Mass (in Christianity)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Mass (in Christianity)

Mass, religious service of the Roman Catholic Church, which has as its central act the performance of the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is based on the ancient Latin liturgy of the city of Rome, now used in most, but not all, Roman Catholic churches. The term Mass [Lat. missa,=dismissed] probably derives from the practice of dismissing the catechumens—those not yet initiated into the mystery of the Eucharist—before the offertory and from the words Ite, missa est [Go, you are dismissed] spoken to the faithful at the end of the Mass. The term is also used among Anglo-Catholics; in the Eastern churches the Mass is generally called the Holy Liturgy or the Offering. For non-Roman liturgies, see liturgy.

The Role of the Catholic Mass

In the Roman Catholic Church, except for the altogether distinct Ambrosian rite (see Ambrose, Saint) and for some variant forms among religious orders, especially that of the Dominicans, the service is the same everywhere, under regulation of the Holy See. The language of the liturgy is typically terse. The celebrant, who must be a priest, follows a prescribed missal and wears certain vestments. Mass is said at an altar containing relics; two candles must be burning. A congregation is not essential, but solitary Mass is discouraged. A High (solemn) Mass requires a priest, deacon, and choir. Low Mass, much more common, is the same service said by one priest. Normally at Low Mass a server or acolyte, traditionally called an altar boy but now often a girl, helps the celebrant. Most of the text is invariable, or "ordinary," but certain parts, called "proper," change with the occasion or day. Mass may be offered with a special intention, as in thanksgiving or for peace. A requiem is a proper Mass for the dead. Most priests say Mass daily. Sunday Mass is an important sociocultural factor in Roman Catholic life. All members are required to attend Mass on Sunday as a minimum participation in public worship.

The Service

The Mass begins with an entrance hymn, a greeting, and a brief penetential rite that includes the Kyrie eleison, the Gloria in excelsis (not always), a collect or collects, the proper epistle, an anthem and the proper Gospel (usually chanted and with all standing), and a homily on the texts. This ends the part of the Mass known in earlier times as the Mass of the Catechumens.

Mass continues with the creed (sometimes), the offertory (anthem with offering of bread and wine), offering of incense (sometimes), washing of the celebrant's hands, and proper prayers called "secrets." Then there is a chanted or spoken dialogue and proper preface of thanksgiving, ending in the Sanctus. That opens the long eucharistic prayer, or canon. It begins with prayers for the living. The consecration of the bread and wine follows; then the celebrant raises Host and chalice above his head for all to see and adore. The canon ends with prayers for the dead and a doxology, which is the solemn climax of the eucharistic prayer.

After the canon the Mass consists of the Lord's Prayer, a prayer amplifying the supplication "Deliver us from evil," the symbolic breaking of the Host and putting a piece into the cup, the kiss of peace (shared by the members of the congregation), the Agnus Dei, the communion, the ablution of vessels, the communion anthem, postcommunion prayers, the dismissal, and the blessing. There are ceremonial adjuncts such as processions, blessings, censings, and in some places, the ringing of a handbell at the consecration.

Music in the Mass

Of the portions of the Mass that may be sung, some are chanted solo at the altar with choral response; there are also nine hymns for the choir. Four of these are proper and related in theme, with texts usually from the Psalms: introit, anthem after the epistle (alleluia, gradual, tract, or sequence), offertory, and communion. The five ordinary choral pieces are Kyrie eleison, Gloria in excelsis, Credo (see creed), Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Plainsong is prescribed for all texts, but latitude is permitted the choir. A musical setting for the five ordinary hymns, called a Mass, has been a major musical form. The principal period of Mass composition lasted from 1400 to 1700. It came to an end with shift of interest to instrumental music, although later composers did use the form. Among the many composers who produced Masses are Josquin des Prés, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, and Stravinsky.

Changes in the Mass

The basic structure of the Mass is largely unchanged since the 6th cent. In the Counter Reformation the forms were restricted and local variants eliminated. As a result of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Mass liturgy has undergone extensive reformation. The revisions include the use of the vernacular languages in the place of Latin, an emphasis on congregational singing, latitude for modifications that may be introduced by local bishops, additional eucharistic prayers, and communion in both bread and wine. In 2011, however, a new English translation of the Mass was put into effect. The changes were designed to align the English text more literally with the Latin, and revised much of the wording adopted after Vatican II.


See J. A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite (rev. ed. 1959); F. Amiot, History of the Mass (tr. 1959); H. Daniel-Rops, This Is the Mass (rev. ed. 1965); P. Loret, The Story of the Mass (1983).

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