What is a Catholic Mass? An Easy Approach in 4 Simple Parts

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the central act of worship by the Church, and it is central to the spiritual life of the individual Catholic. It is not only the way we fulfill the commandment of the Lord to Remember the Sabbath, Keep it Holy, but it is also a fountain of grace (participation in the life of God and help to live the Christian life) for those who participate. In total, the Mass consists of four distinct parts, called rites. A Catholic Mass explained step by step then would follow those four parts:

  1. The Introductory Rite
  2. The Liturgy of the Word
  3. The Liturgy of the Eucharist
  4. The Concluding Rite

What is a Catholic Mass, the Introductory Rite?

A Catholic Mass will begin by the entrance of the celebrant, processing down the nave (aisle). He will follow several assistants (altar boys) who will help him by carrying various items (a processional cross, candles, etc.) and handing them to him when needed. During this time, everyone (the congregation) sings a hymn.

What is Catholic Mass
The Last Supper, CHAMPAIGNE, Philippe de c. 1652, Oil on canvas, 158 x 233 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Once the procession gets to the sanctuary, the priest will reverence the altar and start the Mass proper by making the Sign of the Cross, saying: In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is a visual and verbal reminder to all present of our common baptism into the one true God in three divine persons. Then he will invite everyone to reflect upon their sins – the ways we have disobeyed God or hurt other people and ourselves – and beg forgiveness of God as a way of opening ourselves up to receiving His special grace in the Mass.

What is a Catholic Mass, the Liturgy of the Word?

During the Liturgy of the Word, everyone listens to three readings, plus a Gospel passage. It is an instructional part of the Mass when we let the words of the Sacred Scriptures nourish our minds. For education, in the early days of the Church, those preparing to become Christian would attend Mass until the end of the Liturgy of the Word.

The first reading will be an Old Testament story, which in some way either prefigures Jesus or illustrates a work He completes. For example, the connection between the manna in the desert as found in Exodus and Jesus as the Bread of Life in John. Next, a portion of one of the psalms is sung or recited. Then, there is a second reading from one of the New Testament letters, usually St Paul. Finally, the last instruction is a proclamation of a Gospel passage, indicating that Jesus completed the Old Testament.

Did you know?

The word liturgy derives from the Greek leitourgia, meaning public duty or official work. It is the reason the Mass is said to be the official prayer of the Church.

The Liturgy of the Word continues with a homily by the priest or deacon [brief talk, explaining or highlighting an aspect of the readings]. Following that, everyone will make a statement of faith, which takes the form of either the Apostle or Nicene Creed. This part of the Mass concludes with the Intercessory Prayers for global and local needs.

What is a Catholic Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist?

The word Eucharist comes to us from the Greek eucharistia, meaning thanksgiving. It is proper then that it starts with the offertory. It is an opportunity to offer ourselves and our treasures to God, symbolically represented by the gifts of bread and wine and a monetary collection. Following that, the preparation of the altar takes place, and everyone assumes the reverential posture of kneeling.

What Is Catholic Mass 2
Gradual 2 for San Michele a Murano (Folio 78), Don Silvestro dei, c. 1395, Tempera and gold on parchment, 580 x 400 mm, The Morgan Library and Museum, New York

During a part of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest will say the words of consecration, and Jesus will become substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine. Essentially, on the outside, everything remains unchanged. On the inside – the level of what makes a thing a thing – the substance has changed. Thus, it is such that the bread is no longer bread but the Body of Christ (all the while looking like bread).

Those present in the State of Grace can receive Holy Communion at this time of the Mass. Usually, they will form a line in the nave and receive either under one kind (the Body) or both if offered. Those not receiving Holy Communion, either because of sin or they are not catholic, are encouraged to make an act of Spiritual Communion (see below), expressing their desire for Union with God. Sometimes they are invited forward to receive a blessing, indicating they will not be taking Communion by folding their arms across their chest.

What is a Catholic Mass, the Concluding Rite?

The last part of Mass is short, and it can seem to end abruptly. After a short period of reflection (the faithful thank God for the gift of the Eucharist, express their closeness to him, and ask for special graces), all stand, and the priest says a final prayer. It is a short last request of God that all may well use the gifts they have received at Mass. He then blesses the people in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and dismisses them with the words: Go forth, the Mass is ended. To which, everyone responds thanks be to God.

Did You Know?

The name Mass comes from the final blessing said by the priest in Latin Ite missa est, meaning to send out as Jesus Christ sent his disciples out to the world to take his teaching to them.

What is a Catholic Mass, the Description of St Justin Martyr from 135 A.D?

The Mass in A.D. 155: St. Justin Martyr describes the early Christian liturgy

But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation.

Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.

And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to ge’noito [so be it].

And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

And this food is called among us Eucharistia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. (First Apology, 65 & 66)

What Is Catholic Mass 3
The Last Supper, Jaume Baco, 1450s, Cathedral Museum, Segorbe

Prayer for After Holy Communion

What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what you gave us in time, may be our healing for eternity. Amen. May Your Body, O Lord, which I have eaten, and Your Blood which I have drunk, cleave to my very soul, and grant that no trace of sin be found in me, whom these pure and holy mysteries have renewed. Who live and reign, world without end. Amen. We humbly beseech You, almighty God, to grant that those whom You refresh with Your sacraments ma, serve you worthily by a life well-pleasing to You. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns, world without end. Amen.

Prayer of Spiritual Communion

My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot receive You sacramentally, come, at least, spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.

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