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The Mass as an actual sacrifice in Catholic Tradition.

Fr Thomas Crean O.P. brings out a formal aspect of Catholic tradition concerning the sacrifice of the Mass, that seems to have been prominently neglected in recent times.

   I want to consider a way of talking about the Mass which has become quite common in recent years and which isn’t exactly wrong, but which when presented as a definition of the Mass seems at least to involve a false emphasis, and which often seems to carry with it ideas about the Mass which I do think are mistaken.

   I am talking about describing or defining the Mass as the renewal or re-presentation or re-actualization of the Paschal Mystery. While I don't say that such phrases can't be justified, I do think they need a lot of qualification which they don't always receive, and that without such qualifications, they are misleading. And there's no doubt that ‘the Paschal Mystery' is a phrase which is very popular in modern accounts of the Mass, or indeed of the liturgy in general. For example, the Italian Nuovo Dizionario di liturgia, published in 1988, speaking of the post-Vatican II liturgical reform, states that: 'the Paschal mystery has become the foundation of, and the key to, the meaning of the entire Christian liturgy'. Notice, there, the words, 'has become the foundation'; the  implication is that it wasn't before, that this is something new. That may already give us pause: how can something become the foundation for the liturgy if it wasn't before? Or if we're meant to understand, not 'has become in reality' but rather 'always was in reality, but now has become so also in our understanding', that raises the obvious question, did the Church then previously have a deficient understanding of the liturgy and of the Mass? That would also be a problematic position for a Catholic theologian to adopt. Clearly we need to look at this phrase 'paschal mystery' rather closely, and see if it is simply a new and  concise way of expressing what the Church has always held about the Mass, or if it is indeed expressing a new conception of the Mass, and if so, whether this new conception can be justified.

   Now, as a matter of fact, when people talk about the Mass as the renewal or the re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery, they don’t really seem to have the whole Paschal Mystery in mind. The phrase 'Paschal Mystery' presumably means everything involved in our Lord’s passing over from this world and entering into his glory: his death, the descent of his soul to Limbo, his preaching to the spirits who were in prison, the freeing of the just souls, the Resurrection, the Ascension and perhaps also the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But when people today talk about the Mass as the re-presentation or renewal of the Paschal Mystery, they don't normally seem to be thinking of all these things. I've never heard anyone claim that the Mass is a renewal of Christ's descent into Limbo, for example. What people normally seem to mean when they talk of the Mass as a re-presentation or re-actualization of the Paschal mystery is that it is a re-presentation or re-actualization of Christ’s death and resurrection. But this leaves me feeling somewhat uneasy, as I don’t think it corresponds exactly to traditional explanations of the Mass.

   Let’s consider some traditional descriptions, beginning with perhaps the most authoritative of all such, that given by the fathers of the Council of Trent, in the 22nd Session:-

   Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, when he was about to offer himself once on the altar of the Cross to God the Father, making intercession by means of his death, so that he might gain there an eternal redemption, since his priesthood was not to be extinguished by death, at the last Supper, ‘on the night that he was handed over’, left to his beloved Spouse the Church a visible sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, by which the bloody sacrifice achieved once upon the Cross might be represented and its memory endure until the end of the age, and its saving power be applied to the remission of those sins which are daily committed by us.

   Here we have the key points I’d like to recall about the Mass. It is a visible sacrifice; it represents and so is the memorial of the sacrifice of the Cross; it applies to our souls here and now the power of the Cross. In the first canon of this 22nd Session, the Fathers of Trent define that in the Mass ‘a true and proper sacrifice’ is offered to God, and in the third canon they define that the sacrifice of the Mass is not a bare commemoration of the Cross but is itself propitiatory. It is offered, they say, 'for the sins, punishments, satisfactions and other necessities of the living and the dead'.

   We may want to notice why it’s not incoherent to say both that the Mass represents the Sacrifice of the Cross and also that it’s not a bare commemoration. The Mass is itself literally a sacrifice, therefore propitiatory; but it’s not literally the same event as the sacrifice of the Cross, since our Lord does not die again at Mass. So the Mass is a literal visible sacrifice, which represents and ‘applies the merits’ of the literal, once-for-all sacrifice of the Cross.

   My second quotation is from Leo XIII's encyclical letter, Caritatis Studium. This letter was written to the Bishops of Scotland in 1898, to mark the 20th anniversary of the re-establishment of the hierarchy in that country. Towards the end of the encyclical, Pope Leo mentions the losses suffered by the Scottish people as a result of the Reformation. He writes:-

   There is one thing amongst all others, the loss of which is more deplorable than words can express; We allude to the most holy Sacrifice in which Jesus Christ, both Priest and Victim, daily offers Himself to His Father, through the ministry of His priests on earth. By virtue of this Sacrifice the infinite merits of Christ, gained by His Precious Blood shed once upon the Cross for the salvation of men, are applied to our souls.

   This is Pope Leo's description of the Mass: it is a sacrifice, by which the infinite merits of Christ's death, gained on the Cross, are applied to souls here-and-now.

   My next quotation is from Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei, published in 1943. In section 74, he explains how the Mass, in St Paul’s phrase, ‘shows forth' the death of Christ until he comes. The Pope writes:-  

   The divine wisdom has devised a way in which our Redeemer’s sacrifice is marvellously shown forth by external signs symbolic of death. By the transubstantiation of bread unto the body of Christ and of wine unto his blood both his body and blood are rendered really present; but the Eucharistic species under which he is present symbolise the violent separation of his body and blood, and so a commemorative showing forth of the death which took place in reality on Calvary is repeated in each Mass, because by distinct representations, Christ Jesus is signified and shown forth in the state of victim.

   The Mass, then, is a visible sacrifice, which the Council of Trent says that our human nature requires, because Christ's death is shown forth by the separate consecration of his body and blood. This is also the explanation which St Thomas Aquinas gives of the sacrifice of the Mass in the Summa Theologiae.

   This point, about the twofold consecration, is explained with great clarity in my last quotation, which comes from the Simple Prayer Book, as published in 1957. The section entitled 'Short Instruction on Holy Mass' contains the following passage:-

   You know that our Lord died only once, on Good Friday. But in the Mass, His death on the Cross is commemorated by the separate consecration of the bread and wine. He cannot really die again. His Body and Blood cannot really be separated...But in the Mass, the bread is first changed into our Lord's Body, and then the wine is changed into His Blood. Thus it looks as though the Body and Blood were separated, and this recalls the real separation, the real shedding of our Lord's Blood on Mount Calvary... In the Mass, His death is represented, or 'shown forth', as St Paul says.

   That's the last of what I should claim are traditional descriptions or explanations of Holy Mass - they could of course have been multiplied indefinitely. Two things stand out. The first is the emphasis put on the Cross. The Mass is the memorial of the sacrifice of the Cross: it represents this sacrifice by the separate consecration of the Host and Chalice, and it applies the merits of our Lord’s death on the Cross to our souls. But secondly, the Mass is itself a sacrifice here and now. None of these quotations claims that the essence of the Mass consists in making the past event of the Crucifixion literally present: they do not say that God works a miracle with time, causing a past event to exist here and now. The Mass represents this past event: it is one with the sacrifice of the Cross inasmuch as the victim and the priest are the same, but it is not literally the crucifixion. If it were, it would not be an ‘unbloody’ or clean oblation. Nor would it be a visible sacrifice, since we don't actually see the past events of Calvary during the holy Mass.

   Do contemporary descriptions of the Mass deny any of this? No, not usually: but many such descriptions, some with a ‘semi-official’ status, often don't quite ‘hit the same note’, and (to my mind) seem somewhat unclear about what they do mean. What happens, in these modern descriptions, seems to be two things: first, as much emphasis is put on the Resurrection as on the Cross, or in other words the Mass is defined by reference to 'the Paschal Mystery'; and secondly, there is a playing-down, or obscuring, of the doctrine that the Mass itself is a true and proper sacrifice. Let me give some examples of these two tendencies, by a series of more modern quotations.

   My first modern quotation is again from the Simple Prayer Book, not this time from the 1957 but from the 2005 edition. On pp106-7 there is a section called 'The Mass simply explained'. Unlike their predecessors in 1957, the authors do not here call the Mass itself a sacrifice, nor do they say that it brings to our souls the fruits of the sacrifice of the Cross. Nor do they say that it shows forth our Lord’s death by means of the twofold consecration. I'd suggest that we have here some regrettable omissions in comparison to the pre-Vatican II Simple Prayer Book.

   Instead, the authors say this: ‘The Church calls to mind the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, which are made present in the Eucharist'. One problem with this formulation is that it could suggest that the Mass is what it is because the Church calls something to mind. But this is not true: the Mass is a reality because a validly ordained priest speaks the words of consecration over valid matter, not because of the anamnesis or calling-to-mind, which only occurs after the consecration. But I should like in particular to examine the claim that Christ's death and resurrection are made present in the Eucharist; that this is what the Mass is. I’d suggest that there are two problems with this. First, is it traditional to say even that the Mass ‘makes Christ’s death present?’ On the Cross, our Lord’s body and blood were separated physically, here they are separated sacramentally: which is sometimes called his ‘mystical immolation’. So we must certainly say that the Mass perpetuates his sacrifice sacramentally. But this is not the same as saying that the Mass makes our Lord’s death present. Christ really offers a sacrifice at Mass, but he does not really die again. Secondly, this phrase of the modern Simple Prayer Book gives the same prominence to our Lord’s death and resurrection of Christ in its description of the Mass. But my earlier quotations spoke of the Mass as a memorial of our Lord’s death, not of his resurrection; and St Paul himself says that we show forth his death until he comes, and not that we show forth his death and resurrection. For both these reasons, to define the Mass as the making-present of Christ's death and resurrection seems to be a novelty.

   Now, we have to be careful here. I don't want to deny that there may be some sense in which we are present to the resurrection of Christ during the Mass. After all, all the mysteries of Christ’s life are present to Him as God in his eternity and his eternal knowledge. So presumably, wherever he is present, we can talk about a presence of the mysteries of his life. Then again, we certainly commemorate the resurrection (and the ascension) in the Canon just after the consecration. And also at least since the time of Amalarius of Metz, in the 9th Century, the commingling of the particle of the host into the chalice just before the priest's communion has been taken to symbolise Christ’s resurrection on the third day. But none of this, in my opinion, justifies us in giving equal emphasis to our Lord’s death and resurrection in our account of the holy Mass. For his death is not simply commemorated in words: it is represented by the very act which makes the Mass what it is, namely, the twofold consecration. The transubstantiation of the bread and wine have as their term, respectively, our Lord's body and his blood, and so we can speak of a sacramental separation of this body and blood: and therefore of a real sacrifice, and a representation of his death. But the Mass does not involve a sacramental re-uniting of our Lord's body and blood: in the commingling of the particle of the host with the chalice, it is only the sacred species which are re-united, not the body and blood themselves. So it seems to me a mistake to put the Cross and Resurrection on the same level in one's explanation of the Mass, or, in other words, to define the Mass by means of the paschal mystery.

   Now the putting of the Cross and Resurrection on a par in explaining the Mass is not just an isolated slip in the modern Simple Prayer Book. We find the same thing in a catechism entitled simply The Eucharist, produced by the Irish Dominicans in 2004, with a nihil obstat from the Archdiocese of Dublin. This catechism is excellent in many respects, but it also has some things which I think would have had the Fathers of Trent, not tearing their robes, but at least scratching their heads. Question 70 of this catechism asks, “what does the Eucharistic memorial make present?” The answer given is “The Eucharistic memorial makes present the complete paschal mystery, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, so that we may now become part of this mystery.” Then as if fearing not to have been sufficiently clear, five questions later the author asks, “Does the Mass make present Christ’s resurrection?” The answer is “The Eucharist makes present not only the sacrifice of Christ, but the resurrection which crowned his sacrifice. It is the risen Christ, who, in the Eucharist, is the living Bread.” The implication is that in whatever sense the Mass is Christ's sacrifice, it is in the same sense his resurrection. But this is not true. The Mass is literally Christ's sacrifice; it is not literally his resurrection.

   My next quotation comes from a CTS pamphlet published in 2004 by the current Bishop of East Anglia, Michael Evans, called Is Jesus really present in the Eucharist?   On pp. 9-10, we find a discussion of a key concept in this new way of talking about the Mass: the concept of memorial. Bishop Evans writes:-

   The word “memorial” is very important in Eucharistic theology, and means far more than simply a recalling or remembering. For the Jews, celebrating a memorial involves evoking the past and reliving it in such a way that a past event is made effective and fruitful here and now. In our remembering, God brings the past event more and more firmly into effect, so that we can share in its benefits and look forward in hope to its final fulfilment.

Jesus took the ritual of the Passover Meal, and brought its deepest meaning to its fulfilment...This new Passover Meal is a personal memorial. The heart of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is made present and effective for us here and now.

   Now, salva reverentia, I don’t find this explanation of the special, ‘religious’ meaning of memorial very clear. Bishop Evans says first that a memorial involves much more than just remembering something. For the Jews, he explains, a memorial means first of all evoking the past - but surely that is what the word always means? A war memorial, for example, evokes a past sacrifice. He adds that it means making the past fruitful. Now we can see in ordinary life what this could mean: for example, as I remember a kindness shown me by someone in the past, I may be moved to do a kind deed myself. That could be described as the past becoming fruitful. But how does one go from that to saying, as he says at the end of the quotation, that by the memorial which is the Mass, the “life, death and resurrection” of our Lord are all made present? Does he mean just present to our memories, and so moving us to imitate Christ? Surely not, that would be pure Protestantism: it would also contradict the insistence that at least in a Jewish or Catholic context, a memorial is something much more real than simply a recalling or a remembering. But what is it more? How on this account is the Mass itself a true and proper sacrifice, and not simply us remembering the past, along with the real presence of our Lord beneath the eucharistic species, and the actual graces which God gives to us as we remember? The Council of Trent, Leo XIII, Pius XII and others do give us a real idea of the relation between the Cross and the holy Mass, even if they don’t settle all possible theological questions: the Mass represents the Cross by the sacrificial consecration; it is therefore the memorial of the Cross, and it also applies its fruits. But what is meant by saying that the Mass makes past events present because at Mass we make a memorial of these events, but that this being-present of the past events is far more than just our remembering them? To me, all this conveys no definite idea. Bishop Evans' words also lead to a problem that I've already mentioned: if, as he seems to be saying, at Mass God uses our remembering to cause the Mass to be whatever it is, that would seem to apply that a Mass where no one is thinking about the death and resurrection of Christ would be invalid.

   The Irish Dominican catechism also wants to put an explanatory weight on the term ‘memorial’ which it seems to me unable to bear. In question 69, the authors ask 'Where did the Christian notion of “memory” come from?', and they answer, 'It came from the Old Testament, and from the Passover in particular. A “memorial” did not simply recall a past act of God, but made that saving act real, actual and life-giving in the present celebration.' To this, I think we're entitled to respond, 'what, literally?' When the people of Israel kept the Passover in Jerusalem, did the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh's horsemen literally exist in their celebration, and not simply in their memories? Surely what really happened was that as they obediently remembered the past and looked forward to the future God gave them actual graces in view of the future Redemption, a redemption prefigured by the crossing of the Red Sea. In any case, whatever may have happened at the old Passover feasts, to suggest that the Mass is what it is because we are remembering something is surely to put the cart before the horse: the Mass is what it is, namely a sacrifice; and therefore it makes us recall the same sacrifice, offered on the Cross.

   But notice also what happens when memorial becomes the dominant concept in trying to understand the Mass. Obviously, if are assembling first and foremost to remember our Lord, we shan't want to think exclusively of his death; we'll want to think of his life and resurrection as well. So Bishop Evans does indeed put all these three things on a par, and makes them equally part of his description of the Mass: at Mass, he says, the heart of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is made present...for us here and now. And to me, again, that sounds rather different from saying that the Mass is a clean oblation, which represents the sacrifice of the Cross, and brings to us its fruits.

   There’s something more. Not only is there a departure here from the traditional explanation of the Mass in favour of a description of the Mass as a making-present of the death and resurrection of Christ, if not his whole life, there also seems to be a glossing over of the importance of the twofold consecration. To recall: after the consecration, our Lord's body is present under the species of bread because of the conversion; his blood is present under the appearance of bread not because of the conversion, but by concomitance, because in heaven his blood is really united to his body. Likewise, the precious blood is present under the species of wine by reason of the conversion, but his body is present there only by concomitance. This is the teaching of the Council of Trent, Session XIII, cap. 3. But Bishop Evans's account does not seem to leave room for this sacramental separation since he writes on p. 12, “We are not sure whether Jesus would have said, ‘This is my body’, or ‘This is my flesh’, but both words really mean the whole bodily-existing human being, the whole person, rather than just one element of him.” But if there was, then, no sacramental separation of our Lord's body and blood at the Last Supper, there presumably would be none at the Mass either; but then, would the words of consecration still be sacrificial words? What seems to be lost in all this is the fact that the Mass itself, while wholly relative to the Sacrifice of the Cross, drawing its power and significance from the Cross, is still a true and proper sacrifice here and now. The Mass here and now is a visible sacrifice, and not simply the arena or occasion at which past events become present in a very obscure way.



  To sum up. I have three concerns about many modern descriptions of the Mass which emphasise the notion of the Paschal Mystery. The first is that, contrary to tradition, they appear to give equal importance to the Cross and the Resurrection. The second is that they seem to render unclear the sense in which the Mass itself is a true and visible sacrifice, the offering of which is, under the new covenant, the supreme act of the virtue of religion. And thirdly, the statement, often found in these descriptions of the Mass, that a memorial of past events causes the events to be actually present and is not simply our remembering them is to me completely opaque.

  And if I were asked, finally, why this new way of speaking has become dominant, I should suggest that it may correspond to an unease with the whole idea of sacrifice, and with the accompanying notions of the debt of sin, propitiation, expiation and satisfaction. These uncomfortable realities will clearly be less in evidence when the Mass is talked of as a renewal of the resurrection, and when we  speak of the Mass as somehow the fruit of our remembering, and not as corresponding to our need to offer a real sacrifice here and now for our sins. But the eclipsing of notions which are a part of the deposit of faith must surely have a deleterious effect on the spiritual lives of the faithful. I should suggest, then, that the traditional language, the language of the Council of Trent, of Leo XIII and of Mediator Dei, needs to become normative once again as we catechise our people about the testament of Jesus Christ, the holy Mass.

This article first appeared in the September-October edition of Faith.

Version: 5th February 2009

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 Fr. Thomas Crean. O.P.
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