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The Mass Is What We Do


"This is an ingenious, deeply satisfying exploration of the Mass — its history, its elements and its meaning. The authors blend the best of priestly and lay wisdom about the central act of Catholic worship into a volume that is simultaneously rich in detail, wonderfully readable in style, and a marvelous resource for nourishing one's faith." - Archbishop Charles J. Chaput


The Mass is what Catholics do.  It's the heart of Catholic life, for individuals and for the community.

A Catholic may fill up hours with devotional prayers and volunteer service, public witness, and almsgiving.

A parish may sponsor a school and a soup kitchen, a scouting troop and several Bible study groups.

The Mass, however, is the heart that gives life to all of it.  Our tradition describes the Mass beautifully as "the source and summit of the whole Christian life."  Catholicism means many things to the world.  It has inspired the art and architecture of the great masters.  Our sanctuaries have echoed with masterworks of music.  Our saints have served the poorest of the poor.  Yet all these things we trace back to a single source: the Mass.

Catholics think of the Mass as synonymous with the parish church.  Whether we say "I went to church" or "I went to Mass," we mean the same thing.  Even if we do many other things at our church, the Mass is what the building was made for.  To "go to church" is to go to Mass.  This is true for every Catholic.  When the pope travels to distant lands, the news media pay close attention — and the world watches as he simply does what Catholics do: he celebrates Mass, sometimes for a congregation of hundreds of thousands of people.

Yet such a large-scale event is no greater than the usual Mass in an ordinary parish.  It is the same, in its essence, as a Mass that a military chaplain offers on the hood of a Jeep during a lull in a battle.

The Mass is the most familiar and recognizable element of the Catholic faith; and still it is also the most enigmatic.  In the Mass we see postures, gestures, and items of clothing that would seem out of place anywhere else.  We hear words that hint at deep and ancient mysteries.  Even the more familiar words sometimes mean something quite different from their meaning in ordinary usage.

The words, the vestments, and the gestures of the Mass took their origins in times long past.  Nevertheless, they hold infinite meaning for Catholics today.  For we believe that the Son of God took flesh and became man in a particular time and place, and that he used the language and culture of that time and place to convey truths that speak to every age and nation.  Jesus insisted on this point; and so, "on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.'  In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

He said, "Do this," and so this — the Mass — is what we Catholics do.

We find the experience more rewarding, however, when we understand the Mass as we pray it. And that's the reason for this book.

We find the experience more rewarding, however, when we understand the Mass as we pray it.  And that's the reason for this book.

In the chapters that follow, we'll look at all the elements that go together to make up a typical Mass.  We'll define some basic terms.  We'll outline the parts of the ritual.  We'll look at each and every part from up close.  We'll examine the prayers.  We'll discuss the vessels and the vestments used in the ritual.  We'll speak a bit about doctrine.  We'll trace some prayers and practices back to their historical and biblical roots.  We'll take a slow walk through the Mass, stopping to see the sights along the way.

It's not a very original idea, we acknowledge.  Saint Cyril of Jerusalem and Saint Ambrose of Milan produced such books in the fourth century.  Great saints have followed suit.  In the last century, many more such books appeared, from authors as great as Monsignor Ronald Knox and Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

Why do Catholics need new books to go over the same ground?  Saint Augustine addressed God as a truth "ever ancient and ever new."  The prayers and signs do come to us from venerable antiquity, and they remain basically the same.  Yet some details change, as the rites make their home in different times and cultures.  We've changed, and so our experience of the Mass has changed.  It's time for us to take a fresh look, from where we sit now — and from where we stand and kneel.



Cardinal Donald Wuerl & Mike Aquilina. "The Mass Is What We Do." The introduction from The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition (New York: Image, 2013): 21-24.

Reprinted with permission of Image Catholic Books.

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The Author

Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the Archbishop of Washington, D.C. He serves on the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Clergy, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Pontifical Council for Culture and is former chairman of numerous committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, including the Committee on Doctrine, and is a member of the USCCB Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis and the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including the  best-selling catechisms, The Teaching of Christ and The Catholic Way. His recent books include, The MassSeek First the Kingdom, Faith That Transforms Us: Reflections on the Creed, New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today and The Church.

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Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and co-host, with Scott Hahn, of several television series on EWTN. He is the author or co-author of, Love in the Little Things: Tales of Family Life, Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians, Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers, The Way of the Fathers: Praying with the Early Christians, and Praying in the Presence of Our Lord: With St. Thomas Aquinas. With Cardinal Donald Wuerl, he is the author of The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home, and The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition. See Mike Aquilina's "The Way of the Fathers" blog here.

Copyright © 2013 Cardinal Donald Wuerl & Mike Aquilina
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