Sacred Scripture tells us that God has obtained the Church with His own blood (cf. Acts 28:28). According to the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Church is born primarily of Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation, anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist and fulfilled on the Cross. “The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus.” “For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the Cross that there came forth the ‘wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.’ ” As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the Cross.CCC 766, citing Lumen Gentium 3 and Sacrosanctum Concilium 5, and citing St. Ambrose, In Luc. 2, 85–89, PL 15:1666–68.
Each time the sacramental actualization of the sacrifice of the Cross — the Holy Mass — is celebrated, the Church receives a new strength of supernatural life. Therefore, we can say that the Holy Mass is the life of the Church. The Second Vatican Council affirmed that taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice is “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life.” All supernatural life, that is, the entire spiritual good of the whole Church, is contained substantially in the sacrament of the Eucharist, as St. Thomas has said. Fr. Gihr offers a well-established explanation of this truth:
Christianity is founded on the sacrifice of the Cross and takes its root in that sacrifice. The holy sacrifice is the source from which the New Law has emanated with its blessings and graces. As the New Law was instituted and confirmed by sacrifice, it must be sustained and maintained by a perpetual sacrifice; since the preservation of an object is equivalent to a continued creation, it is dependent upon the same cause as that of its creation. Hence it is not sufficient that the Christian religion and the Church should have as its foundation a sacrifice which was offered once; it must possess a sacrifice which is perpetually repeated as the fundamental support of its permanent existence.Rev Nicholas Gihr, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, 82.
The Sacrifice of the Mass provides the necessary and continual spiritual strength for the Church militant in its struggle against sin and in the following of Christ.
One of the Church’s oldest documents to talk about the celebration of Holy Mass, the first century Didache, reaffirms the intimate union of all members of the Church. This union is symbolized and brought about by the Eucharistic sacrifice, particularly through Holy Communion. “Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom” (chapter 9).
The Holy Mass is truly the tree of life for the Church:
This tree of life of the Eucharistic sacrifice, planted by God in the garden of the Church, rears its blooming top high toward heaven, and spreads wide its shady branches over the earth, dropping down graces and blessings on all men.Gihr, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, 145.
We are summoned to participate in the Mass as the Church, and the Church is also a mystery of our faith. This expresses that the Mass, in its essence, is ecclesial, not subjective or private or merely local. It is universal (“catholic”) in the widest sense of the term. Here we can see the notable contrast with the Protestants’ conception of worship, since for them worship is often seen as more individual, more subjective.
Mass: The Greatest & Most Important Work
The Mass is the greatest and most important work of the Church. The Church can do nothing greater. The Mass profoundly expresses her nature and mystery. All of the members of the Church are called anew to enter into this mystery of Christ’s sacrifice, hic et nunc. The Mass is the sacrifice of Christ on Golgotha and the sacrifice of the Church. In the word “Church” is included every person who participates in the Mass. That is why the liturgy of the Mass is also seen externally as an assembly — ekklesia (in Greek) and qahal (in Hebrew). For it is God who summons us to enter His sanctuary, that is, the true worship of the Mass, and to participate in the most sacred act.
The liturgy is not something that belongs to us but to God, who invites us to participate in something that is His. We see this in the response of the faithful to the Orate fratres: “Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium de manibus tuis, ad laudem et gloriam nominis sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque ecclesiae suae sanctae” [May the Lord receive the Sacrifice from thy hands, to the praise and glory of His Name, to our benefit, and that of all His holy Church]. The whole Church is mentioned. The Mass includes the whole Church. The Catholic vision is universal, as we see from the Church’s inception at Pentecost, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Apostles gathered in the Upper Room. This characteristic is distinctive of Catholic worship.
The Church began her historical existence as a universal Church. Even if she then found herself established as particular churches in different places, her original characteristic is her universality, that is, her catholicity. How did missionaries in faraway lands carry out the plantatio ecclesiae, the implanting of the Church in new fields? They celebrated Mass. The Holy Mass was the seed. St. Peter Julian Eymard observed that when missionaries came to a pagan people, they first established the tabernacle — the presence of Christ — as the command post, to win these pagan souls to God:
Every time He takes possession of a country, He pitches therein His Eucharistic royal tent. The erection of a tabernacle is His official occupation of a country. In our own day He still goes out to uncivilized nations; and wherever the Eucharist is brought, the people are converted to Christianity.The Real Presence, “The Triumph of Christ through the Eucharist,” 156.
The Mass is not ours, even if today many clerics think they can manipulate it at will. This is profoundly wrong. Such an attitude is a reflection of modern times and of its deepest sickness, which is anthropocentrism, a spirit of autonomy, and a loss of a supernatural perspective. The idea that we are the ones who make the liturgy, and our failure to understand that Christ is always the main protagonist, derives from this illness. We are invited to participate in something that has been given to us by Christ and is an organic expression of the Church’s tradition.
We are not the ones who animate the liturgy. The true animator of the liturgy is Christ: He is the main celebrant. Christ gives the liturgical celebration its true “soul,” its true spirit, and its true spiritual attitudes, in order that a given liturgical action may be pleasing to God. A Holy Mass celebrated by one priest individually is no less spiritually animated than one concelebrated by many priests. The most important action in the Mass is Christ’s. Even if the priest celebrates Mass alone, theologically speaking we can say that he “concelebrates” with Christ, who is the main celebrant.
The Life of the Church
The Church lives from the sacrifice of the Holy Mass, for this sacrifice is the only source of charity, and without charity the Church and souls cannot have true supernatural life. Memorable in this regard are the words of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus:
I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was burning with love. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places . . . in a word, that it was eternal! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love . . . my vocation, at last I have found it . . . my vocation is love! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized.Manuscript B, 3v.15, in Story of a Soul, 194.
Holy Mass, as the supreme act of divine worship, is the life of the Church. The building where the Eucharistic sacrifice is usually celebrated is also rightly called a “church.” The Real Presence of Christ’s immolated body in the tabernacle of Catholic churches allows people to find a permanent place that holds the source of supernatural life, i.e., the sacramental Body of Christ.
The Holy Mass is the fount of the Church’s supernatural life, for it contains a power that transforms sinful man to a partaker of divine life. In 1913, Paul Claudel penned a moving personal testimony about the influence that the Church’s liturgy, and in particular the Holy Mass, had on his conversion, on his rebirth to a true spiritual life.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from an excerpt in Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s book, The Catholic Mass: Steps to Restore the Centrality of God in the Liturgy. It is available from your favorite bookseller or online through Sophia Institute Press.
We also recommend these previous excerpts, provided courtesy of Sophia Institute Press and Catholic Exchange:
Photo by Anna Hitchings on Unsplash