Vol. XX, No. 8
The Mass in Slow Motion
by James F. Hitchcock
Many years ago there was a very popular booklet with this title, at a time when the Mass was entirely in Latin and people needed careful instruction in order to comprehend it. The Mass in the vernacular gives people much easier access to its meaning, but that meaning is so profound that it can never be exhausted, and the very routine of frequent Masses tends to dull people’s attention. Consequently, Adoremus intended to publish a series of expositions of the meaning of the Mass, moving slowly and carefully from one part to another. This first installment culminates with the Gloria. We hope there will be more at some point in the future (See Fr. Pokorsky’s letter)
One of the most dramatic changes in the Mass after Vatican II was the abolition of what were called the “prayers at the foot of the altar.” Upon entering the sanctuary the priest and servers paused at the foot of the steps and engaged in an antiphonal recitation of prayers that were pleas to be made worthy of approaching the holy altar. The priest said the Confiteor, asking God for forgiveness and asking for the prayers of the saints and of “you, brethren,” then the servers repeated the Confiteor in the name of the whole congregation, asking prayers of “you, father.”
The prayers at the foot of the altar were drawn chiefly from the psalms, and from the beginning of the liturgy in apostolic times down to the present, the rite of the Mass has incorporated large amounts of Scripture. (The claim that the Catholic Church neglected the Bible was completely untrue. A perusal of the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, shows him quoting and expounding Scripture continually.)
In perhaps most churches since Vatican II it has become customary on Sundays for the priest to come in procession down the center aisle, but for a long time prior to that — even on the greatest feasts — priest and servers simply came out of the sacristy. Thus while the elimination of the prayers at the foot of the altar diminishes the drama of the priest’s sense of hesitation at approaching that altar, this is partly offset by the procession itself, which dramatizes the fact that he does indeed enter the holy sanctuary from outside, moving from profane to sacred space. (Even when the congregation receives communion standing, the altar rail symbolizes the sacredness of that space.)
As we are so often told, the reformed liturgy does indeed have a more communal, or congregational, character than did the Tridentine rite. The post-conciliar custom of singing an entrance hymn serves the good purpose of involving the congregation even before the Mass has properly begun, but that also means that at most Sunday liturgies the richness of the entrance antiphons — many of them pleas for divine mercy drawn from the Psalms — is lost. It is unlikely that most faithful worshippers at Sunday Mass are even aware of those antiphons’ existence.
After entering the sanctuary the priest genuflects to the tabernacle and reverences the altar, a reminder that the Mass is centered there. He then goes to his chair, where his opening words are the sign of the cross. He and the people make that sign on their bodies, a symbol that is repeated often, to remind the congregation that the Mass is the sacrifice of Calvary and that they are saved through the cross of Christ. As they will do repeatedly throughout the Mass, the people answer “Amen,” a Hebrew word meaning so “so be it,” explicitly making the priest’s prayer their own.
The penitential rite that was once prayed inaudibly by the priest and the servers is now prayed aloud, joined in by the people, all of whom confess their sinfulness and beg forgiveness in the Kyrie and the Confiteor.
The Kyrie (“Lord have mercy”) was the only part of the Tridentine rite that was not in Latin, a survival of the earliest liturgy in Greek. The Confiteor, as part of the “streamlining” of the liturgy that followed Vatican II, now merely invokes the saints in general, not Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, and Peter and Paul by name. The confession has been shortened, but our moral sense has been sharpened, in that we now confess “what I have failed to do” in addition to “what I have done.” Striking the breast three times — an ancient sign of repentance — has been restored in many congregations, after having been given up as part of that same “streamlining.”
An optional rite on Sundays is the blessing of the people with baptismal water. The priest traverses the congregation sprinkling the water, as a hymn is sung. Traditionally this was known as the Asperges, after the Latin chant that begins, “Sprinkle me.” In Lent the chant was Vidi Aquam — “I saw the water.” The rite reminds the people that by their baptism they were washed clean of sin.
The Gloria, which at one time was said or sung by the priest, is now recited in unison or sung by the congregation. It is a rather abrupt change from the penitential spirit of the first part of the Mass, reflecting the fact that, having asked forgiveness for their sins, the people know that they have received it. The Gloria is omitted during the seasons of Lent and Advent, when the spirit of the entire season is penitential.
Once sung as a hymn, the Gloria is an unrestrained outburst of joy, as the congregation lavishes praises on God under some of the many names by which He is known — “Lord God, heavenly King, Son of the Father, Lamb of God, the Holy One, the Most High.” The people joyfully affirm that He takes away the sins of the world.
The Mass began with the Sign of the Cross, invoking the Trinity. So also in the Gloria, God is addressed in His three persons — the Father, Jesus who sits at the right hand of the Father, together with the Holy Spirit. Jesus, the mediator between God and man, is asked to “receive our prayer.”
The Gloria can be heard almost as an act of flattery — lavishing praise on the all-powerful God. But God needs no praise and is not moved by it in any way that would compromise the divine order. When the people shout, “You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High,” they express their joy similar to the way in which human beings feel almost compelled to enumerate repeatedly the virtues of those they love.
Although human beings cannot tell God anything He does not already know, as creatures they are obligated to give thanks to their creator and to acknowledge their dependence on Him. The Gloria is the most intense such acknowledgment.
James Hitchcock is professor emeritus of history at St. Louis University and author of, among other things, The Recovery the Sacred and History of the Catholic Church.
Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy