Sunday, June 30, 2013

Soundbites about Liturgy

Unless you have a special session with children at a camp or Sunday School, you are unlikely to need to explain the mass to them in full.  And I don't recommend it as it takes up too much attention span.

What I would suggest is that you use the little factoids below to explain snippets to the children when the need or the question arises.  Most of them are in the form of little stories, 2-minutes soundbites if you wish to call them that.  As with so many other facets of talking to children, being properly equipped is the path to having the confidence in facing children's questions.

Is it possible to memorise all these below, I have often been asked.  Well, you need to love the liturgy.  It has been handed to us for over two thousand years, stretching back through the times of Jesus to its Jewish origins.  With that it has gathered its richness and also some quaintness along the way.  The Church has been rather masterful in interpreting some rather mundane everyday practices in very spiritual light.

When you next attend mass, stop at the various points and see the story and the history behind the actions taking place.  I assure you that you will find your experience all the more richer when you realised how they link back to actions of so many others who have gone before us in faith, to take the same sustenance at mass albeit sometimes in very different ways.

While many of these can be gathered from books on liturgy, most of which I find very unfortunately dry.  Definitely not for kids.  Laying them out the way I did, I hope to convey on at least a little bit of that wonder and interest in the mass.  So read on and tell me if it helps & whether you need more.

Basic structure
The basic structure of the mass, though it has evolved through the centuries, is actually quite simple.  It consists of the two liturgies, the Liturgy of the Word followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  To begin the mass, we have the Introductory Rites preceding the Liturgy of the Word, while to end the mass, we have the Concluding Rite.  In addition to the four parts, the Order of Mass also includes the Communion Rite, which the General Instructions to the Roman Missal treats as part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist and I will do likewise.

Introductory Rites
The introductory rites gather the people and prepare them to listen to the word of God and the worship that will follow.

Entrance hymn

Also known as a gathering song, it opens the celebration and accompanies the celebrant and the ministers into the church.


On reaching the altar, the priest and the ministers reverence the altar by bowing to it.  The priest, and deacon if there is one, kisses the altar and may incense it.  The priest directs his kiss to the altar stone(Each altar has a small box near the middle towards the priest’s position, where a slab of stone, the altar stone, can be fitted.  The altar stone is inscribed with five crosses, for the five wounds of Jesus and contains the relic of a saint.  A relic is a piece of bone, hair, etc associated with that saint.)


The priest, or deacon, greets the community with “The Lord be with you”.  This used to be the method of greeting during the Middle Ages in Europe, similar to the “Hello” of today.  Through this greeting, the priest declares Jesus’ presence among us.  The people’s respond in the old Latin mass was literally, “And with your spirit”, which laden it with much meaning. With this also, we all agree that Christ is now present in the gathering.

The priest and the community then make the sign of the cross, to which the community responds with Amen. Amen means ‘I agree’, not 'I believe' as is so often mistakenly propagated.  This is followed by a short introduction to the mass.

Penitential rite

The priest then invites the community to a communal confession, after which everybody receives a general absolution.  This could be in the form of the “I Confess”, followed by the “Lord, have mercy”, or it could be an expanded “Lord, have mercy” by itself.  

The “Lord, have mercy” dates back to fourth century Antioch and is unique in that it was the only part in the old Latin mass that retained its Greek language of origin. "Kyrie eleison" is Greek, not Latin.

The penitential rite answers Jesus’ injunction to reconcile ourselves with our brothers and sisters before approaching the altar  (Mt 5:24).


This fourth century hymn is used to praise the Father and the Lamb, but is not sung during Advent and Lent.  It reflects the songs that the angels sang to the shepherds when Jesus was born.

Opening prayer

The priest then invites the community to an opening prayer, also called the collect, which is specific to the Sunday being celebrated.

Liturgy of the Word

Before the Second Vatican Council, the Liturgy of the Word was seen as the lesser part of mass when compared to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Today, liturgical developments have been such that we treat them both as equals.  Where formerly there were only two readings, one from the Letters in the New Testament and the Gospel reading, there is now three, including a reading from the Old Testament.  Where the readings run in annual cycles, they now run in three year cycles.


The form of this liturgy follows very much that of the Jewish synagogue service, from which it descends.  The readings are read by one or more readers, or lectors, from the reading desk, or ambo.  The response to the first two readings should be a period of silence to reflect on the readings, but is rarely achieved.

First reading and the Responsorial psalm

This is normally from the Old Testament, or from the Acts of the Apostles during the season of Easter.  The readings are chosen to relate to the Gospel reading.

The psalms, as a response to the reading, follow a verse-and-response format and are chosen to fit the readings.

Second reading

The epistles have a sequence independent of the Gospel reading and therefore do not relate to the other readings,  except during the great feasts and the seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas.


The Gospel is greeted by an acclamation. Alleluias (Hebrew for Praise God) are sung except during Lent, when the Glory and Praise is sung instead. 

As a mark of respect for the Gospel, which represents Christ, we receive the Gospel standing up.  In the Greek Church, they even have a little procession to emphasise that.


The introductory dialogue between the priest and the community has much significance.  To the priest’s greeting, the community responds: And with your spirit”.  Then, the priest introduces the Gospel and the community responds: Glory to you Lord Jesus Christ”.  Note that the ‘you’ in the two responses are directed at different persons.  In the first, it refers to the priest, while in the second, it refers to Jesus.  This underlines the presence of Jesus when the Gospel is read.  It is no longer the priest we hear, but Jesus.

The sign of the cross we make during the second response is the older form of the more conventional sign normally used.  Being less overt, it was a more discreet way of identifying oneself during times of persecution as a Christian to others who know what the sign means.  I sometimes tell the children that making the sign of the cross is a silent prayer.  The one before the Gospel says "Lord, when I hear your word, let me think good thoughts (cross on the forehead), let me say good words (lips) and let me feel love (chest)."


The sermon by the priest or deacon that follows will explain the readings.

Profession of faith

There are two forms of the profession of faith: the shorter ‘I believe’ and the longer ‘We believe’, which we sometimes use at big feast days.  The ‘I believe’, or the Apostles’ Creed, is a profession of faith originally developed for baptism, while the ‘We believe’, or the Nicene Creed, was a dogmatic statement of faith promulgated by the Church in the year 325.  Because of its association with baptism, the Apostles Creed is more commonly used during the Easter season.  Outside of mass, the Apostles Creed is used to start off the Rosary.

The profession of faith is a way the community agrees to the Word of God heard.

Bidding prayers

Prayers are said for various intentions of the faithful.  Where possible, intentions are called out by individual members of the congregation, and the community lifts them up with a response directed at God.

These prayers are sometimes called the Prayers of the Faithful.  This implies that those who are not members of the faithful, i.e., the unbaptised may not participate in it.  Indeed, in the early church catechumens were required to pray apart from the baptised.

Liturgy of the Eucharist

Sometimes called the Liturgy of the Faithful, it used to be open only to the baptised.  The catechumens were only allowed to attend the Liturgy of the Word, or the Liturgy of the Catechumens as it was otherwise called.  Catechumens were dismissed before the bidding prayers, or later after.  This dismissal gives rise to the word missa, the Latin word for mass, from where we derive our English word.

Preparation of the altar

The altar is prepared and mass vessels are brought on.  A ciborium with bread, a chalice with wine, a small jug of water and a corporal.  The corporal is a square piece of linen cloth, one which the bread and wine are placed.  The word comes from a Latin word, meaning “body”.


Getting the mass vessels onto the altar normally involves a procession.  This procession is not the offertory.  Symbolic gifts are sometimes presented as well.  In the Middle Ages, gifts for charity, the church and the priests are brought up instead of the money that we present today.  It is normal then to see eggs, pigs, wheat and the like in the procession.


After receiving the gifts, the priest places them on the altar.  He mixes some water with the wine to signify the mingling of the human nature with the divine and offers up the bread and wine in prayer to God.  This is known as the offertory.

The priest then washes his hands with a little jug and a small towel from the side table.  It is thought that this practice is a leftover from the days of having to wash after handling the eggs, pigs, wheat and the like during the presentation of gifts.  The priest then invites the community to pray over the gifts.

Eucharistic prayer
At a normal Sunday mass, there is a choice of four eucharistic prayers.  The first is a translation from the old Latin mass, also called the Canon.  The second, third and fourth are recent adaptations of a third century eucharistic prayer, the old Latin Canon and a Greek liturgy respectively.  The form of the second and third eucharistic prayers, which are the ones most commonly used, is outlined below.  The first and the fourth eucharistic prayers differ slightly from it. 

The eucharistic prayer begins with an introductory dialogue, followed by a preface (Interestingly, preface here does not mean ‘the passage before’ but comes from a Latin word, meaning ‘to proclaim aloud’) before the acclamation Holy, Holy is sung. The Holy Holy dates back to the third century and has two parts, the first coming from Isiah and the second from Matthew on Jesus' entry into Jerusalem.

This leads into the institution narrative, the words of which will always be the same for all eucharistic prayers.  The institution narrative is a reliving of the saving action of Jesus.  The key words of “Do this in memory of me” is a weak form translation of the Latin commemorationem.  We are called to experience for ourselves the salvation effects of Christ’s actions.  You must remember that in those days there were no photographs and such reliving is the Christian's way of recalling without photos.

The memorial acclamation is sung by the community to express its faith in the mystery of salvation.  After a memorial prayer, the priest completes the eucharistic prayer with intercessions for the Church, for those who have died and for us.

The eucharistic prayer concludes with the doxology (Greek word, meaning “praise”) “Through him, with him, in him”.  Our response is Amen, also known as the ‘Great Amen’.  This ‘Amen’ is our agreement to what the priest had prayed for in the entire eucharist prayer.  That is why St Jerome, a papal secretary in about the year 386, said “All Rome quakes when the Great Amen is sung”.

Communion rite

This begins with the Our Father, recited or sung by all.  Formerly it was recited during mass only by priest.

The Lord’s Prayer spills into the prayer for peace.  The people’s response in the early church was to exchange the kiss of peace.  In more conservative societies, a handshake may be more appropriate.  I think we should do at least a handshake - it makes the fellowship more meaningful.

After this, the altar is prepared with the bread and wine. The bread must be unleavened and the wine must be fruit of the grape, according to Canon Law.  Consecrated bread is brought out from the tabernacle, a little cabinet normally located on the wall behind the altar and where leftover consecrated bread is kept at the end of the mass.  A red light is lit at the side of the tabernacle to indicate the presence of consecrated bread in the tabernacle

The bread is then broken in the action that gave the mass its early name.  A small piece of bread is broken and conmingled into the wine to represent reunion of Christ’s body and blood after his resurrection.  The Lamb of God, a seventh century hymn is sung during the breaking of bread.

The reception of communion by all the baptised present is a recent revival early last century.  Formerly, many Catholics receive communion once a year.  Sight of the elevated bread and wine was deemed sufficient to replace the reception of communion. 

We respond to the minister’s “Body of Christ” with an Amen to agree not just that what is held before us is indeed the Body of Christ, but also that we and all those present, are part of the Body of Christ.  After receiving communion, the thanksgiving prayer is said.

After everyone has received communion, the priest and his assistants will place any remaining hosts into the tabernacle and consume any remaining wine.  Sometimes, remaining bread are also consumed.  Clearing the chalice of wine can be rather elaborate, using water to ensure no bread and wine remains.


Concluding rite

To conclude, the priest says the closing prayer and blesses the community.  Sometimes, a triple blessing is invoked, especially on feast days.  After he dismisses the people, he kisses the altar and leaves with the ministers.