Praying the Mass
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
I doubt if any single aspect of the Catholic
Church since the Second Vatican Council had caused more confusion and worry
among the faithful than the Eucharistic Liturgy. From many parts of the Western
world come reports of not a few Catholics who have simply stopped going to Mass,
others who insist on having the Mass celebrated only in Latin and adoring to
the Tridentine Ritual. How many times I have been seriously asked by people
whether the present celebration of Mass in the vernacular and following one
of the new canons was valid. I have heard of people walking out of Sunday Mass,
and there are movements and publications crusading for a return to the pre-Vatican
liturgy and some even daring to question the authority of the Second Vatican
Council because it sanctioned what these people call a betrayal of Catholic
It is not my purpose here to go into a diagnosis of what happened, nor do I
think all the blame is on one side. There have been so many liberties taken
with the ritual, so many subjective interpretations of the Councils teaching,
so many emotional substitutions for what the Church has clearly prescribed,
so many intrusions of the secular into what should be the sacred functions of
the Mass, that, without excusing those who are anguishing or angry with the
post-conciliar liturgy, we can at least partially explain their conduct as a
reaction to the grave abuses that the Holy See had more than once condemned
in the most unmistakable terms.
All of this I thought is useful to bring to the surface, if only for a moment,
as we approach the subject of praying the Mass. Whatever else the Mass is, it
is meant by Christ to be a prayer, in fact, the most sublime prayer that a creature
can make to the Creator and the one most pleasing to God.
How the Mass is a Prayer
The Mass is a prayer because in the Eucharistic Sacrifice the faithful join
with Christ in offering themselves to the heavenly Father. This is not so obvious
as may seem. We are so used to thinking of prayer as saying something that we
have to get hold of ourselves to recognize that prayer is also and first of
all doing something.
What does Christ do? And in doing, how does He pray in the Mass? In the Mass
Christ offers Himself body and soul, mind and will and emotions to His Father
even as He did at the Last Supper and as He consummated on Calvary. His original
offering was not only a sacrifice, but a complete sacrifice, which means
a holocaust. When He hung dying on the first altar of sacrifice He literally
gave all that He could, because He gave all that He had as an oblation to God.
If prayer is a communication between the creature and the Creator, which it
is, Christs total self-giving of His humanity to God on the cross was the most
perfect communication possible. It was a conversation, indeed, but a conversation
not so much in words as in deeds; in fact, in the unspeakable deed of God assuming
human flesh so that as man He might surrender that flesh back to God.
Faith tells us that Christ continues doing the same in every Mass. He can no
longer suffer or die because He is glorified, but He can be ready to suffer
and willing to die and this readiness and willingness, we believe, is what happens
the moment the two Consecrations separately take place to symbolize the separation
of Christs body and blood that brought on His death on Calvary.
However, that is not all there is to the Mass. If it were, then the Mass would
be only Christs prayer and not also ours. Whereas, it is emphatically our Mass
too, and therefore our prayer as well as His.
How is the Mass Our Prayer?
The Mass is our prayer insofar as we reproduce in ourselves the sentiments which
animated Christ between the Last Supper and Calvary. That was a long first Mass.
What were those sentiments? They are beyond human calculation of analysis. Only
in heaven shall we learn more fully what transpired in the soul and body of
Christ as He was offering Hs body in death to His Father. But some of these
sentiments have been revealed to us in the longest single revelation about the
thirty-some years of Christs mortal life. The longest part of the Gospel for
a short span of time is the evangelists minute description of almost everything
that happened from the beginning of the Last Supper to Christs final expiration
on the cross. What do we find in those long animated Christ? If we are to pray
the Mass, we should duplicate in ourselves something of what went on in Him.
The first Mass he offered was uniquely and exclusively His, but now it is both
His Mass and ours.
During His first Mass, Christ chose let me change the emphasis Christ chose
to undergo the agony, the scourging and crowning with thorns, the mockery, the
way of the cross and the crucifixion. Again, during His first Mass, Christ was
acting out of obedience to His heavenly Father and out of love for those whom
He came to save. We seldom couple these two virtues, obedience, and love but
we should. Obedience to His Father out of love for mankind. And finally, during
His first Mass Christ foresaw that the sufferings He endured would last only
a short time and then He would be glorified and the glory would never end. These
three sets of attitudes should also be ours if we are to make of our Masses,
plural Christs and ours now something of what Christ made of the Mass He
originally offered along on our behalf.
- Like Christ we are to pray that we might approximate something of His
own free choice of the cross. How unnatural it seems to choose to be patient,
to put up with, to be silent under rebuke, to bit ones tongue rather than speak
unkindly, to hold back an angry retort, or actually smile in pardon at the one
who has just offered us. No, not unnatural, but supernatural. All of
this and more is what we should expect from the Savior as we join Him in spirit
in the half-million or more Masses He offers with us and for us daily throughout
the Catholic world. But none of us can do this by himself. We need His help
and the main source of the grace is the Mass.
- Moreover, like Christ we ought to tell Him that whatever trials or difficulties
He sends us we willingly accept in obedience to His divine will and out of love
for souls that are to be redeemed by joining our sacrifices with His. There
are two divinely ordained conditions for redeeming the world; they are obedience
to God and love for men. Of course, part of that obedience is to love. This
means that sometimes we are called upon to love those who cause us pain. They
may need the very grace that we can gain for them by our suffering them,
and that is real love indeed.
- Once again, like Christ, we ought to keep in mind that our life on
earth, even the longest and most painful imaginable, is really very short compared
with the eternity that awaits us. I used to count my years as years of twelve
months each. No more. As I look back at them I count them as days. They go that
fast. Everything will soon come to an end, St. Peter reminds us, Blessed Peter,
thanks for saying it. So Peter continues, to pray better keep a calm and sober
mind. My dear people, you must not think it unaccountable that you should be
tested by fire. There is nothing extraordinary in what has happened to you.
If you can have some share in the sufferings of Christ, be glad, because you
will enjoy a much greater gladness when His glory will be revealed. How I appreciate
that future tense: will be revealed. What strange language: When you share
in Christs sufferings, be glad. It is not strange at all to the ears of faith,
provided whatever we suffer, from a moments inconvenience to perhaps years
of estrangement, we unite the endurance twice over with Christ. We join ourselves
with the Saviors passion physically, as described in the Gospels; and we join
our sufferings with Him mystically, as Christ is now suffering in the
Church, undergoing His mystical passion today. This is my favorite way of making
the Way of the Cross. Fourteen stations in which Christ is now suffering,
and we are making the Via Crucis with Him. What a privilege!
How to Pray the Mass
So much for the first half of our reflections on the subject. I should like
to say something more immediately practical now on how we can pray the Mass
more effectively. Let me make these recommendations:
First, understand the Mass.
Whatever else the Mass is, it is a vocal prayer in which every word is vocalized
and most of them aloud. Even the most reverently offered Mass takes only a short
time. There is no time to be giving immediate thought to every syllable as it
comes along. Hence the wisdom of learning to understand the Mass, know it better,
its mysterious meaning and profound significance through periodic reading, meditation
and study beforehand. Some years ago I was asked to assemble a bibliography
on the Mass for the Catholic colleges in the United States. The then-current
books on the Mass in English in print were over one hundred. I wonder how many
Catholic could name, I do not say then, but even one current title on the Mass.
The Mass is, indeed, a mystery. But mysteries are not only to be believed, they
are with Gods grace to be ever more clearly understood. We must come to better
understand the Mass. A single expression like that of St. Leonard of Port Maurice
can affect our whole life. Except for the Mass, he said, being daily offered
on thousand of altars, the world would long ago have been destroyed because
of its sins. I would summarize this first recommendation by using the imperative
verb meditate. Meditate on the Mass.
Second, plan your Mass.
If the Mass is the important action that faith tells us it is, the important
action that faith tells us it is, we should plan for it. It is common knowledge
and experience that we plan for things according to the importance we attach
to them. Unimportant things we hardly plan for at all. Important things we plan
for at length, with this planning can mean different things. It can mean looking
ahead to know what Mass is to be said. If we wait till the Mass begins, it will
take us ten minutes to find out what the Mass for today is all about. It can
mean that I read the Scripture lessons beforehand, the orations, know what or
whose feast is to be commemorated in the Mass. It can mean that I have given
some thought before Mass to what will be said during Mass, and, I would emphasize,
to what I will be thinking about during Mass. I have taught too many classes
not to know, and on occasion I have had to walk into class quite unprepared.
An unprepared class I might just as well have called off. It should always mean
that I have a definite intention or intentions for which I will offer my Mass.
Since the Mass is of infinite value, do not hesitate to multiply the intentions.
I would summarize the second recommendation by saying: anticipate the
Third, be attentive during Mass.
The degree of participation in the new liturgy is such that most people are
almost necessarily kept alert during the offering of Mass. In fact that is one
of the reasons for the vernacular and the antiphonal responses between the priest
or the ministers at the altar and the congregation, and the out loud saying
of what used to be silent or very subdued parts of the Eucharistic rite. But
the attention about which I am speaking here is something more. It is attention
not only to the verbal forms being heard or said or the actions of the priest
being performed, it is what I call internal attention to the mystery of faith
that is being enacted before my eyes. I would compare attendance at Mass to
recitation of the rosary. In both cases there are vocal prayers and silent reflection
and the two should not conflict but harmonize. What I mean is that it would
be well for us to mentally place ourselves and we have many options- at the
Last Supper, or the Garden of Gethsemane, or with Christ before Herod, or before
Pilate or the Sanhedrin, or on His way to Golgatha, or being nailed, or dying
on the cross. Each one of us, according to our own devotion, should united ourselves
in spirit with Christ now as He was then in body. Let us remind ourselves
that at the time when He offered His Mass, His first Mass, He had us in mind.
Should we not repay Him in kind and now have Him in our mind in return?
I would summarize this third recommendation as concentrate.
This past Sunday I had occasion to speak on the Holy Eucharist at the National
Center of the Peoples Eucharistic Crusade in New York City at the Church of
the Blessed Sacrament Fathers. It was inspiring to see a large church filled
with fervent believers in the Holy Eucharist. What crossed my mind several times
during the celebration was that all of this was due to Gods Providence to the
deep faith of the Founder of the Blessed Sacrament Father, his deep faith in
the Holy Eucharist. St. Peter Julian Eymard had a vivid sense of realism as
he offered Mass and he urged others to assist at Mass in the same spirit. I
would like to share with you something of the easy childlike faith of this great
lover of the Eucharist, in one of his many very practical suggestions for spiritual
concentration during Mass. He liked to visualize the Mass as Christ on Calvary
saying his seven last words. Listen to what St. Peter Julian passed on:
- Jesus prays
for His executioners: Father; forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Ask Jesus to forgive all your sins for you are more guilty than His executioners
for having crucified Him. You sinned even though you knew better.
- The good thief says to Jesus: Lord remember
me when you come into your kingdom and Jesus answers him: Amen, I say to you,
this day you shall be with me in Paradise. In his gratitude, the good thief
united his suffering with the sufferings of Jesus. Repeat his prayer in your
own favor for the present moment and for the hour of your death.
- Jesus gives St. John to Mary for her son:
Woman, behold your son. John is thus to take the place of Jesus as her son
and with him all mankind receives Mary for a mother. Thank our Lord for giving
her to you. Ask this good mother to give you her tender love, to guide you in
all things to the service of Jesus.
- Behold your mother. With these words, Jesus
give His mother to be our mother. Thank your loving Savior for the glorious
title of child of Mary with gives you a claim to her mothers love and to all
her goods and possessions.
- I thirst. Adore Jesus crucified anew on
the altar. He prays to His heavenly Father, willing to suffer still more for
the love of mankind and cries out to Him, I thirst. I thirst for hearts, thirst
for Your glory. Slake this burning thirst of Jesus for suffering, for the worlds
salvation, for reparation to the deeply offended majesty of God by suffering
yourself and making reparation with Him.
- My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Adore the holy and unspeakable desolation of the Savior suffered by Him to expiate
your own criminal abandonment of God and His holy law. Promise Him that you
will never again forsake Him.
- It is consummated. Father, into your hands
I commend my spirit. With these words, Jesus dies. Adore Him as in this Holy
Communion He delivers Himself into the hands of men, body and blood, soul and
divinity all that He is. Unite yourself with the priest and adore Jesus taken
down from the cross and given into the arms of His holy mother. As you receive
Him in Communion, press Him to your heart and never let Him leave you. So far
St. Peter Julian. No apologies for the long quotation.
Share the Mass
My last recommendation on how to pray the Mass better is to share it. What do
I mean? I mean we should always remember the needs not only of ourselves but
of other people while we are at Mass. There is no more effective way of drawing
down Gods blessing on a sinful, hungry, needy, wandering and confused world
than by praying for others in the Mass and through the Mass. When St. Ignatius
founded the Society of Jesus he put at the masthead of his constitutions this
statement, The most important single means by which the Society of Jesus will
obtain grace from God is through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
When I say, sharing the Mass, I mean that we should share in spirit we should
join in the Masses that are being offered on so many thousands of altars throughout
the Catholic Church. The Mass that we are praying is not only the Mass we are
attending; it is all the Masses that Christ the physical and mystical Christ
What do I mean by sharing the Mass? I mean we should tell people about the Mass.
To teach the Mass is to teach Christ and to teach the real Christ the Christ
who is God, who became man out of love for us and who died to prove His love.
We shall be, I do not say inspired, but even reminded to tell others about the
Mass and explain its meaning to them only if we ourselves have become imbued
with the spirit of the Mass that we have ourselves meditated upon and thoroughly
By sharing the Mass, I mean we should encourage people to have Masses offered
for their own and other peoples intentions. This is our faith. And not just
for the deceased but for the living the living who are suffering, the living
who are in need, the living who are estranged from God. There is an extraordinary
special grace for those for whom Masses are offered. We should urge people to
assist as Mass in order to grow in the faith. There is no more effective way
of living the Catholic Faith than by attending the Holy Sacrifice. At Mass I
am not only reflecting on a revealed mystery, but I am participating in what
I believe. I become part of the most important action that has ever been performed
on earth the action of God dying for man.
We should, finally help people to profit all that they can from the Masses they
assist at and from all the thousands of Masses being offered daily throughout
the world. We will profit from the Mass in the exact degree that we practice
the virtue that Christ lived and (I dont know how this is going to sound) died.
Christ died a virtue when He offered Himself on Calvary in order that we might
live, and perpetuate this cosmic event in our midst until the end of time. The
Mass in which we believe is the Mass we are called upon to live. Living that
Mass will mean dying the Mass. It means dying a thousand deaths to self until
happily one day we shall die, like Christ, commending our spirit into the hands
of the God from whom we came.
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica