A short Catechism of the Mass
By Father Godfrey Carney
Q. What is a sacrifice?
A. A sacrifice is the offering of a Victim to God by a priest to acknowledge
that God is the Supreme Being, the Creator of all things.
Q. What is a Victim?
A. A Victim is the thing that is offered. Often in the Old Law (before Christ)
it was an animal, killed, and its blood poured on the altar by the priest. The
people who gave the animal were saying by this to God - "The animal represents
us, it represents all creation. We give it to You to show that we give You
ourselves, that we are Yours, that everything is Yours". In this act there is
adoration, thanksgiving, pleading for forgiveness, pleading for help for soul
and body. The Victim was often eaten afterwards in a ritual meal. These
sacrifices were offered for many centuries in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Q. Did Christ abolish all that?
A. It is more true to say that He fulfilled all that. Those old Covenant acts
were foreshadows of the new and everlasting Covenant. At the Jewish Passover
Supper, before His passion began, He lifted all those sacrifices up into His own
Sacrifice when He made the Mass.
Q. What is the Mass?
A. The Mass is the Sacrifice of Jesus on the cross offered up continually under
appearances of bread and wine. It is the final perfect sacrifice.
Q. Are there a number of Rites of the Mass?
A. Yes, quite a number. In the Eastern Church - that means in Greece, Egypt, the
Middle East, and further north - there are various rites of the Mass - the Greek
rite, the Byzantine Rite, the Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and others. In the
Western Church (with few variations) - the Roman Rite.
Q. Why are they different?
A. They developed that way from the beginning of Christianity. Different places,
slow travelling, slow communications, different languages. But the same Mass.
The same essential act of worship.
Q. What is the essential act?
A. The essential act in the Mass is the redeeming Sacrifice of Jesus Christ
which He offered once on the Cross of Calvary, and which He continues to offer
through the priest at the altar under the appearances of bread and wine for the
living and the dead.
Q. Do all rites look alike?
A. They don't look the same, but there is the same general structure in every
rite, the same broad outline - the Offertory, the Consecration, and the
Q. What is the Offertory?
A. The Offertory is the first part of the Sacrifice proper. It is an integral
part of the Mass. The priest offers the bread and wine to God the Father - the
bread and wine that will be changed into Jesus' Body and Blood when the
Consecration comes. Now, everyone present can give themselves in that act of
offering. Jesus will transform those gifts at the Consecration. He will join us
then, and we will join Him, and become one with Him in His great Redeeming Act.
Q. What is the Consecration?
A. The Consecration is the centre point, the climax, the very heart of the Mass.
At that moment the bread and wine are changed in being, changed into Christ
Himself, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. There is no change in colour or
shape or touch or taste. All those "bread and wine" appearances remain the same.
It is the inner essence - the substance - that changes, changes from being bread
and wine into being the Body and Blood of Christ. This change is called
Q. Do we see this change?
A. No. This is a hidden change, from one hidden thing into another hidden thing.
The inner reality, the substance, of every material thing is always hidden from
our senses, hidden from all experiment. Chemical analysis does not touch
substance. The mind knows substance. The senses only contact the outward
appearances, "the messages", that comes to the senses - colour, sound, taste,
and so on. The change at the Consecration is a change of substance, and Christ
is present in the way of substance.
Q. After the Consecration, what remains of the bread and wine?
A. Only the appearances, the "messages" to the senses, the external reactions.
The substance, the real thing there, is Jesus Christ.
Q. How can Christ become so small?
A. Christ is there "substantially", that is, in the way in which substance is
present in anything at all. Substance has nothing at all to do with size. A tiny
crumb of bread, a tiny drop of wine, is just as truly bread, and as truly wine,
as all the bread and wine in the world. We believe in this hidden change because
the words of Christ Who is God Almighty, Who made the universe from nothing. We
don't know how God did that, but He did it. We don't know how He does this, but
by His words we know He does it.
Q. What words?
A. The words which Christ spoke over the bread and wine at the Last Supper the
night before He was crucified. These words have some small variations in
different Gospels and different rites, but the following is a summing of the
words - "Take ye and eat. This is my Body given up for you. Drink of this. This
is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the New and everlasting Covenant. It
will be shed for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in
remembrance of Me". If these words mean what they say, then that change of
substance takes place. Christ clearly meant what He said.
Q. It's hard to believe, isn't it?
A. It is. The people who were there when Christ promised to do it found it hard.
So hard that they walked away and left Him. And He didn't try to stop them and
explain away the hard saying. He must have meant it. The gift of Faith helps us
Q. Christ could do it. But how can the priest do it?
A. By his own personal power, the priest, of course, cannot do it. But when he
was ordained he was given a share in the mighty Priesthood of Christ. He was
empowered to speak at the altar, in the Person, and character of Christ. Christ
ordained the Apostles, and all priests, when He added at the Last Supper the
words - "DO THIS, IN MEMORY OF ME". Christ commanded and thereby gave the power.
Christ makes this great change, using the priest's voice and actions. Christ
does it, through the priest.
Q. Apart from the change, what else happens?
A. Christ is really present. He is present in a posture of sacrifice, both
Priest and Victim. "This is my Body given up for you. This is my Blood, shed for
you". The Cross and the Mass and the Last Supper are one and the same action,
done by the same person - Christ Our Lord.
Q. Does Christ die again in the Mass?
A. No. He died once on the Cross. He dies no more, but His act of loving
self-surrender, His Act of Sacrifice for us, goes on at every Mass in a real
living way. He is there really and truly, making Calvary present before us, and
before every generation until the end of the world.
Q. Why the separate consecration of His Body and Blood?
A. His Body and Blood are not really separated. In His death on Calvary they
were separated. But He rose to life. He lives. That is why it is not necessary
to receive Him under both appearances. We receive the complete Christ under one
appearance. The priest has to receive under both appearances in order to
complete the sacrifice. But, in the separate consecration, we are given a vivid
sign of death. The Mass reminds us of the Death of Christ for us. St. Paul puts
it like this - "As often as you do this (that is, the Mass), you shall show
forth the death of the Lord until He comes again".
Q. Does this add anything to Christ's sacrifice on the Cross?
A. No. It is the same sacrifice. It is not a repetition of Calvary. Christ is a
Priest forever. He is a Victim forever. His priestly Act goes on forever. The
Mass makes it present to us. The Mass applies its power to our souls.
Q. The Communion - what is that?
A. It is the last part of the Mass. The priest receives Our Lord, and gives Him
to the people. Christ lives in us as Food, to strengthen our souls with His
Divine Life, to be one with us in love, to unite us to Him and to each other.
"Communion" means "Many united in One".
Q. What must we do to prepare to receive Him like this?
A. We must be baptised Catholics. We must be freed from mortal sin by a genuine
Confession beforehand. We must be fasting for one hour. We must be in the right
frame of mind - believing, hoping, loving, reverent, and humbly thankful for
such a Wondrous Gift.
Q. About the language. Is Latin forbidden in the Mass at present?
A. Certainly not. The New Rite of Pope Paul VI was issued from Rome in Latin
(1970). It can be said either in Latin or in the language of the country. The
Second Vatican Council explicitly states that Latin must be preserved in the
Q. That is the Tridentine Mass?
A. That is a name given nowadays to the Old Rite of Latin Mass which developed
in the Western Church (the Latin Church). That Ancient Rite was revised and
ordered for all the Latin Church by Pope Pius V. He did this, following on the
great reforming Council of Trent in the 16th century. The word "Tridentine" is
from the Latin "Tridentinus", an adjectival word, descriptive, referring to the
town of Trent in Northern Italy in which the Council was held - "The Tridentine
Q. What was the Mass like before that?
A. In the beginning, very simple, in various languages. In Latin from about the
fourth century, it grew up with variations in different parts of Europe.
Gradually the order of Mass used in Rome at the Pope's Mass, spread and
influences the rest of Europe. Pope Pius V trimmed it and unified it so that the
Catholic anywhere in the Western world heard the same Latin sounds wherever he
Q. What was the situation before the Fourth Century?
A. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire which covered all the
Mediterranean lands and all Western Europe. But in the early centuries Greek was
also spoken in the West. The Gospels and Epistles were written in Greek. Greek
was used as the language of worship. The Mass in the West was in Greek in the
very early centuries for a time. Gradually Latin took over. The 'Kyrie Eleison'
- ('Lord have mercy') is part of a Greek Litany still in the Mass. There was
never a sudden change. From very simple beginnings the Mass grew, variations
coming and going, but a natural organic growth.
Q. So Roman influence prevailed?
A. Ultimately yes. Rome being the centre of the Church, and the Holy Apostolic
See of Peter, had a unifying influence on the whole Church in Faith and Morals,
but also in ways of worship. "The law of praying is the law of believing".
Q. Why Latin nowadays? A "dead" language?
A. Latin is old and beautiful and sacred and unchanging in meaning. It is a
lovely heritage handed down to us. It safeguards the Holy of Holies from
profanation and abuse. It makes for awe and reverence and mystery surrounding
the Mystery of Faith. It unifies the whole Church. It makes us feel "at home" in
all countries. It is a language sanctified by the holy use of centuries of
Saints and Martyrs. It is a lovely veil that covers and yet enhances and
radiates the Mystery of our Redemption. To throw it away is a great mistake.
Q. What is the Canon of the Mass?
A. "Canon" means something fixed, permanent, a rule. The Canon of the Mass is
the central Eucharistic Prayer surrounding the Consecration itself.
Q. How old is the Canon?
A. The Canon is the oldest part of the Roman Mass. We have a description of it
written by St. Ambrose in Milan in the 4th century. Its wording is very much the
same as the Roman Canon is today. Obviously it was still old in St. Ambrose's
Q. Would you describe the Canon in the Mass today.
A. The Canon begins with the Preface, which is an introductory Prayer of
thanksgiving and praise ending with the 'Sanctus', and angels' cry of praise in
Heaven. Then the Canon itself leads up to the Consecration with beautiful
pleadings through Christ to the Father, that He accept the sacrifice. We pray
for the Church, the Pope, the Bishop, for all here present, for all the living.
We unite ourselves with our Blessed Mother Mary and St. Joseph, and with all the
apostles and Martyrs and all the Saints. The priest spreads his hands over the
bread and wine, calling down the Holy Spirit of God and His power. Then he acts
and speaks the words of Christ at the Last Supper, and the Great Change takes
place and Christ is present and Christ's Sacrifice is present from then on.
The prayers continue, recalling His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension,
and offering this most Holy, Pure, Spotless Victim to the Eternal Father, asking
Him to accept this offering. We pray for the Dead. We plead that we sinners may
be allows, through God's mercy, to join the company of the Saints and Martyrs.
All this we plead for through Christ Our Lord, and to finish the Canon the
priest holds up Christ's Body and Blood in a gesture of sacrifice, saying:
"Through Him, with Him, in Him, is given to You, God the Father Almighty, in the
unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen".
Q. What happens then?
A. Then the Communion begins at once with the Lord's own Prayer - the "Pater
Noster" - the "Our Father".
Q. What happens before the Canon?
A. The Offertory. The priest offers the bread and wine to God, speaking of them
already as sacred gifts, dedicated to the most sublime purpose of the sacrifice.
Then he turns to the people and says, "Orate Fratres" - "Pray, brethren, that my
sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father". And for this
the people pray also.
Q. Why does the say my sacrifice and yours? Why not our sacrifice?
A. We all share by Baptism in the priesthood of Christ. We all can, and should,
offer ourselves as baptised members of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ,
giving our lives and activities to the Father with Christ, putting our lives
into the Mass, and putting the Mass into our lives. That is the wonderful way in
which we can become part of this sublime Act. But the priest at the altar has
received another Sacrament - Holy Order. He is a minister of Christ. He has the
power of acting in the person of Christ as he says the words of Consecration and
so brings about the change, and the sacrifice is present. So the words "My
sacrifice and yours" show that vital distinction. Without an ordained priest,
there could be no Mass.
Q. What happens before the Offertory?
A. That is called the "Fore-Mass", or, the "Mass of Catechumens" or, "The
Liturgy of the Word". It centres rounds the Bible. Two reads from the scriptures
- the Epistle, read on the right hand side of the altar (the south side) and the
Gospel, read on the left hand side (the north side).
Q. Why is the Book taken across after the Epistle to the other side of the
A. One reason, the Gospel of Christ is read on the north side of the church with
the priest facing towards the north, because in former times the north was
considered to be the pagan area and not yet converted. Another is that it is a
symbol of the changeover from the Old Testament to the New, from the Old Law to
the New Law, from Moses to Christ, from the synagogue to the Catholic Church.
Q. What follows the Gospel?
A. On Sundays and Holydays, usually a sermon. Then the Nicene Creed just before
Q. Why was the first part (the reading and preaching) called the Mass of the
A. Because in the earlier centuries, the catechumens, that is, converts under
instruction in the Faith, met for the Bible reading and preaching, and having
responded with the creed, they were blessed and sent away. Only baptised
Christians could stay on to join in the Sacrifice.
Q. Why does the priest kiss the altar and genuflect often and make the signs
of the Cross over the host and chalice?
A. To show reverence for the place of sacrifice, for the Real Presence of Christ
in the Holy Eucharist, to express the supreme holiness of this great act of
worship. For the same reasons, the people kneel for Holy Communion and receive
Our Lord on the tongue.
Q. Is the altar not also a table? Is the Mass not also a Holy Meal?
A. Yes. The Communion of the Mass is a Holy Meal coming from the Last Supper, a
Sacred Banquet in which Christ is received, and from that aspect we can think of
the altar as the table of the Lord. But the Mass is first and foremost, the
sacrifice of the cross.
Q. Why doesn't the priest face the people in the Old Rite?
A. The priest and people face in the same direction. They face towards the East,
where the Sun rises. Jesus is the Sun of Justice. He rose from the dead on
Easter Morning as the Sun rose in the East. That has always been the way. Both
priest and people faced God together. In fact, in the New Rite, there is no law
which commands the priest to face the people. The Pope does not face the people
when he says Mass in his private chapel in the Vatican.
Q. What about the Introit, the Gradual psalm, the Offertory Verse, and the
A. These are psalms or part of psalms. They are often sung in Plain Chant at
High Mass. They became shortened in time to one verse or two, with a repeated
response called an 'antiphon'. The "Introit" ("he goes in") at the beginning of
Mass was an entrance psalm sung as the priest went in procession to the altar in
large churches. The "Gradual" - a psalm between the Epistle and the Gospel, was
sung on the step below the Gospel platform. "Gradus" means "a step".
Q. What is said at the beginning of Mass at the foot of the altar steps?
A. Priest and servers say alternatively Psalm 42. It is most appropriate. One
verse sets the tone for the whole Mass. This verse is set at the start of the
psalm, repeated in its own proper place within the psalm itself, and again at
the end of the psalm. This is the famous - "Intriobo ad altare Dei" - "I will go
to the altar of God: to God who gives joy to my youth". Then before he mounts
the altar, priest and people confess that they are sinners and ask for pardon by
saying the 'Confiteor".
Q. Why is it called "Mass"?
A. This word "Mass" is from the Latin word "Missa". Before he gives the final
blessing, the priest says to the people 'Ite, missa est' which means "Go, it is
the dismissal" or "Go, you are sent". Somehow or other the word "Missa" became
the short name for the whole great Action. A good reason for this is that the
people are being told - "You have met Christ in His saving Sacrifice, you may
have received Him into your souls. Now just as He said to His Apostles, "Go,
teach all nations", so, you are now sent to take Christ with you to your homes,
and wherever you go. You are sent on a mission. You are missionaries, apostles,
Q. The Last Gospel. Why and what is it?
A. After he has given the final blessing, the priest goes to the north side
again to read the Last Gospel. This actually is the start of the Gospel of St.
John. It was once part of the thanksgiving after Mass. It reminds us as we read
it, that the Eucharist is truly a continuation of the Incarnation itself. "In
the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . .
. and the Word was made Flesh and dwelt amongst us, and we saw His glory, the
glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth".
The Mass contains the whole of the sublime Mystery of the Redemption. The
ancient Latin Rite is a masterpiece to be cherished.
Q. This account of the Ancient Roman Rite is rather jumbled, it hops to and
fro, doesn't it?
A. We want to give a portrait, not just a photograph of what the Mass means.
Jesus is there, Himself. He is doing the Act, making the great Change, giving
Himself in the act of the cross, and giving Himself to us in love. We must
centre everything in the Consecration, the very heart of the matter. The
Consecration is like the verb in the sentence. It gives life and meaning to all
that goes before it, and to all that comes after it. The Mass grew outward from
Q. How can I guide myself through the Rite?
A. If you have a Missal, you can follow the Rite in sequence from the beginning
to end in Latin and English. Here is an outline in four sections that may help
(1) THE FORE MASS - THE LITURGY OF THE WORD
(We speak to God. God speaks to us [in Bible and Sermon]. We respond to Him with
Faith [the Creed].)
At the foot of the altar steps - Psalm 42, 'Judica' - 'I will go to the altar of
God'. The 'Confiteor' - act of penance. The priest goes up to the Book and reads
the Entrance psalm - 'Introit' - comes to the centre, says the 'Kyrie Eleison' -
'Lord, have mercy'. Then the 'Gloria' - a hymn of praise - greets the people,
reads the Prayer of the day - 'Oratio', reads the Epistle and the Gradual psalm.
The Book is taken over to the Gospel side. The priest crosses and reads the
Gospel. Then on a Sunday he may preach.
Then with the Creed the Fore Mass comes to an end.
THE LITURGY OF THE EUCHARIST - THE SACRIFICE
OFFERTORY - CONSECRATION - COMMUNION
(We give ourselves with Christ to His Heavenly Father. Jesus gives Himself for
us, and to us.)
(2) THE OFFERTORY
The priest holds up the bread to God and offers it with prayer. Then at the
epistle side he takes from the server wine and water and puts them into the
Chalice - symbol of the union of the Divine and Human Natures in Christ. The
priest bows and humbly asks the Father to accept us. At the Epistle side the
Server helps him wash his hands in purification, 'Lavabo'. Then in the centre he
turns to the people asking them to pray that his sacrifice and theirs may be
acceptable - 'Orate Fratres'. He then reads the 'Secret' (sacred), a prayer
which sets aside these gifts for the sacred purpose of the Sacrifice.
And so the Offertory ends
(3) THE CONSECRATION (IN THE CANON)
After a short dialogue with the people, the priests reads the Preface ending
with the 'Sanctus', and ushering in the Canon. The Canon prayers are whispered,
and soon the warning bell brings us to the heart of the Mass, the vital words of
Bells ring as the priest adores, and holds up the Body and Blood of Christ to be
seen and adored by the people. The prayers continue quietly. The priest breaks
the silence with the words 'Nobis quoque peccatoribus' ('To us also, sinners'),
a plea that we may be allowed by God's mercy to join the Saints and Martyrs. He
finishes the Canon with the significant words 'Through Him, with Him, in Him, is
given to You God the Almighty Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour
and glory' - then in a final signal of sacrifice he holds up the Body and blood
of Christ together and then says, 'Per omnia saecula saeculorum' ('for ever and
And so ends the Canon.
(4) THE COMMUNION
This begins at once with Our Lord's own prayer - 'Pater Noster'. Then a prayer
for liberation from evil, and for peace - 'pax Domini, sit semper vobiscum' he
says, ('May the peace of the Lord be with you always'). Then he bends before the
Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) asking Him for mercy and peace. Bending, he prays in
preparation to receive Him. Three times striking his breast he says 'Domine non
sum dignus' ('Lord, I am not worthy'). He receives reverently the Body and Blood
of Our Lord, turns to the people with the Host raises in his hand and says,
'Ecce Agnus Dei' ('Behold the Lamb of God') and again three times 'Domine non
sum dignus', and gives Holy Communion at the altar rails saying to each one 'May
the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ keep your soul unto life everlasting'. He
returns to the altar, purifies the Chalice and his fingers with wine and water,
reads the Communion verse and the Thanksgiving Prayer, tells the people, 'Ite
Missa Est', ('Go, you are sent'), gives his blessing, reads the Last Gospel, and
kneeling at the foot of the altar says in English the prayers added by Pope Leo
XIII. These are for Russia, for the Church everywhere, and for all sinners.
END OF MASS