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The Sacrifice Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The purpose of our present meditation is to explain how the Mass is the sacrifice sacrament of the Eucharist. Again, we will draw on the church’s teaching on the Mass, especially focusing on definitions from the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. We will also examine Pope Pius XII’s teachings on the mass, upon which the Second Vatican Council built its base document on Eucharist liturgy.

The Council of Trent and the Mass

We have been drawing on the church’s teaching at Trent mainly because during the sixteenth century so many Eucharistic dogmas were not only questioned, but openly denied. The teaching of the Council of Trent is teaching of the church’s previous 1500 years, but sharpened and clarified in order to respond to the widespread Eucharistic challenges in the sixteenth century. If there was one dominant feature in the writings of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli in their break with the Roman Catholic Church, it was their claim that Christ never instituted the sacrament of holy orders, which empowers ordained priests to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

With this in mind, we understand why the Council of Trent published nine lengthy formal “anathemas” condemning anyone who held certain erroneous positions on the sacrifice of the Mass. (As before, each Tridentine document begins with “if anyone says….” And then for whatever the person is saying, “let him be anathema.” -- let him be condemned.) Three of these nine definitions are especially pertinent to our subject and should be quoted and explained:

  • “If anyone says that in the Mass, a true and proper sacrifice is not offered to God or that the sacrificial offering consists merely in the fact that Christ is given to us to eat, let him be anathema.”

  • “If anyone says that by the words “do this in remembrance of me” Christ did not make the apostles priests or that he did not command that they and other priests should offer his body and blood, let him be anathema.”

  • “If anyone says that the sacrifice of the Mass is merely an offering of prayers and of thanksgiving or that it is a simple memorial of the sacrifice offered on the cross and not propitiatory or that it benefits only those who communicate and the mass should not be offered for the living and the dead for sins, punishment, satisfaction and other necessities, let him be anathema.”

Unfortunately, these statements are not being Circulated or published or taught widely in nominally catholic circles today. And if you look at weekly parish bulletins from some dioceses, you will notice that so few refer to the Mass as a sacrifice or even Mass anymore. It is called a “Liturgy” or “Eucharist”. But to be a Catholic means to believe that Christ instituted the sacrifice of the Mass.

So what is the Council of Trent telling us about the sacrifice of the Mass? We are told that the sacrifice of the Mass is a true sacrifice. In the Mass, the same Christ, who offered himself on Calvary, now offers Himself in an unbloody manner on the altar.

The Mass is a true sacrifice because it is the same Jesus really present on the altar through the words of consecration. In the Mass, we have the same priest, Christ, who offers the same victim, Christ. Christ offers himself. At the last supper, Christ ordained his apostles as priests when he told them, “do this in remembrance of Me.” What had Christ done? He changed bread and wine into his own living person and he offered his flesh and blood to the heavenly father for the redemption of a sinful human race.

Trent tells us that the sacrifice of the Mass is not only a liturgical ceremony, or merely a celebration or merely a remembrance of the sacrifice on Calvary. No, the Mass is a sacrifice. The Mass is the sacrifice, which St. Paul tells us wiped out all the other sacrifices that had been offered until the coming of Christ. Christ’s death on the cross originally merited the graces to redeem the world, but Christ now actually confers those graces. The sacrifice of the Mass is the channel by which those graces are communicated. We believe the sacrifice on that first Good Friday is re-enacted or re-presented in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass. Christ’s blood was shed only once -- physically. He died only once, but he dies mystically and spiritually every time mass is offered. His sacrifice is offered to the Father continuously for all men for all eternity.

Moreover, for our purpose, the Mass is a sacrament which pours numerous graces on the human family. What kind of grace does the sacrifice sacrament of the Eucharist confer?

The grace of propitiation for sin. Propitiation means obtaining graces from God that will make up for, amend and expiate the ravages of sin.

The grace of obtaining mercy from God, who removes more or less of the guilt incurred by our sins. Guilt is the loss of divine grace. The word guilt is so common in our language, we had better know what we mean by guilt. In Catholic terms it is not merely a declaration by a court of someone being found guilty of breaking a law. Nor is it merely a psychological emotion or feeling of anxiety. Thus Sigmund Freud was not only a non-believer in a personal god yet, after a lifetime of clinical practice, Freud said he had yet to meet a single client who was not troubled by the sense of guilt. This may be the foundation of psychological disorders, but it is not the guilt of which we are speaking here. Guilt is the loss of grace. And the sacrifice sacrament of the Eucharist restores more or less of that lost grace.

  • The grace of repentance and true interior sorrow for our having offended God.

  • The grace of remission of the sufferings that are due to us because we have sinned.

  • The grace enlightening our minds which have been darkened by sin. Sin and darkness go together throughout the bible and throughout human history.

  • The grace of strengthening our wills to do good and avoid evil, because our own wills have been weakened by sins.

  • The grace of obtaining grace for others, especially the grace of conversion for hardened sinners and the grace of conversion to the true faith for those who may never have even heard the gospel effectively preached to them.

  • The grace of inspiring and enabling us to make out of love for God. A sacrifice is the surrender of something precious to God. How generous can you be? The most demanding sacrifice -- the most difficult we are called to make -- is to surrender that most precious creature that happens to have your name. How we love that creature and not want to give it up! But we can do so with the graces found in the sacrifice sacrament of the Eucharist.

Pope Pius XII and the Sacrifice of the Mass

Why of all pontiffs should we choose Pius XII? Because during his pontificate he wrote extensively on the sacrifice of the Mass, and he laid the groundwork for the liturgical teaching of Vatican II.

Similar to the sixteenth century, many nominal Catholics in the twentieth century have either abandoned their faith entirely or are struggling to remain believing Catholics. Pius XII repeatedly declared that Catholics in this century must deepen their understanding of the Mass. In fact, he said that unless the modern western world rediscovers its need for the sacrifice sacrament of the Eucharist, whole cultures run the risk of losing their Catholic identity.

With this theme for his pontificate, Pius XII on November 20, 1947, published the historic document Mediator Dei --”on the sacred liturgy”. In more than 30,000 words, he explained that the Mass is absolutely necessary for our salvation. How is this? The Mass is the sacrament through which Christ mainly dispenses graces he won for us on Calvary. Christ died on the cross for our salvation, and having died, he gained the graces we need. But we must have access to those graces. The principal treasury of these graces is the sacrifice sacrament of the Eucharist.

The Pope said: “Christ built on Calvary a purifying and saving reservoir which he filled with the blood He poured forth. But if men do not immerse themselves in its waves and do not therefore cleanse themselves of the stains of their sins, they certainly cannot be saved.” So when we say the Mass is a sacrament, it means graces are conferred just because Mass is being offered. Thus, we should make sure every priest we know offers Mass every day!

These graces are especially those which have to do with sin and the remission of both guilt (loss of grace) and the punishment for sins. Because the Mass is a sacrament, it confers these graces infallibly. It confers these graces for the whole human race, dependent on the degree of faith a person has and on the moral disposition of the individual.

As we shall see much more clearly later on, it is not enough to believe intellectually in the Mass. It is not enough to attend Mass or even participate in the Mass. We will benefit only as much from the graces of the sacrament of the Mass as we mirror the image of the life of Christ in our lives. His life was one long sacrifice, in the total surrender of his human will to the Father. We are living the Mass in the measure that we constantly surrender our wills to the loving will of God.

How to Pray the Mass

As we have so far said indicates that the Mass is the single most effective source of grace that we have on earth. However, our dispositions in hearing the Mass profoundly affect the measure of grace we receive. Our final reflections, therefore, will be on how to pray the Mass more effectively. Let me make just three recommendations.

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 much 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 before-hand. Some years ago I was asked to assemble a bibliography on the Mmass for the Catholic colleges in the United States. The then-current books on the Mmass in English print were over one hundred. I wonder how many Catholics could name, I do not say ten, but even one current title on the Mass. The Mass is, indeed, a mystery. But mysteries are not always to be believed, they are with God’s 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 thousands 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.

Plan Your Mass

If the Mass 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 care. This planning can mean different things. It can mean looking ahead to know what Mass is to be said. If we wait till Mass begins, it will take us ten minutes to find out what 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 the Mass, and I would emphasize, to what I will be thinking about during the 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 Mass.

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 the Mass. In fact this 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 Eucharist 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 prayer 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 Golgotha, or being nailed, or dying on the cross. Each one of us, according to our own devotion, should unite 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.

There is one more important observation. We should live the Mass. The human race was redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. But, unlike Calvary, the sacrifice of the Mass is not only Christ offering Himself to his heavenly Father. The Mass is also our sacrifice. Through the Mass, we obtain the grace of self-surrender to the will of God. But we must put this grace to use. We must surrender our wills to the will of God. The measure of our self-surrender to the divine will is the measure of our profiting from the Mass, not just for ourselves but for the whole world. The official Latin of the liturgy when a priest turns to the people to say the orate fratres, reads “pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours may be pleasing to God the Father Almighty.” What are we being told? We are being told that the Mass is a sacrifice twice over. It is a sacrifice which Jesus makes when the priest consecrates the bread and wine separately, to signify the separation of Christ’s blood from his body which caused his death. The Mass is also our sacrifice in separating our selfish will in order to surrender ourselves to the will of God. The degree of this self-surrender is the norm by which we profit from the Mass. The more sacrificial our lives the more beneficial is every Mass offered on all the altars of the world every day.


“Mary, mother of our redeemer, obtain for us something of the generous surrender of will which you made as you stood under the cross on Calvary. Help us to put into practice the words you spoke at Nazareth when you conceived your divine son. Let the motto of our lives be, “be it done to me according to your word.” Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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