Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
A Walk Through the Mass:
A Step-by-Step Explanation
One day my friend Brad, who was
interested in becoming Catholic,
stopped by my house after attending
a parish Mass. He wanted to ask
some questions about the way we
Catholics act in church. Father, he
observed, the thing that is most different
between my former church and your
church is that you Catholics always seem
to know what is going to happen next!
In my church we sit and listen and sing
now and then, but in the Catholic liturgy
you have to know what to do.
Brad has a good point: We Catholics
do know what is going to happen next.
One of the basic, distinctive marks of our
way of praying is ritual: We do things
over and over. When the priest says, The
Lord be with you, without any thought or
hesitation the congregation responds, And
also with you. The priest says, Let us
pray, and the congregation stands up.
Our daily lives have their rituals also:
There are set ways of shaking hands,
eating with a fork, responding to a letter.
And when we are accustomed to a certain
way of doing things we seldom ask why
we do it that way. In the Eucharist, too,
we have many ritual actions which we
perform without asking why.
This walk-through explanation of the Mass will shed light
on why we do what we do at Mass. I think these explanations
will be helpful for the great numbers of Catholics who attend
Mass regularly but dont always remember the reasons behind
the various actions of the Mass. They may be especially helpful
for catechumens (those preparing to enter the Catholic Church)
and visitors from other churches who are not familiar with the
What is the Mass?
A good way to describe the Mass is to
say that it is Holy Thursday, Good
Friday and Easter Sunday made present
today in ritual. It is not merely a meal
which reminds us of the Last Supper, or
a Passion Play which helps recall Good
Friday, or a Sunrise Service which celebrates
the Lords Resurrection. It is Holy
Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
The bishops at the Second Vatican
Council brought together these three
mysteries in a multifaceted description
of the Mass: At the Last Supper, on the
night when he was betrayed, our Savior
instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of
his body and blood. He did this in order
to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross
throughout the centuries until he should
come again and in this way to entrust to his
beloved Bride, the Church, a memorial of
his death and resurrection: a sacrament
of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity,
a paschal banquet in which Christ is
eaten, the heart is filled with grace, and
a pledge of future glory is given to us
(Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #42).
The basic shape of the ritual of the
Mass can be described as a meal. This is
not to say it is just another meal or that
we are ignoring the Mass as sacrifice. Not
at all. The point is, the shape of the Mass,
even when viewed as sacrifice, is that of a
meal. For our purposes, we can be greatly
helped in our walk through the Mass if
we remember this basic meal shape.
When friends gather for a meal, they
sit and talk: Eventually they move to the
table, say grace, pass the food and eat and
drink, and finally take their leave and go
home. On our walk through the Mass we
will follow this same map: we will see
ritual acts of 1) gathering, 2) storytelling,
3) meal sharing and 4) commissioning.
Part one: Gathering rites
Coming together, assembling, is at the
heart of our Sunday worship. The reason
behind each of the ritual actions
of the first part of the Mass can be
found in this word: gathering. The purpose
of these rites is to bring us together
into one body, ready to listen and to
break bread together.
Greeters. In many churches today
there will be someone at the door to greet
you as you arrive for Sunday Mass: We all
like to be greeted and welcomed when we
gather for a celebration. If the greeters
(and we all should serve this function for
one another) recognize that you are new
to the parish, they will give you a special
hello and be sure that you have the service
books (or missalette or hymnal) and
participation aids necessary to pray well
with the assembly.
Use of water. One of the first things
Catholics do when they come to church is
dip their right hand in water and make the
sign of the cross. This ritual is a reminder
of our Baptism: We were baptized with
water and signed with the cross. At every
Mass we renew our promises to die to sin.
It is Baptism that brings us to Church.
Genuflection. In medieval Europe, it
was a custom to go down on one knee (to
genuflect) before a king or person of rank.
This secular mark of honor gradually
entered the Church and people began to
genuflect to honor the altar and the presence
of Christ in the tabernacle before entering
the pew. Today many people express their
reverence with an even older custom and
bow to the altar before taking their place.
Posture, song. When the Mass begins
everyone stands up. Standing is the traditional
posture of the Christian at prayer:
It expresses our attentiveness to the word
of God and our readiness to carry it out.
Often we begin by singing together. What
better way to gather than to unite our
thoughts and our voices in common word,
rhythm and melody.
Greeting. The priest will ask us
to begin with the sign of the cross, again
reminding us of Baptism, and will greet
us, saying, The Lord be with you. You
will hear this greeting frequently. It means
many things. Like good day it can mean
both hello and good-bye. It is both a
wish (may the Lord be with you) and a
profound statement of faith (as you assemble
for worship, the Lord is with you). It is
an ancient biblical greeting: Boaz returned
from Bethlehem (we read in the Book of
Ruth 2:4) and said to the reapers, The Lord
be with you! The ritual response to this
greeting is always the formula, And also
with you, by which we return the hello,
the good wishes, the statement of faith.
Penitential Rite, Gloria. All the other
ritual acts of this first part of the Mass
are intended to gather us together into a
worshiping assembly. Sometimes we are
asked to pause and recall our common
need for salvation (the Penitential Rite).
Sometimes the hymn Glory to God in the
Highest is sung or recited at this point.
The Gloria has been a part of the Mass
since about the sixth century! These longer
hymns and responses are found in the
service book (or the missalette) at our seat.
Opening Prayer. At the close of this
first part of the Mass the priest will ask us
to join our minds in prayer, and after a few
moments of silence he will collect our intentions
into one prayer to which we all respond
Amen, a Hebrew word for So be it.
Part two: Story telling
Liturgy of the Word. When we gather
at a friends home for a meal, we
always begin with conversation, telling
our stories. At Mass, after the rites of
gathering, we sit down and listen as readings
from the Word of God are proclaimed.
They are the stories of Gods people.
Three readings and a psalm. On
Sundays there are three readings from the
Bible. The first reading will be from the
Hebrew Scriptures. We recall the origins
of our covenant. It will relate to the Gospel
selection and will give background and an
insight into the meaning of what Jesus will
do in the Gospel. Then we will sing or recite
a psalma song from Gods own inspired
hymnal, the Book of Psalms of the Hebrew
Bible. The second reading will usually be
from one of the letters of Paul or another
apostolic writing. The third reading will
be taken from one of the four Gospels.
Some visitors to the Catholic Mass
are surprised to find us reading from the
Bible! We Catholics have not generally
been famous for our Bible reading, and
yet the Mass has always been basically
and fundamentally biblical. Even some
Catholics might be surprised to learn
how much of the Mass is taken from the
Bible: Not only the three readings and
the psalm, not only the obviously biblical
prayers such as the Holy, Holy, Holy and
the Lords Prayer, but most of the words
and phrases of the prayers of the Mass
are taken from the Bible.
Standing for the Gospel. Because
of the unique presence of Christ in the
proclamation of the Gospel, it has long
been the custom to stand in attentive reverence
to hear these words. We believe
that Christ is present in his word, since
it is he himself who speaks when the holy
Scriptures are read in the church (Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, #7). The
priest will again greet us with The Lord
be with you. He then introduces the
Gospel reading while marking a small
cross on his forehead, lips and heart with
his thumb while praying silently that God
cleans his mind and his heart so that his
lips may worthily proclaim the Gospel. In
many places, the congregation performs
this ritual action along with the priest.
The Gospel reading concludes with the
ritual formula The Gospel of the Lord
and we respond, Praise to you, Lord
Jesus Christ, again proclaiming our faith
in the presence of Christ in the word.
Then we sit for the homily.
Homily. Homily (which replaced the
word sermon for many) is a new word for
Catholics. It means more than just a sermon
or a talk about how we are to live or what
we are to believe. It is an act of worship
rooted in the texts of the Mass and especially
in the readings from Scripture which have
just been proclaimed. The homily takes that
word and brings it to our life situation today.
Just as a large piece of bread is broken to
feed individual persons, the word of God
must be broken open so it can be received
and digested by the congregation.
Creed. The homily is often followed by
a few moments of silence during which we
each thank God for the word we have heard
and apply the message of todays readings
to our daily living. We then stand and
together recite the creed. (You will probably
want to use the service book or missalette
for the text of the creed if you do not know
it by heart.) The creed is more than a list of
things which we believe. It is a statement
of our faith in the word we have heard
proclaimed in the Scripture and the homily,
and a profession
faith that leads
us to give our
lives for one
Christ gave his
life for us.
creed was the
faith of those
about to be
baptized at this
point in the
General Intercessions. The Liturgy
of the Word (our storytelling part of
the Mass) comes to an end with the
The General Intercessions help us
become who God is calling us to be. We
are the Body of Christ by Baptism. Now,
as we prepare to approach the table for
Eucharist, we look into the readings, like a
mirror, and ask: Is that who we are? Does
the Body of Christ present in this assembly
resemble that Body of Christ pictured in
the Scripture readings? Usually not! And
so we make some adjustments; we pray
that our assembly really comes to look
like the Body of Christ, a body at peace,
with shelter for the homeless, healing for
the sick, food for the hungry.
We pray for the Church, nations and
their leaders, people in special need and
the local needs of our parishthe petitions
usually fall into these four categories. A
minister will announce the petitions, and
we are usually given an opportunity to
pray for the intentions in our heart, making
some common response aloud like,
Lord, hear our prayer.
Part three: Meal sharing
After the readings, we move to the table.
As at a meal in the home of a friend,
we 1) set the table, 2) say grace and
3) share the food (we eat and drink).
At Mass these ritual actions are called 1) the
Preparation of the Gifts, 2) the Eucharistic
Prayer, 3) the Communion Rite.
Preparation of the Gifts
The early Christians each brought some
bread and wine from their homes to the
church to be used for the Mass and to be
given to the clergy and the poor. Today
a similar offering for the parish and the
poor is made with our monetary contributions.
Members of the parish will take up
a collection from the assembly and bring
it to the priest at the altar with the bread
and wine to be used for the sacrifice. The
priest places the bread and wine on the
table. He then mixes water with the wine
and washes his hands to help us think of
the Last Supper. (Mixing water with wine
and washing hands are things all Jews did
at meals in Jesus day.) Finally, he invites
us to pray that the sacrifice be acceptable
to God. We respond Amen to the Prayer
Over the Gifts and stand to participate in
the central prayer of the Mass.
The Eucharistic Prayer
The long prayer which follows brings us to
the very center of the Mass and the heart of
our faith. While the words of the prayer
may vary from Sunday to Sunday, the
prayer always has this structure: 1) We call
upon God to remember all the wonderful
saving deeds of our history. 2) We recall the
central event in our history, Jesus Christ, and
in particular the memorial he left us on the
night before he died. We recall his passion,
death and resurrection. 3) After gratefully
calling to mind all the wonderful saving
acts God has done for us in the past, we
petition God to continue those deeds of
Christ in the present: We pray that we may
become one body, one spirit in Christ.
Invitation. The prayer begins with
a dialogue between the leader and the
assembly. First, the priest greets us with
The Lord be with you. He then asks
if we are ready and willing to approach
the table and to renew our baptismal
commitment, offering ourselves to God:
Lift up your hearts. And we say that
we are prepared to do so: We lift them up to the Lord. We are invited to give
thanks to the Lord our God. And we
respond: It is right to give him thanks
and praise. To give thanks and praise
translates the traditional Greek verb
which now names the whole action:
Preface and Acclamation.The priest
enters into the Preface, a prayer which
prepares us to come before the face of
God. We are brought into Gods presence
and speak of how wonderful God has
been to us. As the wonders of God are
told, the assembly cannot hold back their
joy and sing aloud: Wow! Wow! Wow!
What a God we have! In the ritual
language of the Mass, this acclamation
takes the form: Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might, heaven and
earth are full of your glory.
Institution Narrative: Consecration.
The priest continues the prayer, giving
praise and thanks, and calling upon the
Holy Spirit to change our gifts of bread
and wine into the Body and Blood of
Christ. He then recalls the events of
the Last Supperthe institution of the
Eucharist. At this important moment in
the prayer, we proclaim the mystery
of faith. Several texts are possible, for
example: Christ has died, Christ is
risen, Christ will come again. The priest
continues recalling the wonderful deeds
of salvation: the passion, death and
resurrection of Christ.
Prayer for unity and intercessions.
The grateful memory of Gods salvation
leads us to make a bold petition, our main
petition at every Eucharist: We pray for
unity. May all of us who share in the
body and blood of Christ be brought
together in unity by the Holy Spirit
(Eucharistic Prayer II). To this petition
we add prayers for the Bishop of Rome
and for the bishop of the local Church;
we pray for the living and the dead and
especially for ourselves, that through the
intercession of the saints we may one day
arrive at that table in heaven of which this
table is only a hint and a taste.
We look forward to that glorious
day and raise our voices with those of
all the saints who have gone before us
as the priest raises the consecrated bread
and wine and offers a toast, a doxology,
a prayer of glory to God in the name
of Christ: Through him, with him,
and in him, in the unity of the Holy
Spirit, all glory and honor is yours,
almighty Father, for ever and ever.
Our Amen to this prayer acclaims
our assent and participation in the entire
The Communion Rite
Our Father and Sign of Peace.
prepare to eat and drink at the Lords
table with those words taught us by
Jesus: Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses as we
forgive those who trespass against us.
Keenly aware that communion (the
word means union with) is the sign
and source of our reconciliation and
union with God and with one another, we
make a gesture of union and forgiveness
with those around us and offer them a
sign of peace.
Invitation to Communion. The
priest then shows us the Body of Christ
and invites us to come to the table:
This is the Lamb of God
those who are called to his supper.
The members of the assembly now
approach the altar in procession.
Communion. As God fed our
ancestors in the desert on their pilgrimage,
so God gives us food for our
journey. We approach the minister who
gives us the eucharistic bread with the
words The Body of Christ, and we
respond, Amen. We then go to the
minister with the cup who gives it to
us with the words The Blood of Christ,
to which we again profess our Amen.
During this procession we usually sing
a hymn which unites our voices, minds
and thoughts, even as the Body and
Blood of Christ unites our bodies. Then
we pray silently in our hearts, thanking
and praising God and asking for all
that this sacrament promises. The priest
unites our prayers in the Prayer After
Communion, to which we respond,
Part four: Commissioning
Announcements. Finally we prepare
to go back to that world in which we
will live for the coming week. The
burdens we have laid down at the
door of the church for this Eucharist, we
know we must now bear againbut now
strengthened by this Eucharist and this
community. There may be announcements
at this time which remind us of
important activities coming up in the
parish. The priest again says, The Lord
be with youthe ritual phrase serves
now as a farewell.
Blessing and Dismissal. We bow our
heads to receive a blessing. As the priest
names the TrinityFather, Son and Holy
Spiritwe make the sign of the cross.
The priest or deacon then dismisses the
assembly: Go in peace
and we give
our liturgical yes by saying, Thanks
be to God.
Living the Eucharist in the world.
leave the assembly and the church building
but we carry something with us. A
newly married couple leave their wedding
ceremony but carry their marriage with
them. And what happens in the days and
years after the wedding gives deeper meaning
to the symbols they have exchanged
(for example, their rings) at the wedding.
The same is true of the Eucharist.
What happens in our lives during the week
gives deeper meaning to the ritual actions
we have celebrated at Mass. As we daily
carry our brokenness for love of the crucified,
we find ever deeper meaning in the
broken bread. As we pour out our lives in
love for the homeless and the alienated,
we find meaning in the cup poured out.
It is only in relation to our daily lives that
the full meaning of the ritual actions of
the Mass becomes clear to us.
Next: The Ten CommandmentsSounds
of Love From Sinai
(by Alfred McBride, O. Praem.)