poor. In the current calendar we only fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and we practice abstinence on all Fridays of the year. Of course, just because they’re no longer mandatory doesn’t mean that we can’t still fast in some way on those days.
As we celebrate the life of Christ, the mysteries of the faith, and the lives of the saints throughout the liturgical year, we can try to truly unite our lives to the life of Christ. We can unite our joys to Christs and our struggles and sorrows to His as well. We can also be inspired and motivated by the lives of the saints and deepen our understanding of the mysteries of the faith. Most of all, we can let the life of Christ sanctify our lives.
The document that governs the liturgical reforms of the Mass, sacraments, and sacramentals of the Church is Sacrosanctum Concilium, which was promulgated (published) in December 1963. After that, the Church began to put together commissions to work on the various reforms that the council called for, and the work of these commissions was ultimately overseen by the Holy Father, Pope St. Paul VI, and the bishops. One of the biggest changes was to the cycle of Bible readings used in the Mass. The Council wrote, “Sacred Scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung; the prayers, collects, and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force, and it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning. Thus to achieve the restoration, progress, and adaptation of the sacred liturgy, it is essential to promote that warm and living love for scripture to which the venerable tradition of both eastern and western rites gives testimony” (SC, 24).
The Mass comes from the Bible and the Bible, in turn, is infused in every part of the Mass, from the prayers to the very structure of the Mass, and this has always been true. However, in the course of the centuries, the number of readings at Mass was reduced. In the early Church, it wasn’t uncommon to have many readings at every Mass, like the Easter Vigil still does (it has 9 readings plus the psalms). Before Vatican II, there was a one year cycle of readings with only 2 readings at each Mass, with few readings taken from the Old Testament. Also, most weekdays simply repeated the readings from the Sunday Mass, except during Lent and on Ember Days.
The Council Fathers of Vatican II called for an expansion of the readings used at Mass, “The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years” (SC, 51). That’s why we now have three readings every Sunday, with one from the Old Testament, one from the Epistles, and one from the Gospels. Weekdays got their own readings, although they only have 2 readings with one from either the Old Testament or Epistles and the other from the Gospels. The Sunday readings follow a three year cycle and the weekday readings a two year cycle. These readings are often arranged to point out the connections between the Old and New Testament and the faith of the Church. For example, the readings for next Sunday all concern the gentiles and how even foreigners are called to faith in God.
Not all of the changes were good, however. The new lectionary (the book of Mass readings), often gives long and short versions of readings, where the short version sometimes leaves out a challenging part of the readings, and the new lectionary entirely leaves out certain challenging Bible passages, like St. Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11 not to eat the Body of the Lord unworthily, which before was read twice every year. I point this out to encourage everybody to pick up your Bibles and read them or join a good, Catholic Bible Study. The new lectionary is very good, and, I think, an improvement on the old, but it was still put together by flawed human beings. Many of us use our Bibles to hold space on a book shelf, but God has treasures stored up for us in the Holy Bible. Don’t neglect them.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.