General Information

(This presentation primarily discusses Roman Catholic perspectives on the Eucharist. At the end of this presentation are links to Protestant and Jewish perspectives, and a more general presentation on the Eucharist that includes presentation of the Orthodox perspective.)

The central religious service of the Roman Catholic church, Mass is the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist, the rite instituted by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. Some Lutherans and Anglicans also refer to the Eucharist as Mass. Based on the medieval Latin liturgy of Rome, the Mass takes its name from the Latin missa (dismissed), referring to the practice of dismissing the catechumens before the offertory. In the Eastern churches, the Mass is called the Holy Liturgy or the Offering. Catholics believe that consecration of the eucharistic elements of bread and wine transforms their substances into those of Jesus' body and blood; this doctrine is called transubstantiation. Catholics are required to attend Sunday Mass as a minimum of public worship.

The two chief parts of the Mass are the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The first consists primarily of two or three Scripture readings, a homily following the Gospel reading, and general intercessions or prayers of the faithful. The main actions of the second part are the preparation of the altar and gifts, eucharistic prayer, breaking of bread, and communion. The Lord's Prayer is recited at the end of the eucharistic prayer and is followed by the exchange of the sign of peace. Introductory rites, including an entrance song, penitential rite, and opening prayer, precede the Word liturgy, and a concluding rite follows communion.

BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet Our List of 2,300 Religious Subjects
The structure of the Mass has remained fairly constant since the 2d century, although some local variations existed until modern times. In the Roman rite Mass was celebrated in Latin from an early period until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which allowed for the use of vernacular languages, and which emphasized congregational singing and permitted communion in the forms of both bread and wine (previously the congregation had received only the bread). The new Order of Mass of 1969 is one of the chief reforms stemming from the Council.

L. L. Mitchell

Jungmann, Joseph, The Mass of the Roman Rite (1951); Klauser, Theodor, A Short History of the Western Liturgy, 2d ed. (1979); McManus, Frederick, ed., Thirty Years of Liturgical Renewal (1987); Patino, J. M., ed., The New Order of Mass (1970).


General Information

High Mass is sung, with a Priest, a Deacon and a sub-Deacon participating.

Low Mass is spoken, not sung, with only a Priest and server participating.


General Information

Mass is the ritual of chants, readings, prayers, and other ceremonies used in the celebration of the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic church. The same name is used in high Anglican churches. Other Protestant churches call this ritual Holy Communion or the Lord's Supper; Eastern Orthodox churches call it the Divine Liturgy. The word mass comes from the Latin missa ("sent"). It was taken from the formula for dismissing the congregation: Ite, missa est ("Go, the Eucharist has been sent forth"), referring to the ancient custom of sending consecrated bread from the bishop's Mass to other churches in Rome to symbolize that church's unity with the bishop in the celebration of the Mass.

Forms of the Mass

The earliest form of the celebration of the Mass was the domestic Eucharist. Archaeological evidence shows that from the 3rd to the 4th century, Christian communities celebrated Mass in large homes. The local bishop presided over this Eucharist. After Emperor Constantine the Great's Edict of Toleration (313 AD), public buildings - called basilicas - were adapted to the celebration of the bishop's Eucharist. As the church grew and the number of individual churches increased, presbyters attached to these churches came to lead the celebration. Eventually, these presbyters became known as sacerdotes ("priests"; see Priest).

Before the 8th century, the only form of the Mass was the public Mass, celebrated by a bishop or priest with a congregation. In its solemn form (High Mass), most parts are sung. In its most elaborate form, the papal Mass, the pope is assisted by the papal nobility, Latin and Eastern Rite deacons, the papal court, and numerous other functionaries. The pontifical Mass (solemn Mass of a bishop) is less elaborate, although besides deacons, subdeacons, thurifers (incense bearers), and acolytes, the bishop is also assisted by his familia (family), assistants who are responsible for taking care of his regalia (solemn vestments) and insignia (miter, crosier, and pontifical cross). The solemn parish, or monastic, Mass is celebrated with deacon and subdeacon. The simplest form of sung Mass is celebrated by one priest, with the assistance of acolytes and thurifer. In daily celebrations, a simpler form is used in which all parts of the Mass are read by one priest. This is the Missa Lecta ("read Mass"), or Low Mass.

Beginning in the 8th century, the private Mass evolved in the monasteries of northern Europe. Monks were originally laity, and they relied on local priests for their sacramental needs or ordained some of their own members for those needs. Beginning in the 8th century, British and Irish monks were ordained for the missionary work of converting the tribes of northern Europe that had been subdued by Charlemagne and his successors. By the 11th century (after the great missionary age), the growing monasteries of northern Europe continued to ordain their monks; so the number of priests eventually far exceeded the sacramental needs of the monks. Thus, the practice of private daily celebration of Mass grew until, by the 12th century, it was common.

Parts of the Mass

By the 6th century the parts of the Mass were relatively fixed. Six principal sections can be distinguished.

Liturgical Books

Before the 13th century a variety of liturgical books were used in the celebration of the Mass. The choir used the Graduale (for the Gradual chant) and Antiphonale (for the responsive processional chants at the Entrance, Offertory, Communion, and Recessional). The subdeacon used the Apostolus (letters of the New Testament), the deacons the Evangelarium (Gospel), and the presiding celebrant the Sacramentarium, which contained all the prayers of the Mass. As the practice of private Mass grew, the various liturgical texts were gathered into one book for the priest who performed all the parts of the Mass alone. This book, called the missal, contained all the prayers, readings, and chants of the Mass. The various missals used since the 13th century were standardized in an official text, the Roman missal (1570), which was issued by order of the Council of Trent. Earlier, in 1298, papal and episcopal ceremonies had been standardized in the Roman pontifical. The Roman missal and the Roman pontifical have been revised several times over the centuries.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) introduced a number of changes into the celebration of Mass. The council returned to the ancient practice of calling this sacrament and its celebration by the same name: the Eucharist. The principal liturgical changes include the introduction of vernacular languages into the Eucharist, the return to the custom of allowing the laity to receive both bread and wine, and the reintroduction of the practice of concelebration.

Joseph M. Powers


Advanced Information

The word refers to the Eucharist or Lord's Supper and derives from the Latin missio, a term used in churches or law courts to dismiss the people. The expression Ite, missa est is the regular ending of the Roman rite. The term has been used in the West as a name for the whole of the service since at least the fourth century, and is presently used by both Roman Catholics and Anglican High Churchmen.

In liturgical terminology there is sometimes a reference to two Masses, referring to a division of the eucharistic service which can be seen as early as Acts 20 and which is clearly developed in third and fourth century texts. The first segment is the service of the word, after which catechumens were dismissed, and therefore termed the Mass of the catechumens; the second is the service of the table (the passing of the peace, the Lord's Prayer, and the Eucharist itself), which was reserved for baptized Christians in good standing and called the Mass of the faithful. In this liturgical use "Mass" indicates which group left the church at the dismissal at the end of that part of the service.

While the use of the term "Mass" does not necessarily indicate any particular theology (as, e.g., in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer or Luther's German Mass), in common usage it is connected with the Roman Catholic and AngloCatholic doctrine of the Mass in which the priest is considered to participate in the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ, the transubstantiated host and wine. Usually this is not thought of as a resacrifice of Christ, although in some old Catholic theologies that was surely the case, but as a participation in and a making present of the eternal and thus timeless sacrifice of Christ in which the priest represents Christ in terms drawn from Hebrews. Thus the Mass is viewed as eschatological: it is in the here and now the sacrifice offered upon the cross (and indeed all of Christ's work), for in it time is swallowed up in eternity. While this eschatological aspect has never been accepted by Protestants, it allows Catholics to preserve the unity of Christ's work and the sacrificial character of the service.

P H Davids
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

D. B. Stuart, The Development of Christian Worship; G. Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy.

Editor's Notes

There are some differences between the celebration of the Eucharist in various Churches. For more extensive discussion, including Advanced Information articles, please also see the (Protestant oriented) Last Supper presentation, linked below.

It is generally accepted by Christian scholars that the last meal of Jesus was a (Jewish) Seder meal which is part of the Passover celebration. A presentation on the Seder includes the specific foods and procedures involved, along with the Jewish (historic) reasons for them. References to Christian adaptations of the Seder are also included.

Also, see:
Eucharist (includes Orthodox perspective)
Last Supper (Protestant-oriented)
Seder (Jewish)

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

This page - - - - is at
This subject presentation was last updated on - -

Copyright Information

Send an e-mail question or comment to us: E-mail

The main BELIEVE web-page (and the index to subjects) is at: BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet