Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why We Do Those Things We Do: Reviewing "The Mass" by Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina

Any Catholic knows that the Mass is the heart of our Catholic life and identity. At the most basic, it is communion in the Eucharist, the bread of life which is Christ's body. Everything else that we are comes from that. Most Catholics know the basics of the Mass so well that they could go through them in their sleep.

Therein lies the problem.

In the first place, we may know motions, gestures, liturgical responses, and more, but we often don't know why we are doing these things. If we do understand why, there often is an even deeper meaning that escapes us. If you are a newcomer then you are in the dark about what to do during Mass until you pick it up by watching those "in the know"—who often may not be able to explain why things are taking place.

Secondly, the well-known liturgy of the Mass is going to change in November when the new translations will be put into effect. What is changing and why are key issues to helping everyone get the most out of the new liturgy.

The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition is designed to act as a primer about the Mass. It begins with a brief description of the Mass's origins and history, followed by an indepth look at all the steps, from procession through dismissal. The authors are at pains to describe the process on two levels. First come the essentials of what actions are being taken (the priest prays, the people respond, etc.). To that effect, they include photos of the priest during different moments of the Mass. Descriptions are given of who all the roles of those celebrating the Mass, the church furnishings, books used, clothing, vessels and more. On a deeper level, they go into why the actions are being taken, both on symbolic and spiritual levels. The excerpt which closes this review gives  an idea of how skillfully these are blended.

The Mass is also where you may find the changes in the liturgy described and explained to show how they more fully reflect the mysteries in which we are taking place.  Often this is not called to our attention as a change, but is contained within the explanation just before or after the liturgical words. This is done matter-of-factly, without polemics.
I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
As you and I acknowledge our sins, we take full responsibility. I have sinned through "my fault"—not someone else's. In order to emphasize the point, we repeat the phrase and intensify it: "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault." The prayer gives us a brief summary of the ways we can go wrong—by sins of word or deed, omission or commission. We say we're sorry for all of them.

Moreover, we say we're sorry not just with a word, but with a deed as well, a gesture. Like the tax collector in the story Jesus told, we strike our breast as we make the three-fold acknowledgment of our fault. We hope to go home justified, as the tax collector did. [Luke 18:10-14, referenced earlier in the section.]
I know more than some about the Mass. As a convert of 11 years ago, I dug deep and was fascinated by the symbolism. Reading The Mass, I was reminded of things that I had forgotten and, indeed, learned new information as well. It was inspirational and reminded me of the depths that the Catholic faith has to offer anyone who will take the trouble to look below the surface.

Any regular reader here already knows that I love Mike Aquilina's writing. The Mass is no exception. Aquilina can take the most basic, matter-of-fact information and show us the spiritual element that makes it come alive. It is his touch that we see throughout the book which makes it an inspirational as well as informational work.

Add to Aquilina's writing chops is coauthor Cardinal Donald Wuerl. I was told that his mere presence as coauthor made an imprimatur unnecessary, according to whatever authorities the publisher contacted (seems dicey reasoning to me for future generations who may read this, but there you go, that's what they told me). It results in accuracy and clerical insight as well as spirituality that you can trust underlying the explanation of the Mass.

It is not a perfect book. A few things caught my attention that were small, but noticeable:
  • It seemed to me that some elements were needed for consistency's sake. Several times the text goes to the trouble of informing the people to stand, for example, and yet never instructs on when to sit again. 
  • Although the church furnishings are described, no mention is made of saints' statues, votive candles, stained glass and the like ... all the items that every Catholic church contains, no matter how ancient or modern the architecture.
  • Some variations which are allowed for in various rituals weren't mentioned. I imagine this may have been because they aren't commonly used. For example, our church retains the altar rail which is where communion is given. Practically everyone chooses to kneel for communion. Naturally anyone may stand who chooses to do so. However, altar rail or no, the book makes no mention of protocol for those who may desire to kneel for communion.
Those small things aside,  believe me when I say that this book is one to recommend for anyone who wonders why we "do those things we do" in Mass. Indeed, it would be a good book to read to remind us of just what depth we are offered every time we attend Mass. Highly recommended.

This excerpt will give you an idea of what you may be missing without full understanding.
The Procession
Sometimes, our churches announce the approaching time of Mass by ringing chimes and bells, calling people to worship. The message of the bells is the ancient message of the Psalm: "Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord. ... Enter, let us bow down in worship; let us kneel before the Lord who made us. For this is our God, whose people we are" (Psalms 95:1, 6-7). Summoned, the people gather at Church--a word that in the Greek of the New Testament means not a building, but the assembly of God's people. It is the building that takes its name from the congregation, and not the other way around.

Before the Mass can begin, the priest must put on his vestments and make his entrance. Thus, the procession, the entry of the priest and others, may seem like a merely mechanical event: it moves necessary personnel in an orderly way along a prescribed route, from Point A (the sacristy) to Point B (the sanctuary).

But the procession is part of the ritual, and so it is rich in meaning. It symbolizes our earthly pilgrimage toward heaven. We are a pilgrim people, and we're making our way through life to God. We do not travel alone. Like the tribes we read about in the Bible, we move through life as a family, and that family is the Catholic Church.

When we gather as God's family for the Mass, the procession brings the ministers--perhaps the altar servers, lector, and even the choir--and then, finally, the priest into the sanctuary. On their way to the sanctuary, they represent us all. We can see ourselves, by the grace of the Mass, making progress on the way to heaven.

Sometimes the procession is very short and sometimes it's very long and dramatic. Sometimes it is accompanied by a hymn or instrumental music, sometimes by a simple antiphon--a verse from Scripture.

At the head of the procession may be a crucifer, an altar server bearing a cross. This simple, common image reminds us that Jesus is our "leader to salvation...made perfect through suffering" (Hebrews 2:10).

And that's why we've come to the church at the beautiful sound of the bells. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross" (Hebrews 12:1-2).

The procession moves, outwardly, at a dignified pace. Inwardly, however, and spiritually, we are hastening to heaven, behind the leader who goes before us: Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and glorified.


  1. I bought 10 copies and passed them around. Really great booklet--concise and direct.

  2. Are we thinking of the same book? Hardback? 224 pages? Substantial?

    Just checking ... that is a great idea but a substantial investment in books! :-)

  3. Agree, Julie! It is substantial!
    I really liked it. I admit I might be biased because I'm related to the Cardinal. :) But I know that when I learn more about the Mass, the incredible things that are happening, and all the allusions/quotes/what have you, I can go that much deeper into the mysteries.

  4. Thank you for posting about Cardinal Donald Wuerl and the imprimatur. I've had some family members express their concerns about me reading this book without it having an official imprimatur. You have made me feel better and I will pass that information along to them.