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The Mass

Understanding What's What

Author(s): Patrick Mullins

ISBN13: 9781847302014

ISBN10: 1847302017

Publisher: Veritas

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  • A guide to what happens at Mass and why.

    This book is divided neatly into six chapters focusing on:
    - the significance of the Last Supper and the origins of the Eucharist
    - the four separate parts of the Mass and the role and function of each
    - the different roles of both clergy and lay people when the Eucharist is celebrated
    - the physical arrangement of the church where Mass is celebrated
    - the technical terms used in relation to the Mass and the significance of these terms in the light of Catholic doctrine concerning the Eucharist
    - how the Mass changes us and enriches our lives.

    Each chapter provides a selection of resources for further reading.

  • Patrick Mullins

    Dr Patrick Mullins is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, Dublin. A non-ordained Brother of the Carmelite Order, he is Director of Studies at the Carmelite Institute of Britain and Ireland.

  • Be the first to review this product

    There is an immense amount of good liturgical theology packed into this short book. In just over ninety pages the author presents an overview of the scriptural roots of the Mass, its development through history, the organic nature of the component rites within the Mass, the roles and functions at Mass, an understanding of the liturgical environment, some complicated theological terms (e.g. sacrifice, transubstantiation, presence of Jesus) and finally some reflections on how the Mass might fit within a lived spirituality. Naturally, its brevity prevents an exhaustive treatment of topics but much sound and up-to-date theo­logical writing informs the book. A guided reading with a group would be a good way to `unpack a lot of the wisdom here. This would be a very good introductory text for students of liturgy, theology, or parish liturgical committees.


     - The Furrow, Dec 2010


    How often have we heard people say: I dont go to Mass anymore, I dont get anything out of it. But the more we put in, the more we get out. This little book is ideal for such people, and for many others. In a compact and easily understood way it decomplicates the Mass: where it comes from, what it is, why things happened and what they might mean to us. It ought to be in the hands of everyone who has been confirmed.

    A Mass celebrated in a family home very often achieves a more intimate sense of community and communion than a parish service. The author describes the roots of the Mass in the Passover supper, celebrated still by Jewish families in their homes. But he goes on to deal with the parts of the Mass, the different roles of those participating, and the meaning attached to the physical aspects of the service such as the vestment colours.

    - Clarity

    But he does not neglect the theological aspects of the mystery of the Mass. Here again providing a simple exposition of what can be difficult questions: the nature of the sacrifice and the Real Presence. The two pages on the Tridentine Mass and what the New Mass is intended to achieve are a model of clarity which will sweep away many misunderstandings.

    But the Mass, like the Passover, is not just for a moment, it is part of a living whole. Jewish families were conscious as they celebrated together of Gods love for them, of their salvation and of their own sense of communion with God and with each other. The last chapter unfolds the idea of the living Mass which lies as the heart of the Eucharistic mystery

    - Peter Costello, The Irish Catholic, 1st April 2010

    Dr Patrick Mullins is a member of the Carmelite Order and a professor at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, Dublin. His book is a comprehensive description of what we do at Mass and why we do it. He explains the Old Testament origins of Eucharist and its evolution from Passover through the Last Supper to the present day.

    In exploring the four parts of the Eucharist celebrated today, Dr Mullins aims to encourage our fuller understanding of and involvement at Mass. The different roles and functions of priest, people, Extraordinary Minister, Lector and choir are examined but, in addition, we learn about the lesser known functions of deacon and acolyte and their origins. A chapter on the liturgical year covers the seasonal colours and postures of our religious experience and also the design of the buildings in which Mass is celebrated. The mysterious words we use in relation to the Eucharist are explained in their context and Dr Mullins describes their development and their profound associations for people of faith. The last chapter considers how the grace of the Eucharist, which we celebrate and share in the church building, is to spill out into the world of family, work and school through the channel of our daily lives.

    Throughout we have bible references to anchor what we are reading and the author quotes frequently from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GI RM). Each chapter suggests books and websites for further reading.

    This is a helpful and precise read for someone who knows nothing about the Mass but wants to. Equally, it offers a greater depth of understanding and richness to any interested Mass-goer.

    - Kate Barrance, Reality, June 2010

    There was a time when every Catholic schoolchild was taught the catechism and so everyone understood the sacraments of the church and its various precepts. In more recent decades a more informal and comparative attitude to religious studies has prevailed and so most Catholics, practising or otherwise, are often confused or plain ignorant about the basic tenets of their religion. The mass is the central sacrament in Catholicism and this is a plain simple guide to its origins, form and meaning for lay person, whether adult or child. Chapters look at the origins of the mass in Christs last supper, the celebration of the mass, what is actually going on during it and so on. Each chapter is divided into bite-size sections focussing on different aspects of that theme. For example, the chapter on the physical environment of the mass looks at the arrangement of the church, the liturgical seasons and colours, and finally posture during mass. At a time when - even without recent scandals - people are drifting away from the church and the faithful do not always understand what is going on, this is a relatively straightforward uncomplicated guide to one of the most important sacraments.

    - Books Ireland February 2010


    This book is a guide for those who want to understand the Mass better, to participate in it more fully and to make it the focus and nourishment of their lives.

    The first chapter invites the reader to consider the significance of the Last Supper as a meal in the days leading up to Passover and, in that way, to understand the Old Testament origins of the Christian Eucharist. It also sketches the way in which the celebration of the Eucharist developed between the New Testament and the present.

    The second chapter looks at the four parts of the Mass: the Preparatory Rites, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Concluding Rites. It explores the role and function of each part in a way that invites those who participate to enter more fully and actively into the celebration of the Eucharist.

    The third chapter describes the different roles and functions of both clergy and lay people when the Eucharist is celebrated. In addition to the celebrant and concelebrants, the Deacons, Acolytes, Lectors, Extraordinary Ministers of the Word, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and the musicians and singers all make an important contribution. The assembled congregation should also participate actively, rather than passively, in the sacramental action.

    The fourth chapter outlines the physical arrangement of the church where Mass is celebrated, the different seasons of the liturgical year and the significance of the liturgical colours and postures. Chapter five looks at some of the technical terms that are used in relation to the Mass (sacrifice, sacrament, transubstantiation and mystical Body). It also outlines the significance of these terms in the light of Catholic doctrine concerning the Eucharist.

    The sixth chapter looks at the way we are changed and drawn into Christs self-sacrificing love by the Mass and of the Eucharistic rhythm it gives to our Christian way of life.

    Each chapter includes a selection of books and websites for further reading and reflection. The abbreviation GIRM refers to the English translation for England and Wales (2005) of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, issued in 2002. This text, in pdf format, may be downloaded from the Liturgy Office of England and Wales website:


    One of the best ways to deepen our understanding of the Mass is to investigate how it first began at the Last Supper. In this chapter, we will begin by exploring the relationship between the Last Supper and the Jewish feast of Passover. We will see that the Christian Eucharist has its roots in the Old Testament. We will also outline the way in which the first Eucharist, the Last Supper, evolved over time into the Mass that is celebrated in our churches every weekend.


    The four Gospels are our principal sources for the life and teaching of Jesus. We believe that they faithfully hand on to us what Jesus, the Son of God, really did and taught for our salvation. The Second Vatican Council (1962, 65) reminds us, however, that they are literary compositions based on earlier traditions.

    The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form; others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus.

    Writing their Gospels many years after the events they were describing, each of the four Evangelists told us the honest truth about Jesus in their own particular way, taking the situation of their intended readers into account. Although they retain the sense of what Jesus said and did, they do not always describe events in the same way. As we shall see, they sometimes differ from one another on particular points, such as the circumstances in which particular events took place. All four Gospels tell us that the Last Supper took place in Jerusalem during the annual pilgrimage feast of Passover. Mark, followed by Luke and Matthew, presents the Last Supper as taking place on the first day of Unleavened Bread. John, however, says that it took place two days earlier. At first sight, this discrepancy might give the impression that the Gospel accounts might be historically unreliable. As we shall see, however, they were inviting their readers to understand the meaning of the same event, the Last Supper, but in different ways.


    Among the Jews, the spring festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread, commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the first harvest when they returned to Israel, was celebrated in the middle of the first month of the Jewish year, known as Nisan. For the Jews, each day began, not with dawn, but with nightfall and it continued until the following nightfall. Chapter 23 of the Old Testament book of Leviticus laid down that the double feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread should begin on the evening of the fourteenth day of Nisan with the slaughter of the Passover lambs (usually in the afternoon).The Passover meal was celebrated that evening which, by their reckoning, was the beginning of Nisan, the first of the seven days of Unleavened Bread. During the seven days of the feast of Unleavened Bread, only bread made from fresh grain, without the addition of any yeast left over from the previous year, was to be eaten. Each day, an offering was made to the Lord by means of fire (see Lev 23:8).

    The Gospel of Mark says that the Last Supper took place on the fifteenth day of Nisan, the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb was sacrificed and the Passover meal eaten:

    And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover? ... And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover. (Mk 14:12, 16)

    Like Mark, Matthew (see Mt 26:17-29) and Luke (see Lk 22:7-13) present the Last Supper as taking place on the first day of Unleavened Bread, the fifteenth day of Nisan, and the crucifixion as taking place the following day, the sixteenth day of Nisan. According to John 19:14, however, Jesus died on the cross on Passover Preparation Day, the fourteenth day of Nisan, the day on which the Passover lambs were slaughtered, and the Last Supper took place the previous evening, the thirteenth day of Nisan. For John, in other words, the Last Supper was not, as such, a Passover meal (always celebrated on the fifteenth day of Nisan) but a pre-Passover meal celebrated two days earlier, on the thirteenth day of Nisan.

    The behaviour of the chief priests and scribes on the night before Jesus died is difficult to reconcile with the dating in Matthew, Mark and Luke, since, as John 18:28 implies, it would probably have contradicted the requirement that people should abstain from their normal occupations during the week-long celebration of the feast of Unleavened Bread. Most commentators think that Johns chronology is more likely to be correct and that Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, presented the Last Supper as a Passover meal in order to associate the events leading up to Jesus death with the great Passover themes of the sacrificial lamb and liberation from slavery. In either case, of course, the implication is that the Jewish feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread provided the key to understanding what happened at the Last Supper. In the next section, we explore how these Jewish feasts help us to understand the Eucharist.


    The Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) sacrifice could be performed only in Jerusalem (see Dt 16:2-6). Every year, many Jews came to the city on pilgrimage for its celebration. It marked a new beginning for the Israelites and any yeast made from fermenting the previous years grain was disposed of before the feast began (see Ex 13:7). Four days before the feast, on the tenth day of Nisan, each household set apart a year-old, unblemished male lamb (or goat). The feast began with the slaughter of the lamb between the two evenings (usually the afternoon) of the fourteenth Nisan. Some of the blood of the slaughtered lamb was put on the doorposts and lintel of the house in memory of the last of the ten plagues when God struck every firstborn son among the Egyptians (see Ex 12:29) but spared the houses of the Israelites. The roasted lamb was eaten with unleavened bread (matzoth) and bitter herbs that night, i.e. the fifteenth Nisan. This particular meal, known as a Seder, began with a thanksgiving blessing over the wine, an account of the Exodus from Egypt and a thanksgiving blessing when the unleavened bread was broken and distributed by the head of the household.

    When all had finished eating, there was a concluding blessing, the recitation of the psalms of praise and the final blessing over the wine. In the course of the meal, three cups of wine were passed around, the first during the blessing of the wine at the beginning of the meal, the second during the account of the Exodus and the third at the blessing when all had finished eating. Whatever remained of the roasted lamb at sunrise was burned (see Ex 12:3-10). That day, the sixteenth Nisan, was known as the first day of the Omer. The fiftieth day of the Omer was the feast of Pentecost (Shavuot), commemorating the covenant established between God and the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. On the eighth day of the Omer, the final day of Unleavened Bread, the crossing of the Red Sea by the people of Israel and the destruction of their enemies was commemorated with special prayer services and another festive meal.

    We have already noted that Matthew, Mark and Luke present the Last Supper as a Passover Seder. In the following passage from Luke 22:14-20, Jesus is described as wanting to eat this Passover meal, his last, with the apostles before his suffering and death. The passing around of the first cup at the beginning of the meal, the breaking and distribution of the bread and the passing around of the cup after supper are also mentioned:

    And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes. And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you. Do this in memory of me. And likewise the cup after supper, saying, This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

    Jesus identified the breaking and eating of the bread, and the pouring out and drinking of the cup after supper with the gift of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. The reference to before I suffer, the separate sections on eating bread/Body and drinking wine/Blood, and the description of the pouring out of the cup as the new covenant in my blood clearly refer to his suffering and death. By making the Last Supper a Passover Seder, Luke invites us to interpret the death of Jesus on the cross with the slaughter of the Passover lamb and to interpret the saving power of painting the doorposts with the lambs blood with the saving power of that death. The Passover Seder of unleavened bread, wine and roasted lamb commemorated the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and the eventual establishment of the covenant of Sinai. It made the events of the Exodus ritually present among them. By his command, Do this in memory of me, and by identifying his Body and Blood with the bread and wine, Jesus established the breaking and eating of bread, and the pouring and drinking of wine as the commemoration of his death and of the new covenant in his blood.

    Doing this in memory of him makes the saving events of Holy Week ritually present among us. We too are invited to recognise the Eucharistic bread as his Body and the Eucharistic cup as his Blood. For Luke, the Last Supper was the fulfilment of what Passover had anticipated. The new covenant in the Blood of Jesus is the fulfilment of the Exodus from slavery and of the Sinai covenant. Luke describes Jesus as giving thanks (eucharistó in Greek), first for the wine and then for the bread. When we come to Mass, we too are invited to give thanks for the gift of the Body and Blood of Jesus. We use the word Eucharist to describe this sacrament because it expresses our gratitude for the events that it makes present again among us, the death and resurrection of Jesus that have liberated us from the slavery of sin and death.


    Matthew, Mark and Luke present the Last Supper as a Passover Seder. We have already noted, however, that it was probably a pre-Passover meal, as in the Gospel of John. The earliest surviving account of the Eucharist, Corinthians 11:23-26, says that the Last Supper took place on the night when he was betrayed and does not refer to Passover.

    For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, This is my body which is for you. Do this as a memorial of me. In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, as a memorial of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lords death until he comes.

    If it was, in fact, a pre-Passover meal, the bread may have been leavened and the supper may not have consisted of roast lamb and bitter herbs. Eating bread and drinking wine was a normal feature of the evening meal. People ate with their hands and the head of the household normally said the thanksgiving and blessing at the beginning of the meal as he broke the bread and distributed it to those who were present. The version of the Jewish oral law, known as the Babylonian Talmud, notes that:

    Our Rabbis taught: A man should not break bread i.e. recite the blessing] for visitors unless he eats with them, but he may break bread for his children and the members of his household so as to train them in the performance of religious duties. This text suggests that one of the purposes of the blessing said over the breaking of bread was to train people in the performance of their religious duties. Reared as an observant Jew, Paul may have interpreted what Jesus did at the Last Supper and his command, Do this in memory of me, as training the members of his new household in the performance of their religious duties.


    When Jesus said, Do this in memory of me, was he referring only to the blessing for breaking the bread before the meal and to the blessing over the final cup at the end or was the meal itself also included? At the Last Supper, the meal came between the blessing over the bread and the blessing over the final cup of wine. Very soon, however, the meal came first (see 1 Cor 11:21, 33) and it was followed by the blessings over the breaking of bread and over the cup. By about the middle of the second century, Eucharist was being celebrated in some places without a fraternal meal and this gradually became the norm. About AD 155, Justin Martyr made a clear distinction between the Eucharist and other kinds of food:

    We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread or common drink do we receive those

    In the early centuries, there does not seem to have been a fixed formula for the blessings over the breaking of the bread and over the cup. By the early part of the third century, however, a set formula became more common, possibly in order to ensure that the essential elements were not omitted. The oldest certain version of the Eucharistic Prayer, the central prayer of the Mass, is found in the account of the Eucharist at the ordination of a Bishop in the Apostolic Tradition (3:4), written by Hippolytus c. AD 215. Although it is a long quotation, it is given here in full. Note the first three paragraphs leading up to the words of consecration and the final paragraph, which begins with the word remembering:

    And when he has been made Bishop let every one offer him the kiss of peace, saluting him, for he has been made worthy. To him then let the Deacons bring the offerings and he with all the Presbyters laying his hand on the offerings shall say, giving thanks: The Lord be with you. And the people shall say: And with your spirit. Lift up your hearts. We have them with the Lord. Let us give thanks unto the Lord. It is fitting and right.

    And then he shall continue immediately: We give you thanks, O God, through your beloved Son Jesus Christ whom, in the last time, you did send to us [to be] a Saviour and Redeemer and the Messenger of your will; who is your inseparable Word through whom you made all things and in whom you were well pleased; whom you did send from heaven into the Virgins womb and who conceived within her was made flesh and was manifested as your Son, born of the Holy Spirit and a virgin; who fulfilling your will and winning for himself a holy people stretched forth his hands when it was time for him to suffer, so that, by his suffering, he might release from suffering those who have believed in you; who also, when he was betrayed to his voluntary suffering in order that he might abolish death and break the bonds of the devil and trample hell underfoot and enlighten the righteous and set a boundary and show forth the resurrection: took bread and gave thanks to you, saying: Take, eat: this is my body which is broken for you. Likewise also the cup, saying: This is my blood which is poured out for you. Whenever you do this, you do it in memory of me.

    Remembering, therefore, his death and resurrection, we offer to you the bread and the cup, giving thanks to you, because of your having accounted us worthy to stand before you and minister to you. And we pray that you might send your Holy Spirit upon the offering of the holy Church. Gather as one in the fullness of your Holy Spirit your saints who participate; and confirm their faith in truth so that we may praise and glorify you through your Son Jesus Christ, through whom be glory and honour to you, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, in your holy Church, both now and through the ages of ages. Amen.

    Over time, different forms of the Eucharistic Prayer developed and became the norm in particular places or regions. I will outline the four standard Eucharistic Prayers introduced after the Second Vatican Council in a later chapter. The Antiochene (Greek), Alexandrian (Coptic), Roman (Latin) and Gallican (also Latin, used in north-western Europe) rites for celebrating the Eucharist were recognisably distinct by the end of the fourth century. Many different rites for celebrating the Eucharist have survived and some are still in use.


    In this section, I will outline the way in which the normal celebration of Mass in the Roman rite has developed over the last fifteen hundred years or so. There are essentially three different periods: the Gregorian rite from about 600, 1570; the Tridentine Rite from 1570, 1970; and the Vatican II rite since then.

    The Roman (Latin) liturgy of the Mass was first codified by Pope St Gregory the Great (590, 604). The Gregorian Rite simplified the existing Roman liturgy and established the definitive arrangement of the Eucharistic Prayer that is now known as the Roman Canon. The reading of texts from Scripture seems to have been part of the Eucharist from the beginning. Lukes account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus describes Jesus as interpreting the Scriptures for them before they recognised him in the breaking of bread (see Lk 24:27). During the early centuries, the order of readings used seems to have followed that used in Jewish synagogues, but pride of place was now given to the Gospels and to the other texts of the New Testament. In the Gregorian Rite, the readings from Scripture to be used in the Mass were listed in a standardised Lectionary (collection of readings). The Gregorian Rite had standardised forms for the introduction to the Mass, which included the Penitential Rites and the Opening Prayer, for the Communion Rites and for the Concluding Prayers and blessing. Following the blessing, the dismissal took the form: Ite, missa est (Go, it is ended) and the English word Mass is thought to be derived from this dismissal.

    Responding to both doctrinal and practical concerns that had been raised during the Protestant Reformation earlier that century, the Council of Trent (1545, 63) appointed a commission to revise and restore the Roman Missal. In the new Missal of the Council of Trent, issued in 1570, uniformity was achieved by the suppression of regional variations and the doctrinal points that had been challenged by the Reformers were clearly affirmed. Daily Mass according to the Tridentine Missal included the use of incense at the beginning and during the offering of the gifts, and the Last Gospel (Jn 1:1-14) was read out in Latin at the end. The prayers of intercession for local needs, which had been part of the Gregorian Rite, were omitted. A new Roman Lectionary specifying what readings were to be used for different occasions was also issued in 1570. Generally speaking, there were two readings, the first only rarely from the Old Testament and the second from the Gospels. The readings were organised on a yearly cycle, with the same readings being used every year on a given Sunday or Feast Day. Most weekday Masses did not have their own proper readings, and the readings from the previous Sunday, or from the saints day being celebrated, were used.

    Recognising that the Tridentine Rite needed some adaptation to facilitate the active participation of the congregation attending Mass, the Second Vatican Council (1962, 65) initiated a reform of the Roman liturgy. The result was the Missal of Pope Paul VI (1968). The importance of the readings from Scripture was highlighted by recognising that the Mass included a Liturgy of the Word as well as a Liturgy of the Eucharist. In addition to the Roman Canon, which was the only Eucharistic Prayer in the Tridentine Rite, three new Eucharistic Prayers were introduced. One of these was a reworking of the Eucharistic Prayer of Hippolytus (which we have noted at the end of the previous section). The prayers of intercession, as in the Gregorian Rite, were restored. A new Latin edition of the Roman Lectionary, based on a three-year cycle, was issued in 1969. The English version was published in 1970. A revised Latin edition of this Lectionary was issued in 1981 and the latest English version was published in the United States in 1998. Generally speaking, there are two proper readings for each daily Mass and three proper readings for Sunday Mass. The number of Old Testament readings has been increased significantly by comparison with the Tridentine Lectionary. The participation of the congregation is encouraged by the use of a series of responses, including a responsorial psalm after the first reading.
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