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Chapter I
Praying the Mass

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I doubt if any single aspect of the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council had caused more confusion and worry among the faithful than the Eucharistic Liturgy. From many parts of the Western world come reports of not a few Catholics who have simply stopped going to Mass, others who insist on having the Mass celebrated only in Latin and adoring to the Tridentine Ritual. How many times I have been seriously asked by people whether the present celebration of Mass in the vernacular and following one of the new canons was valid. I have heard of people walking out of Sunday Mass, and there are movements and publications crusading for a return to the pre-Vatican liturgy and some even daring to question the authority of the Second Vatican Council because it sanctioned what these people call a betrayal of Catholic liturgical piety.

It is not my purpose here to go into a diagnosis of what happened, nor do I think all the blame is on one side. There have been so many liberties taken with the ritual, so many subjective interpretations of the Council’s teaching, so many emotional substitutions for what the Church has clearly prescribed, so many intrusions of the secular into what should be the sacred functions of the Mass, that, without excusing those who are anguishing or angry with the post-conciliar liturgy, we can at least partially explain their conduct as a reaction to the grave abuses that the Holy See had more than once condemned in the most unmistakable terms.

All of this I thought is useful to bring to the surface, if only for a moment, as we approach the subject of praying the Mass. Whatever else the Mass is, it is meant by Christ to be a prayer, in fact, the most sublime prayer that a creature can make to the Creator and the one most pleasing to God.

How the Mass is a Prayer

The Mass is a prayer because in the Eucharistic Sacrifice the faithful join with Christ in offering themselves to the heavenly Father. This is not so obvious as may seem. We are so used to thinking of prayer as saying something that we have to get hold of ourselves to recognize that prayer is also and first of all doing something.

What does Christ do? And in doing, how does He pray in the Mass? In the Mass Christ offers Himself body and soul, mind and will and emotions to His Father – even as He did at the Last Supper and as He consummated on Calvary. His original offering was not only a sacrifice, but a complete sacrifice, which means a holocaust. When He hung dying on the first altar of sacrifice He literally gave all that He could, because He gave all that He had as an oblation to God. If prayer is a communication between the creature and the Creator, which it is, Christ’s total self-giving of His humanity to God on the cross was the most perfect communication possible. It was a conversation, indeed, but a conversation not so much in words as in deeds; in fact, in the unspeakable deed of God assuming human flesh so that as man He might surrender that flesh back to God.

Faith tells us that Christ continues doing the same in every Mass. He can no longer suffer or die because He is glorified, but He can be ready to suffer and willing to die and this readiness and willingness, we believe, is what happens the moment the two Consecrations separately take place to symbolize the separation of Christ’s body and blood that brought on His death on Calvary.

However, that is not all there is to the Mass. If it were, then the Mass would be only Christ’s prayer and not also ours. Whereas, it is emphatically our Mass too, and therefore our prayer as well as His.

How is the Mass Our Prayer?

The Mass is our prayer insofar as we reproduce in ourselves the sentiments which animated Christ between the Last Supper and Calvary. That was a long first Mass. What were those sentiments? They are beyond human calculation of analysis. Only in heaven shall we learn more fully what transpired in the soul and body of Christ as He was offering Hs body in death to His Father. But some of these sentiments have been revealed to us in the longest single revelation about the thirty-some years of Christ’s mortal life. The longest part of the Gospel for a short span of time is the evangelists’ minute description of almost everything that happened from the beginning of the Last Supper to Christ’s final expiration on the cross. What do we find in those long animated Christ? If we are to pray the Mass, we should duplicate in ourselves something of what went on in Him. The first Mass he offered was uniquely and exclusively His, but now it is both His Mass and ours.

During His first Mass, Christ chose – let me change the emphasis – Christ chose to undergo the agony, the scourging and crowning with thorns, the mockery, the way of the cross and the crucifixion. Again, during His first Mass, Christ was acting out of obedience to His heavenly Father and out of love for those whom He came to save. We seldom couple these two virtues, obedience, and love but we should. Obedience to His Father out of love for mankind. And finally, during His first Mass Christ foresaw that the sufferings He endured would last only a short time and then He would be glorified and the glory would never end. These three sets of attitudes should also be ours if we are to make of our Masses, plural – Christ’s and ours now – something of what Christ made of the Mass He originally offered along on our behalf.

  1. Like Christ we are to pray that we might approximate something of His own free choice of the cross. How unnatural it seems to choose to be patient, to put up with, to be silent under rebuke, to bit one’s tongue rather than speak unkindly, to hold back an angry retort, or actually smile in pardon at the one who has just offered us. No, not unnatural, but supernatural. All of this and more is what we should expect from the Savior as we join Him in spirit in the half-million or more Masses He offers with us and for us daily throughout the Catholic world. But none of us can do this by himself. We need His help and the main source of the grace is the Mass.

  2. Moreover, like Christ we ought to tell Him that whatever trials or difficulties He sends us we willingly accept in obedience to His divine will and out of love for souls that are to be redeemed by joining our sacrifices with His. There are two divinely ordained conditions for redeeming the world; they are obedience to God and love for men. Of course, part of that obedience is to love. This means that sometimes we are called upon to love those who cause us pain. They may need the very grace that we can gain for them by our suffering them, and that is real love indeed.

  3. Once again, like Christ, we ought to keep in mind that our life on earth, even the longest and most painful imaginable, is really very short compared with the eternity that awaits us. I used to count my years as years of twelve months each. No more. As I look back at them I count them as days. They go that fast. Everything will soon come to an end, St. Peter reminds us, Blessed Peter, thanks for saying it. So Peter continues, to pray better keep a calm and sober mind. “My dear people, you must not think it unaccountable that you should be tested by fire. There is nothing extraordinary in what has happened to you.

If you can have some share in the sufferings of Christ, be glad, because you will enjoy a much greater gladness when His glory will be revealed.” How I appreciate that future tense: “will be revealed.” What strange language: “When you share in Christ’s sufferings, be glad.” It is not strange at all to the ears of faith, provided whatever we suffer, from a moment’s inconvenience to perhaps years of estrangement, we unite the endurance twice over with Christ. We join ourselves with the Savior’s passion physically, as described in the Gospels; and we join our sufferings with Him mystically, as Christ is now suffering in the Church, undergoing His mystical passion today. This is my favorite way of making the Way of the Cross. Fourteen stations in which Christ is now suffering, and we are making the Via Crucis with Him. What a privilege!

How to Pray the Mass

So much for the first half of our reflections on the subject. I should like to say something more immediately practical now on how we can pray the Mass more effectively. Let me make these recommendations:

First, understand the Mass. Whatever else the Mass is, it is a vocal prayer in which every word is vocalized and most of them aloud. Even the most reverently offered Mass takes only a short time. There is no time to be giving immediate thought to every syllable as it comes along. Hence the wisdom of learning to understand the Mass, know it better, its mysterious meaning and profound significance through periodic reading, meditation and study beforehand. Some years ago I was asked to assemble a bibliography on the Mass for the Catholic colleges in the United States. The then-current books on the Mass in English in print were over one hundred. I wonder how many Catholic could name, I do not say then, but even one current title on the Mass. The Mass is, indeed, a mystery. But mysteries are not only to be believed, they are with God’s grace to be ever more clearly understood. We must come to better understand the Mass. A single expression like that of St. Leonard of Port Maurice can affect our whole life. “Except for the Mass,” he said, “being daily offered on thousand of altars, the world would long ago have been destroyed because of its sins.” I would summarize this first recommendation by using the imperative verb “meditate.” Meditate on the Mass.

Second, plan your Mass. If the Mass is the important action that faith tells us it is, the important action that faith tells us it is, we should plan for it. It is common knowledge and experience that we plan for things according to the importance we attach to them. Unimportant things we hardly plan for at all. Important things we plan for at length, with this planning can mean different things. It can mean looking ahead to know what Mass is to be said. If we wait till the Mass begins, it will take us ten minutes to find out what the Mass for today is all about. It can mean that I read the Scripture lessons beforehand, the orations, know what or whose feast is to be commemorated in the Mass. It can mean that I have given some thought before Mass to what will be said during Mass, and, I would emphasize, to what I will be thinking about during Mass. I have taught too many classes not to know, and on occasion I have had to walk into class quite unprepared. An unprepared class I might just as well have called off. It should always mean that I have a definite intention or intentions for which I will offer my Mass. Since the Mass is of infinite value, do not hesitate to multiply the intentions. I would summarize the second recommendation by saying: anticipate the Mass.

Third, be attentive during Mass. The degree of participation in the new liturgy is such that most people are almost necessarily kept alert during the offering of Mass. In fact that is one of the reasons for the vernacular and the antiphonal responses between the priest or the ministers at the altar and the congregation, and the out loud saying of what used to be silent or very subdued parts of the Eucharistic rite. But the attention about which I am speaking here is something more. It is attention not only to the verbal forms being heard or said or the actions of the priest being performed, it is what I call internal attention to the mystery of faith that is being enacted before my eyes. I would compare attendance at Mass to recitation of the rosary. In both cases there are vocal prayers and silent reflection and the two should not conflict but harmonize. What I mean is that it would be well for us to mentally place ourselves – and we have many options- at the Last Supper, or the Garden of Gethsemane, or with Christ before Herod, or before Pilate or the Sanhedrin, or on His way to Golgatha, or being nailed, or dying on the cross. Each one of us, according to our own devotion, should united ourselves in spirit with Christ now as He was then in body. Let us remind ourselves that at the time when He offered His Mass, His first Mass, He had us in mind. Should we not repay Him in kind and now have Him in our mind in return? I would summarize this third recommendation as concentrate.

This past Sunday I had occasion to speak on the Holy Eucharist at the National Center of the People’s Eucharistic Crusade in New York City at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers. It was inspiring to see a large church filled with fervent believers in the Holy Eucharist. What crossed my mind several times during the celebration was that all of this was due to God’s Providence to the deep faith of the Founder of the Blessed Sacrament Father, his deep faith in the Holy Eucharist. St. Peter Julian Eymard had a vivid sense of realism as he offered Mass and he urged others to assist at Mass in the same spirit. I would like to share with you something of the easy childlike faith of this great lover of the Eucharist, in one of his many very practical suggestions for spiritual concentration during Mass. He liked to visualize the Mass as Christ on Calvary saying his seven last words. Listen to what St. Peter Julian passed on:

  • “Jesus prays for His executioners: ‘Father; forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Ask Jesus to forgive all your sins for you are more guilty than His executioners for having crucified Him. You sinned even though you knew better.

  • “The good thief says to Jesus: “Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom’ and Jesus answers him: ‘Amen, I say to you, this day you shall be with me in Paradise.’ In his gratitude, the good thief united his suffering with the sufferings of Jesus. Repeat his prayer in your own favor for the present moment and for the hour of your death.

  • “Jesus gives St. John to Mary for her son: ‘Woman, behold your son.’ John is thus to take the place of Jesus as her son and with him all mankind receives Mary for a mother. Thank our Lord for giving her to you. Ask this good mother to give you her tender love, to guide you in all things to the service of Jesus.

  • “Behold your mother.’ With these words, Jesus give His mother to be our mother. Thank your loving Savior for the glorious title of child of Mary with gives you a claim to her mother’s love and to all her goods and possessions.

  • “I thirst.’ Adore Jesus crucified anew on the altar. He prays to His heavenly Father, willing to suffer still more for the love of mankind and cries out to Him, ‘I thirst.’ I thirst for hearts, thirst for Your glory. Slake this burning thirst of Jesus for suffering, for the world’s salvation, for reparation to the deeply offended majesty of God by suffering yourself and making reparation with Him.

  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Adore the holy and unspeakable desolation of the Savior suffered by Him to expiate your own criminal abandonment of God and His holy law. Promise Him that you will never again forsake Him.

  • “It is consummated. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ With these words, Jesus dies. Adore Him as in this Holy Communion He delivers Himself into the hands of men, body and blood, soul and divinity – all that He is. Unite yourself with the priest and adore Jesus taken down from the cross and given into the arms of His holy mother. As you receive Him in Communion, press Him to your heart and never let Him leave you.” So far St. Peter Julian. No apologies for the long quotation.

Share the Mass

My last recommendation on how to pray the Mass better is to share it. What do I mean? I mean we should always remember the needs not only of ourselves but of other people while we are at Mass. There is no more effective way of drawing down God’s blessing on a sinful, hungry, needy, wandering and confused world than by praying for others in the Mass and through the Mass. When St. Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus he put at the masthead of his constitutions this statement, “The most important single means by which the Society of Jesus will obtain grace from God is through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”

When I say, “sharing the Mass,” I mean that we should share in spirit – we should join in the Masses that are being offered on so many thousands of altars throughout the Catholic Church. The Mass that we are praying is not only the Mass we are attending; it is all the Masses that Christ – the physical and mystical Christ is offering.

What do I mean by sharing the Mass? I mean we should tell people about the Mass. To teach the Mass is to teach Christ and to teach the real Christ – the Christ who is God, who became man out of love for us and who died to prove His love. We shall be, I do not say inspired, but even reminded to tell others about the Mass and explain its meaning to them only if we ourselves have become imbued with the spirit of the Mass that we have ourselves meditated upon and thoroughly understood.

By sharing the Mass, I mean we should encourage people to have Masses offered for their own and other people’s intentions. This is our faith. And not just for the deceased but for the living – the living who are suffering, the living who are in need, the living who are estranged from God. There is an extraordinary special grace for those for whom Masses are offered. We should urge people to assist as Mass in order to grow in the faith. There is no more effective way of living the Catholic Faith than by attending the Holy Sacrifice. At Mass I am not only reflecting on a revealed mystery, but I am participating in what I believe. I become part of the most important action that has ever been performed on earth – the action of God dying for man.

We should, finally help people to profit all that they can from the Masses they assist at and from all the thousands of Masses being offered daily throughout the world. We will profit from the Mass in the exact degree that we practice the virtue that Christ lived and (I don’t know how this is going to sound) died. Christ “died” a virtue when He offered Himself on Calvary in order that we might live, and perpetuate this cosmic event in our midst until the end of time. The Mass in which we believe is the Mass we are called upon to live. Living that Mass will mean dying the Mass. It means dying a thousand deaths to self until happily one day we shall die, like Christ, commending our spirit into the hands of the God from whom we came.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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