Many years ago, when he was bishop of Pittsburgh, Cardinal Donald Wuerl had a Sunday morning TV show, and in one episode he said something very simple, yet profound, about the Mass.

He said: “The Mass is what we do.”

And he went on to explain what he meant. He said that a parish might have a great Bible study. It might run a great soup kitchen. It might have a state-of-the-art Catholic school. It might have the most incredible Bingo on earth.

But all those things are secondary. Take away any one, and you still have a functioning Catholic parish. Take away the Mass, though, and you don’t.

The thing that makes a place a Catholic Church is the Mass. Why is the Mass so important to us — so central to our identity?

Because Jesus made the Mass, and at that very moment he made sure his disciples understood one thing: that forever afterward, the Mass should be what they do.

At the most solemn moment of his earthly ministry, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and shared it. He said that the bread was his body. And when he did all these things, he said, “Do this in memory of me.”

So we do it. The Mass is what we do.

Filipinos receive Communion during a Mass at the 51st International Eucharistic Congress opening ceremony in Cebu, Philippines. (CNS photo/Francis R. Malasig, EPA)

Since the beginning

It’s what the Church has done since the beginning. In the days immediately after the first Christian Pentecost, the Mass was the action that defined the life of the first disciples. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that the members of the newborn Church “devoted themselves to (1) the apostles’ teaching and (2) fellowship, to (3) the breaking of bread and (4) the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Those four actions come together at Mass. We meet every Sunday to listen to the New Testament doctrine in our readings from the Bible. We meet for the communion, the fellowship. We share in the breaking of the bread, and we recite the traditional prayers.

The Mass is what they did then, in the time of the apostles. And so the Mass is what we still do now.

The centrality of the Mass is important in much of the rest of the New Testament.

Scholars say that St. Paul’s first four canonical letters are his most important. We should note that all four are much concerned with the problem of Jews and Gentiles sharing a table together. This was a new idea. Previously, Jews had separated themselves from Gentiles — and many Gentiles were eager to return the favor.

But in the New Covenant this was supposed to change. Salvation had come to the Gentiles by way of the Jews. And, then as now, the sacraments are the ordinary means by which salvation comes.

The newborn Church was to be a Catholic Church — not a denominational church or a national church. The Greek root of Catholic means universal. The Church was to include everybody.

Paul was worried because some Christians were not willing to share their table with others. Sometimes the rich were excluding the poor. Sometimes Jews were excluding Gentiles. And all of these actions and omissions Paul judged to be sins against communion. To exclude other people was to desecrate the very sacrament that Jesus established to unify the Church.

So Paul wrote his most extensive and important letters out of concern for what scholars call commensality — the sharing of the eucharistic table. If the Mass is what we do, we’d better be doing it all together.

The theology of the Mass comes to the fore in the Letter to the Hebrews — and the imagery of the Mass in the Book of Revelation, where we see priests in vestments, the altar and the candles, the hidden manna, the chalices of wine and, of course, the Lamb of God.

After the New Testament, the earliest Christian documents — the Didache and the works of Clement, Ignatius and Barnabas — are almost all concerned with the proper celebration of the Mass. Thus, in the generation after the apostles, the Mass was still what Christians did.

But why was Jesus so insistent about the centrality of the Mass? And why were the early Christians so determined to fulfill his command so faithfully?

"The Last Supper", 1530, Cologne, Germany (Metropolian Museum of Art)

Earth as a sacrifice

The roots of the Mass, it seems, run deeper even than the first generation of Christianity.

At the beginning of the Bible — at the beginning of history — God created the first man to live as a priest in the garden sanctuary.

A priest is one who stands as a mediator and offers sacrifice, and Adam was to present all the earth as his offering. He was to work it and guard it and return it to God as something holy and beautiful.

The whole world was to be his sacrifice, offered through his ordinary work. But Adam failed when he sinned. And much of the rest of biblical history is taken up with mankind’s efforts to recover that original priesthood. Much of the rest of biblical history is taken up with God’s efforts to restore the common priesthood to humankind.

The story of Cain and Abel is about failed priesthood. Cain envies his brother’s sacrifice and kills him.

In the Book of Exodus, we find God pressing the reset button. The Lord delivers Israel from slavery in Egypt — and the primary purpose of the Exodus is the restoration of proper worship that is priestly and sacrificial. God said, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

Yet, like Adam and Cain, Israel failed in its priesthood. The Chosen People worshipped the Golden Calf and forfeited their common priesthood.

God did his almighty best to put it all back together. For the sake of their ancestors, he didn’t put the Israelites to death. Instead he gave them a law to follow — detailed instructions governing every area of life. Still, however, Israel refused the mercy. The prophets bear witness to the nation’s many infidelities — their failures to offer proper worship.

Through the Prophet Malachi, however, God promises a day when “from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering” (Malachi 1:11).

The line appears in many of the Church’s early liturgies. It’s still used in the Mass today, in the third Eucharistic Prayer.

Why is it there? Because the early Christians saw that Christ is the New Adam, and in him Adam’s priesthood is restored to all of Adam’s descendants.

Jesus the New Adam is the one priest, the one mediator; and today his ministers — the clergy of the Catholic Church — offer sacrifice in his name. The sacrifice offered by the clergy is the sacrifice Jesus instituted at the Last Supper: the offering of his body and blood.

And when our priests “do this” in memory of Jesus — when they offer his body and blood — we the laity offer the whole world in union with that sacrifice.

Listen to the prayers of the Mass. We’re offering the “fruit of the earth and the work of human hands” — the work of our hands.

This is the way the Second Vatican Council described what’s happening at Mass:

“For all their works … their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation … all these become ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God” (Lumen Gentium 34).

Archbishop José H. Gomez celebrates the Eucharist at Sagrado Corazon y Santa Maria De Guadalupe Catholic Church in Cudahy on Dec. 16 (photo/VICTOR ALEMÁN)  

Many gifts

In the early Church this consecration was symbolized by the offering of many gifts at the offertory. Lay men and women would bring forward not only the bread and wine for the Eucharist, but also a share of the olives they had harvested, the oil they had pressed, the cheese they had cultivated, the honey they had collected from the hives and the money they had earned.

These were then distributed to the poor, and so the Church renewed the face of the earth. And so the Church helped to bring about God’s new creation, his kingdom.

This still happens today. We still offer the work of human hands, and God makes it holy. Moreover, he makes us holy and strong, so that we can return to our work of sanctifying the world.

Because that’s our priesthood. Wherever we find ourselves at work, there is our altar. That’s true when we stand over the stove where we’re cooking dinner. It’s true at the assembly line. It’s true of the lawns we mow and the shelves we stock. All of this is the temple we’ve been given to work and guard.

The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the great high priest, and he’s forever in heaven offering his body and blood as a pure sacrifice to the Father.

Yet he has commissioned earthly priests to offer the sacrifice on his behalf, and in his name, and in union with him, and even in his person. And so they do.

All the history of worship finds fulfillment and completion in Jesus’ saving action. It’s all caught up in the sacrifice we offer with him in the Mass.

What we celebrate in the Mass is the climax of the drama of sacrifice — the resolution of all the failures in worship and love since the beginning of the world.

And that includes our own lives. The Mass, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). It’s our beginning and end. It’s what we do, because it’s what we were created to do and what we were saved to do.


Mike Aquilina is author of more than 50 books, including “The Mass of the Early Christians,” and co-author with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of “The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition.” His most recent book is “A History of the Church in 100 Objects.”

Three ways to get more out of Mass

1. Try adding a weekday Mass to your schedule. If you go faithfully every Sunday, good for you! But maybe you can make time to go on a weekday, too. It’s the same Mass, but a different experience, because the crowd is smaller and the tone more intimate. What’s more, you’re going not because of any obligation, but just for love’s sake. A weekday venture could lead you to a Catholic church other than your home parish. This, too, can give you a new perspective on the Mass, as you hear the same words in a fresh voice.

2. Invest your intentions. Come to Mass prepared to make a remembrance of the favors you’re asking of God — for yourself and for others. Silently tell these to the Lord, one by one. Some people do this before Mass. Some do it at the offertory, imagining their petitions placed on the altar with the gifts of bread and wine. Some churches observe a silent moment at the end of the Universal Prayer for this very purpose. When you do this, you place a personal stake in the Mass. 

3. Take one thought home. While you’re listening to the readings, try to discern a “word” that God intends especially for you. Listen especially as the priest or deacon reflects on the readings in his homily. Perhaps the passages are difficult to understand. Perhaps the preacher is nervous or tired. God will speak to you nonetheless. Remember that he spoke to the Prophet Elijah not in the mighty wind, or the fire, or the earthquake, but in a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-13). Maybe you’ll take home a certain word, such as “praise.” Maybe you’ll take home a phrase: “I shall not want” or “Whom should I fear?” Write it down somewhere you’ll see it often — and act on it — during the day or the coming week. 

— Adapted from the book “The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition,” co-authored by Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina.

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