Good Distinctions
Good Distinctions
Praying the Mass - Session 2 of 5

Praying the Mass - Session 2 of 5

Mass: Where, When, and Who


Last week, we looked at the etymology of the word liturgy, a public service. We talked about the liturgical diversity in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. We learned that the Holy Mass is for the glorification of God and the sanctification of man. We looked at the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, made present once again by the Holy Mass. And we discussed how to put the cult back in culture. 

Most importantly, we defined the Mass. Hopefully we have it memorized by now! But if not here it is again:

The Mass is the perfect self-offering of the Son to the Father in the Spirit in which we are invited to take part. 

Architecture, Gestures, and Symbols

When the Word of God became man in the Person of Jesus Christ, the spiritual met the material. The supernatural shared in the nature of the natural. God took on flesh to share in our humanity. Heaven and Earth met. This has always been the way of the Church. The outward shows something deeper inward. In the Sacraments of the Church, most especially, signs and symbols become the outward showing of God’s inward grace. Hidden realities are made clear through the sacramental.

This is what signs and symbols in the Church can do for us: they use the visible to lead us to and show us the invisible. Especially in the Holy Mass, Heaven and Earth meet. This is why Church art and architecture matters so much. Good art and architecture show us the truth and goodness of God!

Basic Church Layout

Generally, there are three different parts to a Catholic Church: the narthex, nave, and sanctuary. The Narthex is the gathering place and the appropriate place to chat and share in fellowship. In the Nave, representative of Earth, the people are seated standing or in pews for worship. In the Sanctuary, we have the place where the Eucharistic miracle takes place and Heaven meets Earth. This is why the altar is prominently in the center of the Sanctuary, Christ standing in the midst of His people. 

The Altar is Christ

Dr. Denis McNamara of Benedictine College points out that Preface V of Easter in the Roman Missal says of Christ: 

“As He gave Himself into Your hands for our salvation, He showed Himself to be the Priest, the Altar, and the Lamb of sacrifice.” 

The altar, which is the center of the Eucharistic celebration, is both the place of sacrifice and the table of the Lord. On this altar, the sacrifice of Calvary is made present once more.

On the Cross, Jesus is the Priest because, as a Priest, He is offering Himself to the Father. He is the Altar because His Body is the place of sacrifice. He is the Lamb because, like the Passover, He is offered in our place.

In the words of Mother Church, the Altar is Christ standing in the midst of His People. Even when an altar is consecrated and dedicated, it is anointed with oil as the Body of Christ was anointed before His burial.

The Altar is not merely a table, even a sacred table. The Altar is first and foremost the place of sacrifice. The Holy Victim, who is also the High Priest, is offered on the Altar, which is His Body. The Holy Mass makes this reality present to us again.

As the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from the Second Vatican Council says, “in the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem (SC, 8).” So, the Altar is a living altar in Heaven and the meal we share is a heavenly meal. This is why the Altar is holy and receives special treatment: anointing, incensing, covering, and lighting.

Gestures in the Liturgy

Genuflection and Bowing

This brings us to a good point to discuss the gestures of genuflection and bowing. It would be very unusual to bow to a table. If that is all the Altar is, then we would be out of our minds to do so. Of course, we know that this Sacred Table is the place of sacrifice. The Altar is Christ.

Jesus Christ is God Himself, the second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. He is our great High Priest. He is the Lamb of Sacrifice. He is also the King of the Universe. Even the worst kings and queens in history were honored by bowing and genuflection. How much more deserving is our perfect and infinite Lord!

The proper gesture towards the altar which is the sign of Christ standing in our midst is a profound bow, or a bow from the waist. The bow is a bending of the head or body in reverence and submission. One definition of “to bow” is to “cease from competition or resistance.” How often do we resist the Lord? But, of course, God Almighty is so far above us that resistance or competition is unthinkable.

By bowing, we remind ourselves of who God is and who we are. We are also reminded of what takes place and Who becomes present on the Altar during Holy Mass.

When Do We Genuflect?

The genuflection, or bending at the knee, is a sign of profound respect and adoration. Speaking of Christ Jesus, St. Paul writes:

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).”

We genuflect in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord, present in the Tabernacle. We bend our knee to the one and only God and Lord of all. The Altar makes Christ present in a particular and special way, but the Holy Eucharist IS Jesus.

So, with all of the explanation behind us: We bow to the Altar. We genuflect to our Lord in the Tabernacle.

Other Gestures and Postures

As we continue through this series, we will look at the meanings of several gestures and postures. One of the most prominent signs or gestures is the Sign of the Cross. There is the gesture before the Gospel. There are a few other instances throughout the Mass of bowing and genuflection. We will talk about kneeling, sitting, standing, and why each of these are important parts of the Sacred Liturgy. Today and next week, we will be talking about the importance of singing and speaking the responses. And later today, I will be mentioning the orans posture which seems to be misunderstood in the Liturgy.

If you really pay attention, there are so many different gestures, postures, and signs in the Sacred Liturgy, and they all have a purpose and meaning.


The Entrance and Greeting

What is Everyone Wearing?

If your church has a bell that is rung at the beginning, then what happens? We stand up. And then we see a procession of the priest, deacon, and altar servers. We will get to what this procession actually is in just a moment. But everyone is dressing up and putting on a costume. The priest will wear a chasuble which covers himself up so that we can better see Jesus Christ our High Priest. The chasuble is similar to the outer garment worn by the priest in the Temple in the Old Covenant. Likewise, the deacon is wearing a garb similar to those who assisted at the Temple; his garment is called a dalmatic and, unlike the chasuble, it has long sleeves. Underneath, the priest and deacon also wear an alb (a long white garment - albus means white in Latin) and a stole. The priest wears a stole around the back of his neck and which hangs on the front on both sides. The deacon wears a stole across his body from one shoulder to the opposite side by his hip. There are a couple other garments, but we will stick to what is seen for now. 

Altar servers are traditionally an apprenticeship for the priesthood. It is a close-up look at the service at the altar and an opportunity for conversations between priests and boys about the priesthood. So, the altar boys wear cassock and surplice which is a priestly garment. St. John Paul II allowed girls to altar serve in the late 1990s, if there were no boys available. The clearest case of this would be in the situation of an all-girls Catholic school. This has been expanded far beyond St. John Paul II’s intentions in most Parishes throughout the world over the last few decades. In some parishes, to make a visual distinction, girls will wear altar server robes rather than the male garment of cassock and surplice. I plan on making a few more comments on altar serving in Session 5. So, stay tuned on that front! Anyway… back to the procession!

What is a procession, liturgically and theologically?

What is part of the procession? And is there a method to the ordering? If there is incense at the Mass, the server with the incense (the thurifer) will go first along with the server with the little boat of incense granules. Next comes the processional cross which is on a long pole for all to see. After that comes two candle-bearers. Then the deacon. Then the priest. We will discuss this more in the coming weeks, but the procession is a movement through Earth (the nave) towards Heaven (the sanctuary). It is a presenting once again of the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Once the priest reaches the altar, he bows and kisses the altar. This gesture is called “reverencing the altar.” In the 1962 Missale Romanum, the prayers show us the deep meaning of the priest’s gesture:

“Take away from us our iniquities, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that we may be worthy to enter with pure minds into the Holy of Holies: through Christ our Lord. Amen. We beseech Thee, O Lord, by the merits of Thy Saints, whose relics are here, and of all the Saints, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to forgive me all my sins. Amen (Missale Romanum 1962; Baronius Press translation).”

The Sign of the Cross

The very first thing the priest says in the Roman Missal is: “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.” The Sign of the Cross! Why do we trace the cross when we begin prayer? In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem said this:

“Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, for the sick; since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils: for He triumphed over them in it, having made a shew of them openly; for when they see the Cross they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, who bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the gift; out for this the rather honor thy Benefactor.”

There is power in the Sign of the Cross! In the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Sign of the Cross is made dozens of times! In the West, we generally make the sign with an open palm which is a sign of blessing. In the East, the thumb, index, and middle fingers are joined to represent the Trinity and the ring and pinky are put towards the palm to show the divine and human natures of Christ. Either way, it is a great way to begin worship.

Where do the greetings come from in Scripture?

Next, the priest says one of a few different greetings which are all taken from the letters of St. Paul. The choices are a variation of: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you (2 Corinthians 13:13).”

What does “The Lord be with you” and the “and with your spirit” actually mean?

We are praying for the spirit of the ordained priest who we believe has been configured, through Holy Orders and the power of the Holy Spirit, to Christ in a special way.  When we say, “and with your spirit,” we are not simply wishing him well. We acknowledge his priestly soul and the fact that he is acting in the Person of Christ, Head of His Body. Next week, we are going to talk more about the concept of the Mystical Body of Christ.


The Penitential Act


Next comes the Penitential Act. There are a few choices for the priest here, but the first and most traditional option is the Confiteor followed by the Kyrie. In the Confiteor we call to mind our sins, ask for the prayers of the saints and our brothers and sisters in Christ, and ask for God’s forgiveness. 

Before the 10th or 11th centuries, the asking for forgiveness was done by the priest in his preparation prayers in the sacristy. After that point, these prayers of preparation became part of the prayers at the foot of the altar. In the 1962 Missale Romanum, the first words of the priest after the Sign of the Cross are “Introibo ad altare Dei” which begins Psalm 42. Directly after this psalm comes the Confiteor, so named after the first word in Latin of this prayer. The prayers at the foot of the altar are then concluded; the prayers of reverencing the altar are then made, which I mentioned earlier. 

In the 1970 Missal which is currently in use the Confiteor is said not only by the priest but by all present. The prominent gesture associated with the Confiteor is striking the breast during the words mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa (through my fault, through my fault, my most grievous fault). This is the gesture of the humble sinner who is expressing his heartfelt contrition. 

Right after the Confiteor, the priest asks for God’s forgiveness of our sins and we receive an absolution of our venial sins.

Kyrie Eleison

Before the priest gives us absolution, the Kyrie is sung. The words in English are “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy,” but these do not do justice to what is actually said in the Greek. As a side note, along with one chant on Good Friday, these are the only Greek words used in the Roman Liturgy. Pope St. Gregory the Great implemented numerous liturgical reforms in the late 6th Century and early 7th Century; he retained this part in Greek to show communion with the East. 

The word Kyrie does mean Lord and Christe does mean Christ. But Eleison does not originally mean have mercy. Eleison in Greek is derived from the word from oil. Literally, it had the meaning of “Lord, pour your oil out upon us.” What is this about? How did that come to mean mercy? Well, oil was used in the Ancient Greek world as a salve for burns and bruises. It was also used to prepare wrestlers before the Greek Olympic games. And, so, when we say Kyrie Eleison, we are asking God to ready us for battle and simultaneously to heal our wounds and bind up what is broken in us!


Gloria In Excelsis Deo

Scriptural basis for the Gloria

Next comes the Gloria, which in English begins: “Glory to God in the highest…” Where does this come from? Well, like most parts of the Mass, it is taken directly from Sacred Scripture. We have just asked for God’s forgiveness and received it, and now it is time to praise and glorify Him! We hear in Luke 2:8-20:

“8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them (Lk 2:8-20).”

Sacred Music at Mass

The Gloria is one of the hymns in the Mass which is properly sung. But why? Like the angels in the heavens singing and praising God, so too do we unite our hearts and minds with this action of worship. Here, though, I want to take a detour from our regularly scheduled programming to discuss music generally.

What is the purpose of Sacred Music in the Latin Rite? Maybe you know! Maybe you think you know. Maybe you have no idea. I hope to give the basics of what the Church offers. I am not interested in giving you my opinion or the opinions of others. What does the Church say is “Sacred Music?” I think it is worth giving a decent chunk of time here to get into it a bit!

In January of 2019, Archbishop Alexander Sample of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon wrote a pastoral letter on Sacred Music in Divine Worship entitled: “Sing to the LORD a New Song.” It is a brilliantly written synthesis of the Church’s perennial teachings on music in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. The original letter can be found here. I highly recommend that any person involved in the ministry of music in a Latin Rite Catholic Church give it a read.

Introduction to Church Music

Quoting St. Augustine, Archbishop Sample reminds us that singing is an expression of joy and of love. When the People of God gather, we sing praises to God. To lose the great 2,000 year tradition of Sacred Music in the Church would be a tragedy. In fact, the “beauty, dignity and prayerfulness of the Mass depend to a large extent on the music that accompanies the liturgical action (Sample, 1).”

Speaking of language, form, and genre, Pope Francis said a few years ago that, “At times a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations (Sample, 2).”

The archbishop alludes to the fact that there has been a certain confusion about Sacred Music in the past decades and that a rediscovery of the tradition of the Church will constitute for some a “change.” He says, “Change can be difficult, but this can also be an exciting time of rediscovering the spirit of the liturgy and exploring new horizons of sacred music (Sample, 3).”

History and the Nature and Purpose of Sacred Music 

Since the time of the Apostles, singing has not been an addendum to the worship of God. It is integral. Singing is an art form that “takes its life and purpose from the Sacred Liturgy and is part of its very structure (Sample, 3).”

The Second Vatican Council reiterates this in the document on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium

“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy (Sample, 3).”

If this is the case, and it is, then it seems unfitting that the norm in the United States (at least) is to, as the archbishop puts it, 

“‘tack on’ four songs (the opening hymn, the offertory hymn, communion hymn and recessional hymn), along with the sung ordinary of the Mass (Gloria, Sanctus, etc.). We must come to see that, since sacred music is integral to the Mass, the role of sacred music is to help us sing and pray the texts of the Mass itself, not just ornament it… The Church solemnly teaches us, then, that the very purpose of sacred music is twofold: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful. This understanding of the essential nature and purpose of sacred music must direct and inform everything else that is said about it (Sample, 3 & 4).”

The Qualities of Sacred Music

There are three essential qualities of sacred music that flow from its nature and purpose: sanctity, beauty, and universality.

SANCTITY - Sacred Music has sanctity because it is holy. It must be free of profanity in its words, themes, and the manner in which it is delivered. To be holy is to be set apart. Common, secular music has no place in the worship of God in the liturgy.

BEAUTY – Liturgical and Sacred Music can give people a glimpse of the beauty of heaven, according to Pope Francis. Our liturgies must seek to be transcendent. They can be nothing compared to the glory of Heaven, but the beauty of Sacred Music can offer a foretaste of the Heavenly reality. 

UNIVERSALITY – The composition of Sacred Music, of any culture, must be recognized as having a sacred character. As a universal principle, holiness transcends every individual culture. In other words, “Not every form or style of music is capable of being rendered suitable for the Mass (Sample, 5).”

The Treasury of Sacred Music

The treasury of the Church’s Sacred Music spans centuries. Whether ancient or modern, Sacred Music must have the same character of sanctity, beauty, and universality.  

For example, there is Gregorian Chant which the Second Vatican Council gave pride of place in Sacred Music in the Roman liturgy. This has been reinforced by every Pontiff since. In terms of full, conscious, active participation of the laity in the liturgy, Pope Pius XI says this, 

“In order that the faithful may more actively participate in divine worship, let them be led once more to sing the Gregorian chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it (Sample, 6).”

The Second Vatican Council also suggests that 

“(S)teps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertains to them (SC, 54).” 

This is referring to the Kyrie (actually in Greek), the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, the Mysterium Fidei, the Pater Noster, and the Agnus Dei. 

Echoing the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict XVI said, 

“(W)hile respecting various styles and different and highly praiseworthy traditions, I desire, in accordance with the request advanced by the Synod Fathers, that Gregorian chant be suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy (Sample, 7).”

There are other kinds of Sacred Music in the Church. For example, polyphony has a venerable tradition in the Church, such as the compositions of Palestrina, Tallis, and Allegri. There is also a vast body of Sacred Music composed for the people, such as hymnody, psalmody, and different Mass settings in Latin or the vernacular. 

In contrast to Sacred Music is secular music. Secular music is not sanctified, necessarily beautiful, or universal. This does not just pertain to lyrics. There are a great many songs being written and utilized at Mass which are secular in their manner of being played (folk, rock, country, etc.) or their ambiguous lyrical content. 

Archbishop Sample quotes Pope Benedict XVI in saying: 

“As far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided. As an element of the liturgy, song should be well integrated into the overall celebration. Consequently everything - texts, music, execution - ought to correspond to the meaning of the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons (Sample, 9-10).”

There is much more to say on music and full, conscious, actual participation in the Mass, but I am going to hold off on that until next week. Otherwise, this week will go far over an hour. So, make sure to come back next week for the exciting conclusion!

The Collect

The celebrant invites those gathered to pray and then proclaims the prescribed prayer for the day from the Roman Missal called the Collect.  The Collect literally collects the prayers of the people and the priest offers these prayers to God. The Collect also disposes the hearts of those present to be made ready to hear the Word of God proclaimed in the following part of the Mass: the Liturgy of the Word. As we will see next week, when we talk about the Mystical Body of Christ, we need a priest to do this properly. In his priesthood, the priest is acting in the Person of Christ, the Head of His Body, at Holy Mass. Only he can collect up the prayers of the Members of the Body of Christ and offer them, by his consecration, to God the Father, in the Spirit. 


With the Collect, the Introductory Rites are concluded. Whether we are celebrating the Holy Mass by the 1962 Missal or the 1970 Missal, the Collect ends the beginning prayers of the Mass which prepare us for the Readings. Next week, we will be diving into this next part of the Mass, known in our current Missal as the Liturgy of the Word. 

We will also be looking closer at the theology of the Mystical Body of Christ. We will look a bit closer at Sacred Music in Mass. We will walk through the progression of Readings and the Homily. And we will be learning more about the Profession of Faith and the Universal Prayer. We will also look at the difference between Sacraments and sacramentals. I am certain there will be a few other side roads to investigate along the way.

Thank you for joining us this week. I look forward to being with you again next week as we continue to learn more about Praying the Mass!

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