I would like to take you on a quick journey through the various parts of the Mass. In doing so, I hope to unveil some of the meanings that too often remain unknown and hidden, and instruct you about ways you can become more actively engaged throughout the Mass.
Introductory Rites. These essentially consist of the entrance procession and song, a greeting, the Sign of the Cross, the penitential act, the Gloria, and an opening prayer.
Entrance. After the people are assembled the entrance song begins. Like every single part of the Mass, the opening song and procession have intended meaning. This song opens the celebration. It is designed to bind us together as a community, to intensify our unity. The song should also be carefully selected to lead our thoughts to the mystery of the particular feast or season.
Penitential Act. This is the moment when we acknowledge that some of our thoughts, words, and actions have not helped us become the-best-version-of-ourselves, have prevented other people from being all God created them to be, and ultimately have created an obstacle between us and the infinite love of God.
Gloria. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will… The Gloria is an ancient hymn that praises God. Our earthly relationships have become very transactional. We tend to speak to people only when we want something or if they have done something wrong. This transactional mentality has overflowed into our spiritual lives, and as a result the practice of praising God has fallen largely into disuse.
Opening Prayer. This is one of my favorite parts of the Mass. I find the opening prayers to be ever fresh and phenomenally profound. They also provide a prelude to what we are about to hear and experience. The opening prayer is designed to place us in the presence of God and focus our hearts and minds. The opening prayers of the Mass guide us to focus on the themes that will emerge in the readings that day.
Liturgy of the Word. This essentially consists of the Scripture readings, homily, profession of faith, and the general intercessions.
Scripture Readings. The readings that make up the Liturgy of the Word for Sunday Mass include an Old Testament reading, a responsorial Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading. The readings are not randomly selected; they are related to each other in some way, and belong to a flow that moves us from the readings last week to the readings next week.
Homily. The average homily lasts approximately seven minutes and for many people this is the only exposure they have to religious education all week. This is the priest’s moment to speak to the community–and a singular opportunity to nurture Christian life. The challenge the priest faces is to develop some point from the readings and transform it into a powerful teaching moment. Jesus always met people where they were, and from there he led them to a better life. The homily is the priest’s opportunity to convince people that Jesus has answers to the issues and questions they are struggling with, and that the life Jesus invites us to is simply the best way to live.
Our Profession of Faith. This is where we proclaim our faith as individuals and as a community. If you really reflect on the Creed I suspect you will have questions or doubts almost every time you say it. Those doubts and questions are invitations to explore and study our faith more, but also to place our trust in God and his Church. I used to find it comfortable when we pray together, “We believe…” (before they changed it to “I believe”) because whatever was lacking in what I believed on any given Sunday (because of doubts and questions I may have) was made up for by the faith of someone in the pew in front of me or behind me, on the other side of town or the other side of the world. Together we have a complete faith.
General Intercessions. The Mass is the most powerful prayer in human history. At every moment of every day, a Mass is taking place somewhere, and we (the Catholic Church) are praying for the entire human family. This is really quite beautiful if you stop and think about it. At this point of the Mass we offer specific intentions to God as a community. These usually include a prayer for the Church, a prayer for world leaders, prayers for those who are oppress and those in need, prayer for the local community, and others.
The Collection. At this time a basket is passed so that we can contribute financially to the mission of the Church. What we place in the basket we are giving to God and to the needy. It is a real and practical expression of loving God and neighbor. These funds are used to cover the expenses of the Church and the various ministries that the community is involved in.
Liturgy of the Eucharist. This is the “center and the summit of the entire celebration” and consists of the Eucharistic prayer, Consecration, the Our Father and sign of peace, and Communion.
The Offertory. Representatives from the community bring forward the bread and wine, along with our offerings for the Church and the poor. At the same time, the priest and servers are preparing the altar for our offering.
Eucharistic Prayer. The word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” During this sequence of prayers the priest invites us to lift up our hearts to the Lord. In this way, we are offering ourselves with Jesus to God the Father. This prayer also reminds us of God’s goodness and his friendship with humanity throughout history.
The Consecration. Leading up to the consecration, the priest recites the narrative of the Last Supper connecting what we experience in every mass with Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist. The actual consecration is the moment when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This happens when the priest recites the words of Jesus over them: “This is my body which is given up for you; this is the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, do this in memory of me.”
The Lord’s Prayer. Now we join together as a community to pray in the way that Jesus taught us.
Sign of Peace. The priest has asked God to grant us peace and unity. Nobody needs to be reminded of how fractured our world and Church have become, which makes this an especially powerful moment in the liturgy. Here we embrace the whole world. Jesus has loved us in this Eucharist by sharing his peace with us, and now we share the peace and love of Christ with those around us. This is symbolic of the way we are called to take the peace and love of Jesus out into the world.
Communion. This is the moment when we receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the form of bread and wine. It is almost beyond belief, and many have left the Church, just as many left Jesus in his own time, because of this single teaching: “This teaching is just too difficult.” (John 6:60)
Thanksgiving. These moments of reflection after receiving the Eucharist can be extremely powerful if we make ourselves present to them. The fruits of Holy Communion include unity with Jesus, nourishment for the spiritual life, a hunger for virtue, a desire to do the will of God, cleansing from past sins, a fanning of the flames of Christian love, grace to avoid sin in the future, sensitivity to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and a desire to know God more intimately.
Concluding Rites. The concluding rites are made up of the final blessing and the dismissal.
Final Blessing. On the way into church we blessed ourselves with the Sign of the Cross. Before the Gospel we blessed our mind, our lips, and our heart. Now we receive a blessing.
The Dismissal. The Mass takes its name from this final statement: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” Ite, missa est is a Latin phrase that means “Go, you are sent.”
About Father Michael Van Sloun
Father Michael Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minn. As a former school principal, high school instructor and athletic coach, he has always been a teacher. He now teaches the faith as a homilist, Bible study leader, retreat director, pilgrimage guide and author of numerous articles.
© 2011, Rev. Michael A. Van Sloun
Used with permission.