Why do we go to Mass?

Kevin Beckman's picture

Two of the precepts of the Church are that we must receive Holy Communion at least once a year, and we must attend Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. If you regularly attend one parish, you quickly notice that hardly anyone goes to confession while almost everyone receives Holy Communion. One hopes this is because all Catholics are living lives of such extreme sanctity that they don't need to avail themselves of confession beyond their yearly duty, but Scripture tells us that that's unlikely ("If anyone says he is without sin, he is a liar.") We believe how we pray, and we live what we believe. I'm a convert and so it has always been fascinating to me to trace the behavior of Catholics back to their beliefs. If we believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, then we will act accordingly by adoring Christ truly present in the consecrated Host. If we believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary is in heaven, hears our prayers, and is eager to help us, then we act accordingly by praying to her most especially with the Rosary. This cuts both ways however: if our knowledge of what the Church believes is incomplete, erroneous, or heretical then that will be reflected in the way we act.

An old priest I know said he always found the idea of a private Mass to be odd. He insisted that there ought always be a congregation present because the Mass is a meal in which the Mystical Body of Christ is present and partakes of the Body and Blood of our Lord. I've put the question to several lay Catholics and they too thought the idea of a private Mass was strange. I then said, "Putting aside our Sunday obligation for a moment, would you attend a daily Mass if you, personally, were unable to receive Holy Communion for whatever reason?" Many of them said no, they wouldn't because the Mass is a meal and they wouldn't "get anything out of it" if they went but didn't receive Communion.

This notion of the Mass as a communal meal is quite common. It's not an error but a half truth. To be sure, there is a meal aspect to the Mass. Christ offered his Body and Blood to his Apostles at the Last Supper. The writings of the saints and Church Fathers are rife with metaphors of the heavenly banquet, of the food along the way (Viaticum), and the bread of angels. But we must not place the secondary aspect of the Mass into the primary place. Consider: it is permissible to receive Communion outside the context of the Mass such as administering the Last Rites to the dying or simply bringing Communion to the homebound. However, it is gravely sinful for a priest to confect one or both species of the Eucharist outside of the Mass. Why do you suppose that is?

Even the name for the Mass can change to reflect our focus on the meal aspects. We speak of the Celebration of the Mass, or the Eucharistic Celebration, or the Paschal Mystery. Again, to be clear, none of these are wrong but it is possible to err by omission here. It is first and foremost the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Ask yourself: why do you go to Mass at all? The formal cause, as the Scholastics would say, is because the Church says we must. But what is the final cause, or telos, or ultimate goal for going to Mass? It is not to receive Holy Communion.

The Mass is the unbloody propitiatory representation of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary to God the Father. Representing Christ's sacrifice is pleasing to God for the remission of our sins, both those Christians in the Church Militant on earth and the Church Suffering in Purgatory. All of this comes right from the Offertory prayers in the Traditional Latin Mass:

"Accept, O Holy Father, Almighty and eternal God, this spotless host, which I, Your unworthy servant, offer to You, my living and true God, to atone for my numberless sins, offenses and negligences; on behalf of all here present and likewise for all faithful Christians living and dead, that it may profit me and them as a means of salvation to life everlasting."

Similarly, the canons of the Council of Trent speak of the sacrificial nature of the Mass:

CANON I.--If any one saith, that in the mass a true and proper sacrifice is not offered to God; or, that to be offered is nothing else but that Christ is given us to eat; let him be anathema.

CANON III.--If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a [Page 159] bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits him only who receives; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema.

CANON VIII.--If any one saith, that masses, wherein the priest alone communicates sacramentally, are unlawful, and are, therefore, to be abrogated; let him be anathema.

The reception of Holy Communion is distinct from the sacrificial aspect of the Mass. God is pleased by the sacrifice regardless of whether anyone receives our Blessed Lord in Communion, hence private Masses being much more common before the Second Vatican Council, and concelebration almost unheard of outside of priestly ordinations. Receiving Communion is for our benefit unto life everlasting. The Church has long exhorted us to frequently receive our Blessed Lord provided we are properly disposed. However, if we focus exclusively on the benefits we get from receiving Communion and speak not at all of the unbloody Sacrifice of the Mass, then it's to be expected that the people will eventually come to regard the Mass as nothing but a communal meal, as an exercise in community building. We go to Mass to offer God the praise, love, and thanksgiving that are his due. The ultimate reason why we go to Mass is to participate in the Sacrifice which is pleasing to God and is a propitiation for our sins and the sins of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. The Second Vatican Council said that the Mass is the source and summit of the Christian life. Pope St. Pius X urged us to not just pray at Mass but to pray the Mass. By putting too much emphasis on the act of receiving Communion, are we not focusing on ourselves and not on God? It is not a question of either/or; it's both/and. The Mass is both a sacrifice and the heavenly banquet. But first things first.

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