In this and the following chapters we shall see how the various parts of the Mass have been developed and modified during the nineteen centuries of the Church’s history. There is not much in the New Testament to tell us of the ceremonies of the Mass among the first Christians. Nearly all of them, at first, were of the Jewish race, and at their assemblies they undoubtedly did as they had been accustomed to do in the solemn ritual of Israel. There were readings from the holy books and from the letters (or Epistles) of the Apostle Paul; sermons were preached and explanations of Christian teaching were given; psalms and hymns were sung; prayers were said publicly for “the brethren” and for others; and collections of alms were made for the poor. Thus we see that church collections are no modern innovation. The Christians of Apostolic times were required to make their offerings on Sundays, even as we of this later day. Such were the elements of what was called in those times the Communion, which we now call the Mass; and this service was usually held on Sunday, the first day of the week, instead of on Saturday, thereby distinguishing it from the Jewish worship of the Temple and synagogue.
The people prayed standing, with uplifted hands. The men had their heads uncovered, the women were veiled. There was a “kiss of peace” and a public profession of faith — details which have endured even to our day, for the kiss of peace is given at solemn Masses, and the Creed, said at many Masses, is the formula by which our faith is declared.
The First Prayers and the Introit. Let us now take up the various important parts of the great Sacrifice and indicate briefly the origin of each. The prayers said by the priest at the foot of the altar are the latest part of all. They were, in the Middle Ages, merely a private preparation for Mass, made by the priest before he approached the altar, and expressive of his trust in God and his consciousness of his own unworthiness. It became a recognized part of the Mass only when the Missal was revised by St. Pius V in 1570.
The Introit, first matter read by the priest when he goes up to the altar, was originally a processional psalm chanted as the celebrant and his attendants entered the sanctuary. Later on, when this chanting was no longer used, the first verse only was retained and became a part of the Mass. It varies from day to day, and nearly all the Introits of the older feasts go back to St. Gregory the Great.
The Incensing and the Kyrie. The offering of incense in sacrifices was common both in pagan and Jewish worship, and its use in Christian rites goes back almost to the beginning of the Church. It was used at the tombs in the catacombs, in processions, and (somewhat later) at the altar. St. Ambrose, writing in the year 397, speaks of it as in use at the Mass; and not long after ward suitable prayers were assigned for the incensings. The Roman rite permits it only at Solemn Masses and, in some parts of the world, at ordinary High Masses.
The “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”) is Greek, and is the only formula in that language that is used in our Latin Mass. However, it does not go back to the time when Mass was celebrated only in Greek — namely, the first and second centuries. It came into use in the East, and is a fragment of a kind of litany which was recited by all present. The words “Kyrie eleison” are now said alternately by the priest and the server, three times in honor of God the Father; the “Christe eleison,” likewise three times in honor of God the Son; and the “Kyrie eleison” again three times, to God the Holy Ghost — the whole thus forming a beautiful prayer to the Blessed Trinity.
The Gloria. This sublime canticle of praise, known also as the Angelic Hymn and as the Greater Doxology, is a translation of a very old Greek hymn. It was originally a morning prayer, addressed to the Trinity. It began to be used in church services at an early date; by some its introduction is attributed to Pope Telesphorus, about the year 130. It was at first sung on Christmas Day only, being an amplified form of the song of the angels at Bethlehem. Later it was extended to other days, to feasts of joy only. Up to the eleventh century it could be used by bishops only, except at Easter. It is said in nearly all Masses except those expressive of sorrow or penance — being omitted in votive Masses, however, excepting that of the Angels.
The Collects. These are the prayers said or sung immediately after the Gloria, or after the Kyrie if the Gloria has been omitted. They are called Collects because the meeting of the clergy and people was known in ancient times as a “collecta” or “collectio” — an assembly. Their history goes back many centuries; the ancient Ritual known as the Leonine Sacramentary contains many of those we now use. They express man’s dependence on God, with petitions for help and security. The same prayer is used by the priest in his Office as in the Mass of the day, and is thus repeated many times. In the Mass it is said standing, with uplifted hands, the ancient attitude of prayer.
The Epistle. We use this name for the reading that takes place in our Mass shortly before the Gospel; but the word is sometimes inaccurate, for this reading is not always from the Epistles of the New Testament. Quite frequently it is taken from other parts of the Bible, such as the books of Exodus or Wisdom, the Acts of the Apostles, etc. As stated already, Epistles were read at the Mass in the days of the Apostles.
Between the Epistle and the Gospel come short readings, varying according to the day and the season of the year. These are the Gradual, Alleluia, Tract and Sequence. They were originally psalms, sung as part of the sacred service, and after a time were shortened to a few verses in most cases. The Gradual takes its name from the word “gradus,” meaning an elevated step, because in the Middle Ages a chanter intoned the first verse of the psalm from a platform called the “ambo,” half-way down the church.
The Sequences. The Sequences, medieval hymns, were once very numerous, but the reformers of the Missal at the time of the Council of Trent abolished all but five of them. These five are among the most perfect specimens of Latin poetry. That of Easter, “Victimae Paschali,” was written by a priest named Wipo, about 1048, and was possibly at first a part of a “mystery play” depicting our Lord’s Resurrection.
The great Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, in 1274, composed a complete Office for the new feast of Corpus Christi, including the Sequence “Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem” (“Praise the Saviour, O Sion”). The “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” was probably written about 1306, by a certain Jacopone da Todi. It is used as a Sequence on the two feasts of the Seven Dolors, and has furnished the text for several great musical compositions, notably that of Rossini. The “Veni, Sancte Spiritus,” used at Pentecost, is at tributed to Robert, king of France, who died in 1031. And lastly, the Church has kept in her Requiem Masses the magnificent poem on the Day of Judgment, the “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”), written in the thirteenth century by Thomas of Celano — the finest example of sacred poetry.
The Gospel. The selections from the Gospels, read at Mass, are very often appropriate to the feast or to the spirit of the season, although on some Sundays and festivals they would seem to have been chosen at random. Much of the present arrangement is attributed to St. Jerome.
At a Solemn Mass the Gospel is chanted by the deacon; at a low Mass it is read by the priest. Why is it read on what we call the “Gospel side” of the altar or sanctuary? Because in ancient times the right-hand side of the church (looking towards the altar) was occupied by the men of the congregation, and the Gospel was read by the deacon, facing them, from a platform called the “ambo,” on the opposite side of the church. The “devout female sex” seems to have been of lesser importance in those distant days. And then, as now, all stood as a mark of respect for the sacred Word of God.
The Sermon and the Creed. The priest who preaches to his people after the Gospel on Sunday morning is following the example of his predecessors in all ages back to the Apostles, and performs what is really an element of the liturgy itself, especially if his sermon is an explanation of the Gospel. Protestantism lays great stress on preaching, for it has little else — but the Catholic Church has combined preaching with her beautiful liturgy from the earliest ages, fulfilling her divine mission of teaching all nations.
All the various liturgies of the Church now contain a Creed, often said at Mass; but this is a late addition to the ritual of the Holy Sacrifice. Originally Creeds were used only at Baptism as a profession of faith, and the one called the Apostles’ Creed still keeps its place in the baptismal rite.
The Creed now used in the Mass is called the Nicene, because it was largely drawn up by the Council of Nice or Nicaea, in the year 325. Its use in the Eucharistic Sacrifice began in Spain in 589, and at first it was said after the Consecration. Its use after the Gospel was ordered in 1014 by Benedict VIII.
It is not said in all Masses, being omitted on the feasts of martyrs, confessors and female saints (except the Blessed Virgin and St. Mary Magdalen), on vigils, and in votive and Requiem Masses.