Pope Francis continues his catechesis on matters liturgical in this week’s General Audience…
Dear Brothers and Sisters, good morning!
Today I would like to get to the heart of the Eucharistic Celebration. The Mass is made up of two parts, which are the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic Liturgy, so closely joined between them as to form one act of worship (Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 56; Ordinamento Generale del Messale Romano, 28). Introduced by some preparatory rites and concluded with others, the celebration is, therefore, one body and it can’t be separated; however, for a better understanding, I will try to explain its various moments, each one of which is capable of touching and involving a dimension of our humanity. It’s necessary to know these holy signs to live the Mass fully and savor all its beauty.
When the people are gathered, the celebration opens with the introductory rites, including the entrance of those celebrating or of the celebrant, the greeting – “The Lord be with you,” “Peace be with you,” — , the penitential act – “I confess,” where we ask for forgiveness of our sins –, the Kyrie eleison, the hymn of the Gloria and the Collect prayer: it’s called “Collect Prayer,” not because the collection of the offerings is made there: it’s the collection of the prayer intentions of all the peoples, and that collection of the people’s intention goes up to Heaven as prayer. The purpose – of these introductory rites — is such as to have the “faithful, gathered together, form a community, and dispose themselves to listen with faith to the Word of God and to celebrate worthily the Eucharist” (Ordinamento Generale del Messale Romano, 46). It’s not a good habit to look at one’s watch and say: “I’m on time, I’ll arrive after the sermon and with this I will fulfil the precept.” The Mass begins with the sign of the Cross, with these introductory rites, because there we begin to adore God as a community. And, therefore, it’s important to plan not to arrive late, but rather in advance to prepare one’s heart for this rite, for this celebration of the community.
While normally the entrance hymn is being sung, the priest with the other ministers reaches the presbytery in procession, and here he greets the altar with a bow and, in sign of veneration, kisses it and, when there is incense, he incenses it. Why? Because the altar is Christ: it’s a figure of Christ. When we look at the altar, we look in fact where Christ is. The Altar is Christ. These gestures, which risk passing unobserved, are very significant, because they express from the beginning that the Mass is an encounter of love with Christ, who “offering His body on the cross [. . . ] becomes altar, victim and priest” (Easter Preface V). In fact, the altar, in as much as sign of Christ, “is the center of the thanksgiving that is fulfilled with the Eucharist” (Ordinamento Generale del Messale Romano, 296), and the whole community around the altar, which is Christ: not to look at <faces> but to look at Christ, because Christ is at the center of the community, He’s not far from it.
Then there is the sign of the cross. The priest that presides traces it on himself and the same is done by all the members of the assembly, aware that the liturgical act is carried out “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And here I pass to another very small argument. Have you seen how children make the sign of the cross? They don’t know what they do: sometimes they make a design, which isn’t the sign of the cross. Please: mothers and fathers, grandparents, teach children from the beginning – when very small – to do the sign of the cross well. And explain to them what it is to have Jesus’ cross as protection. And the Mass begins with the sign of the cross. The whole prayer moves, so to speak, in the realm of the Most Holy Trinity – “In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” –, which is the realm of infinite communion; it has as its origin and as its end the love of God One and Triune, manifested and given to us in the Cross of Christ. In fact, His Paschal Mystery is a gift of the Trinity, and the Eucharist always flows from His pierced Heart. Therefore, by signing ourselves with the sign of the cross, not only do we remember our Baptism, but we affirm that the liturgical prayer is the encounter with God in Christ Jesus, who was incarnated for us, died on the cross and rose glorious.
Therefore, the priest addresses the liturgical greeting with the expression: “The Lord be with you” or another similar one – there are several –; and the assembly responds: “And with your spirit.” We are in dialogue; we are at the beginning of the Mass and we must think of the meaning of all these gestures and words. We are entering a “symphony,” in which various tones of voices resound, including times of silence, in view of creating “agreement” among all the participants, namely, to recognize one another animated by one Spirit and by one same end. In fact “the priestly greeting and the people’s response manifest the mystery of the gathered Church” (Ordinamento Generale del Messale Romano, 50). Expressed thus is the common faith and the mutual desire to be with the Lord and to live in unity with the whole community.
And this is a praying symphony, which is being created and presents immediately a very touching moment, because the one who presides invites all to acknowledge their sins. We are all sinners. I don’t know, perhaps one of you isn’t a sinner . . . If someone isn’t a sinner, please raise his hand, so we can all see. But there aren’t any raised hands; ok, your faith is good! We are all sinners and, therefore, we ask for forgiveness at the beginning of the Mass. It’s the penitential act. It’s not only about thinking of the sins committed, but much more: it’s the invitation to acknowledge ourselves sinners before God and before the community, before brothers, with humility and sincerity, as the publican in the Temple. If the Eucharist truly renders present the Paschal Mystery, namely the passage of Christ from death to life, then the first thing we should do is to recognize what are our situations of death to be able to rise with Him to new life. This makes us understand how important the penitential act is. And, therefore, we will take up this argument in the next catechesis. We go step by step in the explanation of the Mass. However, I recommend: please teach the children to do the Sign of the Cross well!
© Libreria Editrice Vatican
Translation from the Italian by Virginia M. Forrester, © ZENIT, www.zenit.org