The Holy Eucharist: History of the Mass, part two Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

By Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB

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This is the second of a four-part series on the Eucharist.
Fourth through Seventh Centuries

With the end of official state persecution, the Church was able to develop in a very different way — and this development was aided by the support of the Roman Emperor, beginning with Constantine I (306-337). This period saw a great deal of adaptation by the Church of religious and secular forms which had been part of Roman culture throughout its pagan history. Here are just two examples:

  • Buildings: the Church took over the pagan basilicas and turned them into churches.
  • Vesture: garments worn by senators and emperors became vestments for the Church’s liturgical celebrations.

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 or by phone at 608-203-6735.

During this period texts were developing for the community’s Prayer — the Eastern Churches had an enormous development of Eucharistic Prayers. In the West, however, in the early fifth century, Pope Innocent I fixed the Eucharistic Prayer, not wanting it to be a spontaneous construction of the celebrating bishop or priest.

This was a period which also saw extraordinary leadership in the Church: Church Fathers such as Ss. Augustine and Ambrose, Ss. Leo and Gregory, St. John Chrsostom, and many others.

It saw theology begin to have more clarification, thanks in particular to the Church’s reaction to heretics, which led to Councils, such as Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, etc. From some of these Councils came new elements for the liturgy — such as the Creeds, those from Nicea (327) and Constantinople I (381) being prime examples.

Seventh Century and early Medieval Period

The texts that had been fixed were now gathered into booklets, and then Sacramentaries. As the Church’s population began to grow in the northern European countries, a new spirit entered from those peoples’ very different cultural backgrounds.

Prayers were composed which spoke of “I offer/confess/believe ...” instead of the more traditional “We offer/confess/believe...” etc. Embellishments were added to the liturgy: the earlier Roman would have been satisfied with a bow to the Lord’s Presence at the Holy Eucharist, but the later north European wanted multiple genuflexions and other signs of reverence.

Bells ringing during Holy Mass appear for the first time in the ninth century. Very important for this period was the development of vernacular languages among the various nations. But the Church did not respond to this new development with translations; rather, the liturgy was kept in Latin — which meant that each century would see the popular participation of the people diminish more and more as they did not know Latin.

Consequently, the liturgy becomes more and more the business of clerics and monks. Once again, we can see the Eucharistic liturgy was changing from its ancient form.

High Medieval Period

This period, again thanks to heresies and orthodox Church reaction to them, saw a new emphasis on the Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. This led to new liturgical expressions, such as the introduction of a feast like Corpus Christi, with processions and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Ultimately this led to creating a service around the Presence of Christ that is completely separation from that of Holy Mass — that of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

During this same period, music developed to a notable degree — both the (Gregorian) plainchant and a new music called polyphony (“many voices” singing the same text but with different melodies). During all this development, active participation by the people in the Prayer and the Action of Holy Mass continued to diminish, to the point of disappearing in great part.

Then came a gradual decrease in receiving Holy Communion at Holy Mass. The high point of Holy Mass became the Consecration of the Sacred Species and its elevation, not the culmination that Holy Communion had once been for the Church.

Indeed, participation became so little that the Church had to make a law demanding that the people go to Holy Communion at least three times a year (later reduced to one time). We can see what an enormous change this was from the earliest apostolic and post-apostolic communities of Faith.


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.