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The Holy Eucharist: History of the Mass, part one Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

By Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB

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This is the first of a four-part series on the Eucharist.

To begin our reflections on the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, it would be valuable to first look at the history of the celebration of this central sacrament of our Faith. Such an historical view will give perspective on the celebration in our time.

Recently, there have been changes in the translation of the texts of Holy Mass. A generation earlier, there were changes in a number of the elements that may have upset some people.

A good sense of the history of Holy Mass can be a great help for these people to grasp what the contemporary Church is doing with regard to this holy sacrament. And thus, a sense of history should help us to renew our faith in the essentials of Holy Mass. What this means is that we are challenged to clothe those essentials with reverence and with sensitivity to the symbolism involved in each part of Holy Mass.

The problem for this writer is that the history of Holy Mass is very long and detailed. It is hoped that this very abbreviated presentation will help readers understand the Holy Mass as we have it today and not lead to confusion.

Interested in learning more about the Mass?

Abbot Marcel Rooney's DVD series, “Reflections on Holy Mass” may be ordered through the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music, and Art via the institute’s Web site at www.OrateInstitute.org or by phone at 608-203-6735.

The New Testament

Jesus did not memorialize the Temple or Synagogue worship of his times. Rather, He chose to memorialize in a new way the Jewish Passover service and meal. The meaning of the Passover for Him and His Jewish disciples was very rich and profound. It was a memorial of their people’s liberation from physical slavery in Egypt; it entailed the sacrifice of a lamb.

What Jesus did at the Last Supper was offer His disciples a new kind of liberation — from the spiritual slavery to sin to which every person is subjected. Further, He offered a new sacrifice, with Himself being the Lamb of God, Whose sacrifice on the Cross would bring the whole world salvation.

Jesus clearly meant this ritual to be continued, perpetuated throughout time. For He asked His disciples to continue doing it in remembrance of Him. That is the origin of our Holy Mass: the very action of the Lord, which is perpetuated in the Church down through the ages, using the very words of Jesus.

First generations of disciples

The disciples did indeed continue the memory of Jesus. While they remained Jewish, they added the Memorial Supper as part of their worship; and, they changed their main day of worship from the Sabbath to the Sunday — so significant in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus.

To get a snapshot picture of the gatherings, we have the witness of Acts 2:42ff: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles . . . to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Every day they met together in the temple area and they had the breaking of the bread in their homes . . .” This “Breaking of the Bread” was the memorial service of what Jesus had done at the Last Supper.

When the Church spread to the Gentiles, those first converts also carried on the Lord’s Supper. However, some of them, because of their weak faith, needed correction as to the spirit they showed when recalling the memory of the Lord. Thus, St. Paul has to write to his Corinthian converts: “I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you . . . (If that is true), then when you meet in one place it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper . . . Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the Body and Blood of the Lord. . .” (1 Cor 11:17ff).

Second and third centuries

In the middle of the second century, we have the witness of St. Justin to describe what the “meetings” of the Christians looked like. Here we begin to see emerging a structure for the Eucharistic celebrations of the future. To summarize Justin’s witness:

“a) Gather on Sundays; b) read the writings of the apostles or prophets; c) the president of the group gives an instruction; d) then all rise and pray together; e) then bread, wine, and water are brought forward and the president offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, to which all answer Amen; f) then distribution to each, with a portion being sent to those absent, and some reserved for the poor and needy.”

So we can see here: a Liturgy of the Word, including sermon; Common Prayer; a kind of Eucharistic Prayer over the bread and wine brought to the president; Communion by all, both those present and those absent.

By the third century, fixed formula for the Eucharistic Prayer over the Offerings begin to appear — which means the president will no longer have to make up the leading prayer “to the best of his ability” but rather can follow these formulas.

Hippolytus of Rome is witness of this new process. It is accompanied by an important change in the tradition: the community prayer began to be more and more in Latin, being translated from the original Greek coming from apostolic times.

Thus, the external forms of Holy Mass were changing, even if the core reality of Jesus’ gift to us His disciples at the Last Supper was unchanged.


Abbot Marcel Rooney, O.S.B., is president of the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music and Art, resident in the Madison Diocese. The Institute is devoted to helping people understand more and pray better the sacred liturgy.