Following the recital of the words of our Lord commanding that this “be done in memory of Him,” the next prayer goes on to assure us that we do remember Him always. Mention is made of His passion, resurrection and ascension, thus reminding us of the great events in His life, for which the whole Mass is an expression of thanksgiving.
Why does the priest make the sign of the cross over the Sacred Body and Blood of our Lord? Surely he cannot bless Him who is the source of all blessings. Some writers claim that these signs are not blessings — that they symbolize the Holy Trinity, the five wounds of our Saviour, and so on. A more probable opinion is that the substance of these prayers was originally expressed before the consecration, and that when they were placed in their present position the ceremonies connected with them were retained. The whole Canon is one prayer, asking God to accept the offerings at the altar; and, although the consecration has changed them into the living Presence of Christ, they are still referred to as offerings. These crosses, then, are not a blessing of the Sacred Species, but may be considered as a symbol of the blessings that flow from the Holy Eucharist.
The Commemoration of the Dead. The priest then prays for the souls in Purgatory, remaining silent for a few moments to form his intention as to those souls for which he wishes particularly to pray. In ancient times this was probably before the consecration, after the Commemoration for the Living.
Then the priest prays for those present, raising his voice at the words “Nobis quoque peccatoribus” (“Also for us sinners”), that the people may know that he is praying for them. This prayer brings in a new list of saints, different from those mentioned earlier in the Mass — John the Baptist, Matthias, Barnabas and several martyr-saints, men and women. Tradition says that the female names were inserted by St. Gregory I.
The Canon proper then ends with the sublime doxology “Through Him and with Him and in Him is to Thee, God the Father Almighty, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory”— at which words the priest slightly elevates the Host and chalice. He then says aloud or chants: “Per omnia saecula saeculorum,” and the answer “Amen” completes the Canon.
The Pater Noster. In ancient times, in some parts of the world, the Our Father came later in the Mass, after the Communion. St. Gregory assigned it to its present place. It occurs in every liturgy, for it was always deemed proper that this most sacred of all prayers should be said at the Church’s most sacred service.
It is introduced by a beautiful passage expressing, as it were, our authority for using it: “Advised by salutary precepts and instructed by divine institutions we dare to say: ‘Our Father,’ etc. At the end we have a prayer which is an “embolism,” an amplified form of the last phrase of the Pater Noster, asking deliverance from evil, past, present and future, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, Saints Peter and Paul and St. Andrew. In former times this list of saints varied considerably in different countries.
Shortly after the Pater Noster the priest divides the Sacred Host into three parts, of which the smallest is dropped into the chalice. This is a very ancient ceremony, and has been done in every form of Mass ritual. Why is the small part of the Host put into the chalice? It may be a relic of a common way of mixing bread and wine at meals, as our Lord did at the Last Supper. In its present form the practice dates back to the fourteenth century.
The priest, while holding the small part of the Host over the chalice, says aloud: “May the peace of the Lord be always with you”— which was originally a solemn blessing pronounced by him over the people before Communion.
The Agnus Dei. This threefold petition to the Lamb of God is then said by the priest and at high Masses is sung by the choir. It re-echoes the greeting of St. John the Baptist to our Blessed Lord: “Behold the Lamb of God; behold Him Who taketh away the sins of the world.” It is found in ritual books of the Middle Ages, and is said to have been introduced into the Mass by Pope Sergius I, about the year 700. It was originally sung once by the priest and once by the people; but in the twelfth century the other repetition was added, with the words: “Give us peace.”
The Kiss of Peace. Just before the priest's Communion there are three prayers in the Mass (two in Requiem Masses); and after the first of these, in solemn Masses except those of Requiem, the “Kiss of Peace” is given. This, in ancient times, took place earlier in the Mass, before the beginning of the Canon. It is a sign of fellowship and unity, and is one of the oldest elements of our liturgy, being mentioned by the earliest writers. It is now given by the priest placing his hands against the deacon’s shoulders with the words: “Peace be with you,” while the deacon holds his hands under the arms of the celebrant. It is then transmitted to the subdeacon and to the other clergy present.
The three (or two) prayers are of recent origin, They were once merely private devotions, not included in the prayers of the Mass. After saying them the priest takes the Sacred Host into his hands, saying: “I will receive the Heavenly Bread and will invoke the name of the Lord.” Then he repeats three times the beautiful words of the humble centurion of the Gospel: “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof; but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” These words have not always been used in the Mass, and were only authorized officially in the revised Missal of 1570.
The Communion. Then, saying reverently, “May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ guard my soul into eternal life,” the priest receives the Sacred Host. Uncovering the chalice, he says: “What shall I render to the Lord for all that He hath rendered to me? I will receive the chalice of salvation,” etc.— words which were once merely a prayer of private devotion; and he then receives the Precious Blood.
Then comes the Communion of the people. It seems strange to us to learn that in early centuries the Sacred Host was put into the hand of the communicant. The placing of it on the tongue began in some places about the year 600. In those days, too, one important detail of Holy Communion was different from what we now have: the faithful received “under two kinds”— that is, drinking from the chalice as well as receiving the Sacred Host. This continued almost universally down to the twelfth century, although it was always known and taught that the reception of the Host alone was sufficient for Holy Communion.
According to the ordinary rule and law of the Church, dating back almost to Apostolic times, the faithful are obliged to receive Holy Communion fasting — that is, without having taken any food or drink since midnight. This is always the case when the Communion is received at Mass or in the church; but it may be well to mention here that the faithful may communicate at home as often as twice a week after having taken liquids of any kind, provided that they are unwell and able to fast only with difficulty.
The chalice is then purified and the priest goes to the Epistle side of the altar and reads the “Communion,” so called because it was formerly sung by the choir while the people communicated. This varies from day to day, as is the case with the following prayer or prayers called the “Postcommunion,” which is read or chanted like the Collects earlier in the Mass.
The Dismissal and Blessing. In nearly all the liturgies of the Mass there is a formal dismissal of the people. This is done in our rite by the deacon at solemn Masses, by the priest at others. In the Roman Mass the form has always been as it is now, “Ite, missa est” (“Go, it is the dismissal”) — to which the response is made: “Deo Gratias” (“Thanks to God”). In Requiem Masses the words “Requiescant in pace” (“May they rest in peace”) are used instead — which custom began about the twelfth century; and in certain other Masses the priest (or deacon) says “Benedicamus Domino” (“Let us bless the Lord”) instead of the “Ite, missa est.”
Why do the people not leave the church immediately after the “Ite, missa est”? (Some of them do, and they should not.) Because the Church has added a few other parts to the Mass, in rather recent times. These are the short prayer “Placeat,” originally a private devotion said after the Mass; the blessing, formerly given as the celebrant was passing to the sacristy; and the Last Gospel, from the first chapter of St. John, which was once merely a part of the priest’s prayers after the Holy Sacrifice. All these came to be considered a part of the Mass, and this was finally authorized by St. Pius V in 1570 at the revision of the Roman Missal. On certain days other Gospels are substituted for that from St. John. And then the Mass is ended with the usual pious ejaculation at the end of a reading — “Deo gratias.”