While on vacation, I bumped into a wonderful, devout Catholic at Tim Horton’s, and while we talked, he shared how he wished priests would explain the meaning and rituals of the Mass. And judging by the number of questions you’ve asked, many people want to understand better what we do every week. So, as we mentioned before, today, next Sunday, and the last Sunday of Advent, we’re going to try to explain the Mass in order to appreciate it better.
Let’s start off by explaining the vestments we use, because St. Paul says today, “Let us then lay aside the words of darkness and put on the armour of light” (Rom 13:12). Vestments are considered to be part of the spiritual armour for clergy and servers. Originally, parts of the vestments were regular Roman clothing: when Christians celebrated Mass, they wore their best clothes. But as fashions changed, these clothes stayed the same and became reserved only for Mass, and would remind the clergy that what they were doing was sacred.
Let’s watch a short video that explains the meaning of the vestments:
The most important thing for priests and deacons to remember is that we’re putting on sacred vestments because we’re doing something sacred. We couldn’t just come to Mass without any preparation. Putting on vestments forces us to stop, slow down, focus, and pray, which is why priests and deacons always pray while putting on these vestments. St. Paul also says today, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14). When a priest celebrates Mass, he has to remember that he’s acting in the person of Christ. His mindset is that he’d have no power to consecrate the Eucharist if it weren’t for Christ. He’s taking the role of Christ, which is a tremendous privilege and blessing, but also a grave responsibility, not something to be taken lightly.
This idea also applies to the lectors and gift bearers, who are doing something sacred. It’s such a special privilege to proclaim God’s Word and bring up the gifts that’ll be consecrated into Jesus’ Body and Blood that they should wear their best clothes; we ask men here to wear suits and women to wear the equivalent. The ushers, greeters and welcomers also dress up because they’re reminding us what Jesus taught: Mass is a wedding banquet.
For these reasons I’d just like to suggest that we all dress a step-up for Mass. It’s a beautiful reminder that we’re doing something special and sacred. If we were to go to wedding and stopped on the way at a gas station, someone looking at us might ask, “Where are you going?” They can tell by the way we’re dressed that we’re going somewhere special. In the same way, when people see us dressed up on Sunday, they might ask us, “Why so dressed up?” “We’re going to a wedding.” That’ll make people think.
And while it’s cold outside now, it’s a good time to remember that we should also dress modestly to Mass when summer comes. Especially now that we’ll have air conditioning, there’ll be no need to wear low tops or shorts to Mass; I plan on cranking up the AC to force people to cover up! Modesty is just another word for dressing beautifully. There’s no need to dress like we’re on a farm in the 1800s, but we should dress in a beautiful way that’s fashionable and comfortable.
This is a perfect segue into the more important part: When St. Paul says to put on Christ, that means we need to put on the right perspective when praying at Mass. Clothes are important but secondary. It’s much better that a construction worker come in his work clothes than missing Mass; and it’s edifying when people working night shifts come to Mass in their work clothes and then go home and sleep. But what’s primary is the interior attitude—this is what we need to put on.
For example, when we do the Penitential rite (that is, “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters…), we could do it without thinking about it. But St. Paul tells us we have to prepare ourselves before receiving the Eucharist: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27). The priest introduces the Penitential rite saying, “Brothers and sisters, let us call to mind our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries,” and then there’s a pause. This pause is designed for us to remember our sins, but we should also use it to ask God to be sorry. Pope Francis, following the advice of St. Ignatius of Loyola, says that we should ask God for the gift of tears about our sins. Now I’m not saying we should all cry during Mass, but we should feel badly for our sins and ask His forgiveness because He loves to forgive us.
That’s why we repeat certain things during Mass: repetition has “the function, not merely of expressing how we feel but of teaching us how to feel” (Msgr. Bruce Harbert, Companion to the Order of Mass, 18). “When our feelings are aroused, we tend to repeat ourselves.” Whenever we hurt people we say, for example, “Sorry, sorry, sorry! I’m so sorry.” When we’re grateful for a gift received, we may say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” During Mass, because we feel badly, we say, “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” When else do we repeat ourselves? “Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy, Christ have mercy; Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy.” “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.” During the Gloria we repeat ourselves slightly, “We praise You, we bless You, we adore You, we glorify You, we give You thanks.” These five verbs express our attitude before our majestic God. Notice also that we’re not doing the Gloria during Advent, because it’s a Christmas hymn: The first time it was sung was by the angels to the shepherds when Jesus was born (Lk 2:8-14).
To answer a bunch of questions that you asked me: The Penitential rite doesn’t forgive mortal sins, that’s why there’s no sign of the cross by the priest when he says, “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life,” so to avoid confusion; only Confession takes away mortal sins.
Also, can we take Communion if we’ve committed mortal sins? No. If we’ve committed venial sins? Yes. The Catechism says receiving Communion takes away venial sins (1416), but, like Confession, we need to be sorry first, which is why we express sorrow at the beginning of Mass. The Penitential rite can forgive venial sins too, but again there needs to be sorrow, because this is a relationship, not magic.
Putting on the right mindset applies to other parts of the Mass:
The Responsorial Psalm is designed to be our response to the first reading: God just spoke to us, now we’re speaking to Him. So, we should pray the response realizing that we’re responding to God. The Prayers of the Faithful (where we announce intentions and after each say, “Lord, hear our prayer”) is designed to be our response to having been just nourished by the three readings and the homily (GIRM 69); now we’re asking God’s blessings based on what He taught us. Here at St. Anthony’s the intentions always echo the homily, which is based on one idea from the readings.
What’s the point of kneeling? Adoration. We start kneeling during the most sacred part of Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer, when Jesus’ Body and Blood become present on the altar. A number of people asked what we should do during this part. Some of us have been taught that we’re supposed to look down during the elevation of the Eucharist, out of a sense of unworthiness, as St. John the Baptist felt in the presence of Jesus (Jn 1:27). Actually, the reason the priest holds up the Body and Blood is precisely so that we can look at, contemplate and adore them. This is a moment of silence and we can pray whatever comes to our heart: e.g. “I love you!” “You’re everything to me!” or as St. Thomas said when he saw Jesus truly risen, “Jesus, my Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). After consecrating both the Body and the Blood, the priest genuflects in adoration and sometimes people bow their heads along with him.
The Sign of Peace that we give to each other is based on Jesus’ command, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). This sign is real: Before we receive the Eucharist, it’s necessary to be at peace with everyone, especially with our family. We need to live holy lives, forgive each other outside of Mass, and at least attempt to reconcile with others, so that our sign of peace is authentic. One other thing: I think it’s polite if, someone offers their hand, we shake it. I believe we stopped when SARS was going around. If we’re sick, just say politely with a smile, “Peace be with you. Sorry, but I have a cold,” and not offer our hands.
I hope this helps us appreciate better some of the parts of Mass and their meaning. We put on the armour of Christ because we’re doing something sacred, and our best clothes because we’re going to a wedding banquet! Most importantly, we want to put on Jesus so that we have the right perspective.