“The liturgy is not about you and I. It is not where we celebrate our own identity or achievements or exalt or promote our own culture and local religious customs. The liturgy is first and foremost about God and what He has done for us.”
Introduction to the Liturgy
Liturgy is the public, communal, and official worship of the Church.
It is public, as a sign of our faith and to the local community. It is communal, which means it isn’t a prayer that you do alone. It is official, which means the Church governs it.
The Eucharist (or Mass) is the central liturgy of the Catholic Church and the basis for most other liturgical celebrations. The other six sacraments of the Church – Baptism, Confirmation, Penance and Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony – have their own liturgical rituals.
The word liturgy is taken from the Greek word liturgia, which means “a public work” or “service on behalf of the people.”
For Christians liturgy means the participation of the People of God in the work of God. Our liturgies are not something we do, but something God does and we participate in.
In the liturgy, God is at work bringing us to our salvation. That is why participation in the liturgy is just as important in having faith in Jesus and avoiding sin and living a moral life.
In the liturgy we learn about the great mysteries of our faith by participating in them. We learn about the mystery of the Trinity by experiencing the Trinity in the liturgy. We learn about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ by experiencing Him as true God and true man. We learn about the Paschal mystery as we participate in the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ through the Eucharist.
“He did not say that men should write a history of it, or even that they should be kind to the poor in memory of Him. He gave them the exact manner in which He wished this sacrifice to be commemorated. The memorial He gave us is called the Mass. It was instituted the night before He died at what has since then been called the Last Supper.”
The liturgy here on earth is modeled after the liturgy in Heaven; that is why it is so serious to tamper with it.
The Biblical Roots of the Liturgy
LITURGY AND THE HOLY TRINITY
The Church’s sacred liturgy is completely Trinitarian. In the liturgy we experience the Holy Trinity at work, and through that experience the mystery of the Holy Trinity is more deeply revealed.
We acknowledge the Father as the source of all blessings. In the Scripture readings and the liturgical prayers, we recall important moments of salvation history in which the Father was at work. We remember and celebrate the Father’s greatest gift to us, the gift of His Son, who gave Himself up for us so that we might be saved.
Jesus Christ plays a central role in the liturgy because He not only gave us the sacred liturgy, He also makes Himself present to us through liturgical celebrations.
Something that makes Christ’s presence real is called a sacrament; thus we say liturgy is sacramental. The Church itself is also a sacrament because it makes Christ’s presence real by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ is present in the assembly, because we are the Body of Christ. He is present in the word of God, the Scriptures. The part of the liturgy in which the Scriptures are proclaimed is called the Liturgy of the Word, and is an essential part of every liturgical celebration.
And in a special way, Christ is present during the Eucharist because His body and blood are present in the bread and the wine.
Thus liturgy is the work of both Christ, the head, and the Church, His body.
It is important that you understand this last point. The liturgy and the sacraments are not just celebrations of past events. They make the saving power of Christ available to us, just as it was available to the original disciples and Apostles.
Remember, Christ is alive! After His Resurrection, He ascended into heaven so space and time would not limit Him and so that He could be available to everyone everywhere. Of course He is close to us all the time, but we have His promise that His presence and power is available in a special way through the liturgy and the sacraments of the Church.
THE HOLY TRINITY
Each person of the Trinity is involved in the liturgy:
- Acknowledgement of Father as the source of our blessings
- Remembrance of important moments of salvation history in which the Father was at work
- Remembrance and celebration of the Father’s gifts to us of His Son
- Presence of Christ through the liturgical celebrations
- Presence of Christ in the people assembled
- Presence of Christ in the Scriptures
- Presence of Christ in the Eucharist
THE HOLY SPIRIT
- Reveals Christ present in the community
- Reveals Christ present in the Scriptures
- Reveals Christ present in the physical signs of liturgical celebrations
- Prepares us for receiving Christ in the liturgy
- Makes the saving work of Christ real
CELEBRATING THE LITURGY
As Catholics we say that we “celebrate” the liturgy, implying that liturgy is something joyful. Even during funeral liturgies and on Good Friday, when people may be grieving and the mood may be somber, an underlying current of hope and joy persists because of our belief in the Resurrection.
“Ite, missa est” (Go, you are sent)
After the blessing, the dismissal gives the liturgy its name, Mass. The liturgy does not simply come to an end. Those assembled are sent forth to bring the fruits of the Eucharist to the world.
THE LITURGICAL YEAR
The Church has a special year, the liturgical year, to mark the celebration of her liturgies. The liturgical year celebrates God’s time, which is eternal and timeless.
Beginning the Church’s liturgical year, Advent (from, “ad-venire” in Latin or “to come to”) is the season encompassing the four Sundays (and weekdays) leading up to the celebration of Christmas.
The Advent season is a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time and also to the anniversary of the Lord’s birth on Christmas. The final days of Advent focus particularly on our preparation for the celebrations of the Nativity of our Lord.
The mood is hopeful anticipation, and the Scripture readings focus on God’s promise to send a savior to deliver us from death. We take life a little more slowly and focus on what we need to do to allow God to more fully enter our heart.
Christmas is one of the most important days of the Church year, second only to Easter itself. It is the feast of the incarnation, the feast of God becoming flesh (the Latin “in carne” means “enfleshment”).
The liturgical season of Christmas begins with the vigil Masses on Christmas Eve and concludes on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. During this season, we celebrate the birth of Christ into our world and into our hearts, and reflect on the gift of salvation that is born with him…including the fact that he was born to die for us. We remember God is with us bringing hope and joy by sharing in our humanity.
Ordinary Time is called “ordinary” because the weeks are numbered. The Latin word ordinalis, which refers to numbers in a series, stems from the Latin word ordo, from which we get the English word order.
Thus, Ordinary Time is in fact the ordered life of the Church—the period in which we live our lives neither in feasting (as in the Christmas and Easter seasons) or in more severe penance (as in Advent and Lent), but in watchfulness and expectation of the Second Coming of Christ (Parousia).
By calling it “Ordinary Time” or “Ordered Time,” we are reminded that human history is part of God’s plan. When He set the sun, moon and stars in place, He also established the natural order of times and seasons. More than that, he did not set the whole natural order running, then step back like the Watchmaker Deity and cease to be involved.
As God brought order out of chaos at creation, so He constantly brings order into history and works in and through the events of history. History is “His story.”
In Lent, the baptized are called to renew their baptismal commitment as others prepare to be baptized through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a period of learning and discernment for individuals who have declared their desire to become Catholics.
The three traditional pillars of Lenten observance are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The Church asks us to surrender ourselves to prayer and to the reading of Scripture, to fasting and to giving alms. The fasting that all do together on Fridays is but a sign of the daily Lenten discipline of individuals and households: fasting for certain periods of time, fasting from certain foods, but also fasting from other things and activities. Likewise, the giving of alms is some effort to share this world equally—not only through the distribution of money, but through the sharing of our time and talents.
The key to fruitful observance of these practices is to recognize their link to baptismal renewal. We recall those waters in which we were baptized into Christ’s death, died to sin and evil, and began new life in Christ.
Holy Week begins a week before Easter Day, on Palm Sunday. During Holy Week we remember the events of the final days of Jesus’ earthly life, beginning with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
The Triduum takes place from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday. Though chronologically three days, they are liturgically one day unfolding for us the unity of Christ’s Paschal Mystery. The single celebration of the Triduum marks the end of the Lenten season, and leads to the Mass of the Resurrection of the Lord at the Easter Vigil.
Holy Thursday (Mass of the Lord’s Supper)– In this liturgy we remember the Last Supper and Jesus’ gift of himself in the Eucharist. A foot-washing ritual is part of the liturgy, reminding us that Jesus calls us to serve one another as his followers. On this day we also recall the institution of the priesthood.
Also referred to as Maundy Thursday, which gets its name from the Latin word mandatum, which means “commandment.”
The Lord Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper as a sign of the new commandment that Christians should love one another: “Such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other. This is how all will know you for my disciples: by your love for one another” (see John 13, 34-35). For centuries the Church has imitated the Lord through the ritual enactment of the new commandment of Jesus Christ in the washing of feet on Holy Thursday.
Good Friday (Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion) – Good Friday commemorates the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. The liturgy is somber, and starts and ends with a bare altar.
The Church celebrates a special liturgy in which the account of the Passion according to the Gospel of John is read, a series of intercessory prayers (prayers for special intentions) are offered, and the faithful venerate the Cross by coming forward and kissing it, showing love and respect in appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice. The Good Friday liturgy concludes with the distribution of Holy Communion. Since there was no Mass, Hosts that were reserved from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday are distributed instead.
Holy Saturday (Mass of the Resurrection of the Lord) – The Easter Vigil Mass, which takes place after sundown on Holy Saturday, properly belongs to Easter Sunday, since liturgically, each day begins at sundown on the previous day. (That is why Saturday vigil Masses can fulfill our Sunday Duty.)
It is the greatest celebration of the liturgical year, recalling and reliving the joy of Christ’s Resurrection. The celebration incorporates rituals of darkness and light, of water blessing, and lots of Scripture reading. But the highlight is the Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion of the catechumens, those people who have been preparing to become Catholic.
Easter and the Easter season are the primary focus of the liturgical year. Easter celebrates the wonder and joy of Christ’s Resurrection, the central mystery of our faith.
Easter Time is the most important of all liturgical times. Easter is the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead, culminating in his Ascension to the Father and sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. There are 50 days of Easter from the first Sunday to Pentecost. It is characterized, above all, by the joy of glorified life and the victory over death, expressed most fully in the great resounding cry of the Christian: Alleluia!
The word “Easter” comes from Old English, meaning simply the “East.” The sun which rises in the East, bringing light, warmth and hope, is a symbol for the Christian of the rising Christ, who is the true Light of the world. The Paschal Candle is a central symbol of this divine light, which is Christ. It is kept near the ambo throughout Easter Time, and lit for all liturgical celebrations.
Fifty days after Easter, we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost. After Pentecost the second period of Ordinary Time continues, until another liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent.
The Mass: Structure and Meaning
The Mass begins with the entrance song. The celebrant and other ministers enter in procession and reverence the altar with a bow and/or a kiss. The altar is a symbol of Christ at the heart of the assembly and so deserves this special reverence.
All make the Sign of the Cross and the celebrant extends a greeting to the gathered people in words taken from Scripture.
The Act of Penitence follows the greeting. At the very beginning of the Mass, the faithful recall their sins and place their trust in God’s abiding mercy. The Act of Penitence includes the Kyrie Eleison, a Greek phrase meaning, “Lord, have mercy.” This litany recalls God’s merciful actions throughout history.
On Sundays, especially in the Season of Easter, in place of the customary Act of Penitence, from time to time the blessing and sprinkling of water to recall Baptism may take place. On Sundays and solemnities, the Gloria follows the Act of Penitence. The Gloria begins by echoing the song of the angels at the birth of Christ: “Glory to God in the highest!” In this ancient hymn, the gathered assembly joins the heavenly choirs in offering praise and adoration to the Father and Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
The Introductory Rites conclude with the Opening Prayer, also called the Collect. The celebrant invites the gathered assembly to pray and, after a brief silence, proclaims the prayer of the day. The Opening Prayer gives a context for the celebration.
Liturgy of the Word
Most of the Liturgy of the Word is made up of readings from Scripture. On Sundays and solemnities, there are three Scripture readings. During most of the year, the first reading is from the Old Testament and the second reading is from one of the New Testament letters. During the Easter season, the first reading is taken from the Acts of the Apostles which tells the story of the Church in its earliest days. The last reading is always taken from one of the four Gospels.
In the Liturgy of the Word, the Church feeds the people of God from the table of his Word (cf. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 51). The Scriptures are the word of God, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In the Scriptures, God speaks to us, leading us along the path to salvation.
The Responsorial Psalm is sung between the readings. The psalm helps us to meditate on the word of God.
The high point of the Liturgy of the Word is the reading of the Gospel. Because the Gospels tell of the life, ministry, and preaching of Christ, it receives several special signs of honor and reverence. The gathered assembly stands to hear the Gospel and it is introduced by an acclamation of praise. During most of the year, that acclamation is “Alleluia!” derived from a Hebrew phrase meaning “Praise the Lord!” A deacon (or, if no deacon is present, a priest) reads the Gospel.
After the Scripture readings, the celebrant preaches the homily. In the homily, the preacher focuses on the Scripture texts or some other texts from the liturgy, drawing from them lessons that may help us to live better lives, more faithful to Christ’s call to grow in holiness.
In many Masses, the Nicene Creed follows the homily. The Nicene Creed is a statement of faith dating from the fourth century. In certain instances, the Nicene Creed may be replaced by the Apostles’ Creed (the ancient baptismal creed of the Church in Rome) or by a renewal of baptismal promises, based on the Apostles’ Creed.
The Liturgy of the Word concludes with the Prayer of the Faithful or the General Intercessions. The gathered assembly intercedes with God on behalf of the Church, the world, and themselves, entrusting their needs to the faithful and loving God.
Liturgy of the Eucharist
The Liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the preparation of the gifts and the altar. As the ministers prepare the altar, representatives of the people bring forward the bread and wine that will become the Body and Blood of Christ. The celebrant blesses and praises God for these gifts and places them on the altar. In addition to the bread and wine, monetary gifts for the support of the Church and the care of the poor may be brought forward.
After the gifts and altar are prepared, the Eucharistic Prayer begins. This prayer of thanksgiving is the heart of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In this prayer, the celebrant acts in the person of Christ as head of his body, the Church. He gathers not only the bread and the wine, but the substance of our lives and joins them to Christ’s perfect sacrifice, offering them to the Father.
After a brief introductory dialogue, the celebrant begins the Preface. The Preface tells of the wonderful actions of God, both throughout history and in our lives, giving thanks to God for all these things. The Preface concludes with the Sanctus in which the whole assembly joins the song of the angels giving praise to the Father in heaven (cf. Is 6:3).
The next major part of the Eucharistic Prayer is the epiclesis. In the epiclesis, the priest asks the Father to send the Holy Spirit on the gifts of bread and wine so that, through the power of the Spirit, they may become the Body and Blood of Christ. This same Spirit will transform those attending the liturgy that they may grow in their unity with each other, with the whole Church, and with Christ.
The prayer continues with the institution narrative and consecration. This part of the prayer recalls the action of Jesus Christ on the night before his death. He gathered with his closest disciples to share a final meal. In the course of this meal, he took the simple bread and wine, blessed them, and gave them to his friends as his Body and Blood. In our Eucharistic celebration, through the words of the priest and the action of the Holy Spirit, simple bread and wine once again become the Body and Blood of Christ.
The Eucharistic Prayer continues with the anamnesis, literally, the “not forgetting.” The people proclaim the memorial acclamation, recalling the saving death and resurrection of the Lord. The prayer continues as the celebrant recalls the saving actions of God in Christ.
The next part of the prayer is the offering. In this part of the prayer, the priest joins the offering of this Mass to the perfect sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. The priest offers this sacrifice back to God the Father in thanksgiving for God’s abundant gifts, particularly the gift of salvation in Christ. The priest also prays that the Holy Spirit may come upon the faithful and by receiving the body and blood of Christ, they themselves may become a living offering to God.
The intercessions follow. Confident in God’s loving care, the gathered assembly makes this sacrifice on behalf of the living and the dead, for the leaders of the Church and for all the faithful.
The Eucharistic Prayer concludes with the Final Doxology. The celebrant makes the prayer through, in, and with Jesus, in union with the Holy Spirit, and presents it to God the Father. The people respond with the Great Amen a joyous affirmation of their faith and participation in this great sacrifice of praise.
The Communion Rite follows the Eucharistic Prayer, leading the faithful to the Eucharistic table.
The rite begins with the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught this prayer to his disciples when they asked how to pray (cf. Mt 6:9-13, Lk 11:2-4). In this prayer, the people join their voices to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom and to ask God to provide for our needs, forgive our sins, and bring us to the joy of heaven.
The Rite of Peace follows. The celebrant prays that the peace of Christ will fill our hearts, our families, our Church, our communities, and our world. As a sign of hope, the people extend to those around them a sign of peace, typically by shaking hands.
In the Fraction Rite, the celebrant breaks the consecrated bread as the people sing the Agnus Dei or “Lamb of God.” John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). The action of breaking the bread recalls the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper, when he broke the bread before giving it to his disciples. One of the earliest names for the Eucharistic celebration is the breaking of the bread.
Before receiving Communion, the celebrant and assembly acknowledge that we are unworthy to receive so great a gift. The celebrant receives Communion first and then the people come forward.
Those who receive Communion should be prepared to receive so great a gift. They should fast (except for medicines) for one hour before receiving the Eucharist and should not be conscious of having committed serious sin.
Because sharing at the Eucharistic Table is a sign of unity in the Body of Christ, only Catholics may receive Communion. To invite all present to receive Communion implies a unity which does not exist.
Those who do not receive Communion still participate in this rite by praying for unity with Christ and with each other.
The people approach the altar and, bowing with reverence, receive Communion. People may receive the Body of Christ either on the tongue or in the hand. The priest or other minister offers the Eucharist to each person saying, “The Body of Christ. The person receiving responds by saying, “Amen,” a Hebrew word meaning, “So be it” ( Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2856).
As the people receive Communion, the communion song is sung. The unity of voices echoes the unity the Eucharist brings. All may spend some time in silent prayer of thanksgiving as well.
The Communion Rite ends with the Prayer after Communion which asks that the benefits of the Eucharist will remain active in our daily lives.
When it is necessary, announcements may be made. The celebrant then blesses the people assembled. Sometimes, the blessing is very simple. On special days, the blessing may be more extensive. In every case, the blessing always concludes “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It is in the triune God and in the sign of the cross that we find our blessing.
After the blessing, the deacon dismisses the people. In fact, the dismissal gives the liturgy its name. The word “Mass” comes from the Latin word, “Missa.” At one time, the people were dismissed with the words “Ite, missa est,” meaning “Go, you are sent. The word “Missa” comes from the word “missio,” the root of the English word “mission.” The liturgy does not simply come to an end. Those assembled are sent forth to bring the fruits of the Eucharist to the world.