A History of Our Catholic Mass


I am Catholic

by Pat Miron and friends

A …. History of our Catholic Mass

Catechism of the Catholic Church

CCC # 1345

As early as the second century we have the witness of St. Justin Martyr for the basic lines of the order of the Eucharistic celebration. They have stayed the same until our own day for all the great liturgical families. St. Justin wrote to the pagan emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161) around the year 155, explaining what Christians did:

“On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place.

The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits.

When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things.

Then we all rise together and offer prayers* for ourselves . . .and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to the commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation.

When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss.

Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. 

He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek: eucharistian) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts.

When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: ‘Amen.’

When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded, those whom we call deacons give to those present the “eucharisted” bread, wine and water and take them to those who are absent.”


“Our Mass goes back, without essential change, to the age when it first developed out of the oldest liturgy of all. It is still redolent of that liturgy, of the

days when Caesar ruled the world and thought he could stamp out the faith of Christ, when our fathers met together before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a God. The final result of our inquiry is that, in spite of unsolved problems, in spite of later changes, there is not in Christendom another rite so venerable as ours.” —–“From roughly the time of St. Gregory [d. 604] we have the text of the Mass, its order and arrangement, as a sacred tradition that no one has ventured to touch except in unimportant details.”

The Early Catholic Liturgy 

The earliest and most detailed account of the Eucharist is found in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, which, of course, predates the Gospels, and was written in Ephesus between 52-55 A.D. Scholars agree that the Consecration formula used by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 11, quotes verbatim from a stylized formula already in use in the Apostolic liturgy. The passage is rich in doctrine. It identifies the Eucharist with the Passion. A new and permanent covenant or alliance is concluded between God and man in the Blood of Jesus. His sacrifice was mystically anticipated at the Last Supper. The Apostles, and implicitly their successors, are commanded to celebrate the Eucharist in His memory; and this remembrance is of such efficacy that it is an unceasing proclamation of His redemptive death, and renders it actually present until the day when He returns in the full glory of His Second coming. The Eucharist is the memorial of the Passion, anamnesis in Greek, and it commemorates the Passion by renewing it in an unbloody manner upon the altar. Finally, great purity of soul is required to take part in a rite as sacred as the offering and reception of the Body and Blood of Our Savior. 

By combining St. Paul’s account with those of the four synoptic Gospels, we have the essentials of the Eucharistic liturgy in every ancient rite. Our Lord took bread, gave thanks, blessed and broke it, and gave it to His Apostles to eat; then He took a cup of wine, again gave thanks [Luke and Paul do not add this second thanksgiving], said the words of Institution [or Consecration] over it, and gave it to them to drink. We thus have the five essential elements for the Christian Eucharist: 1) Bread and wine are brought to the altar; 2) The celebrant gives thanks; 3) He takes bread, blesses it and says the words of Consecration; 4) He does the same over the wine; 5) The consecrated Bread, now having become the Body of Christ, is broken and is given to the people in Communion together with the contents of the Chalice, that is, the Precious Blood. 

A Short History of the Roman Mass

by Michael Davies

Gradual Development of Ceremonies

Although there was considerable liturgical uniformity in the first two centuries there was not absolute uniformity. Liturgical books were certainly being used by the middle of the 4th century, and possibly before the end of the third, but the earliest surviving texts date from the seventh century, and musical notation was not used in the west until the ninth century when the melodies of Gregorian chant were codified. The only book known with certainty to have been used until the fourth century was the Bible from which the lessons were read. Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer were known by heart, otherwise the prayers were extempore. There was little that could be described as ceremonial in the sense that we use the term today. Things were done as they were done for some practical purpose. The lessons were read in a loud voice from a convenient place where they could be heard, and bread and wine were brought to the altar at the appropriate moment. Everything would evidently have been done with the greatest possible reverence, and gradually and naturally signs of respect emerged, and became established customs, in other words liturgical actions became ritualized.

In the first place there were many formulas that occur in the Old or New Testament, that were well known in Jewish services. These were used as liturgical formulas by Christians too. Examples of such forms are: “Amen,” “Alleluia”, “Lord have mercy”, “Thanks be to God “, “For ever and ever”, “Blessed are Thou O Lord our God.” Moreover it will be noticed that extempore prayer always tends to fall into stereotyped formulas A man who prays for the same object will soon begin to repeat the same words. This may be noticed in extempore preaching. The fact that since all early Christian language was saturated with Biblical forms means that it would hardly be possible for the bishop to use different words and forms each time he prayed, even if he tried to do so. And why should he try? So the same expressions recurred over and over again in the public prayers. A formula constantly heard would soon be considered the right one, especially as in some cases [the psalms and Lord’s prayer] the liturgy already contained examples of constant forms. A younger bishop when his turn came to celebrate, could do no better than continue to use the very words [as far as he remembered them] of the venerable predecessor whose prayers the people, and perhaps himself as deacon, had so often followed and answered with reverent devotion.

The Origins of the Roman Rite and its Liturgical Books 

By about the middle of the 4th century there were certainly some liturgical books, How long before that anything was written one cannot say. The first part of the liturgy to have been written appears to have been the Diptychs. The word Diptych is derived from the Greek for twice­folded. A Diptych consisted of two tablets [covered with wax at the beginning] hinged and folded together like a book. On one the names of the living for whom prayers were to be said were written, on the other the names of the dead. These names were then read out by the deacon at the appointed place in the liturgy. Their use, in the East went on till far into the middle ages. Then the lessons were set down in a book. The old custom of reading from the Bible until the bishop made a sign to stop, soon gave way to a more orderly plan of reading a certain fixed amount at each liturgy. Marginal notes were added to the Bible showing this. Then an Index giving the first and last words of the amount to be read is drawn up. Other books were read besides the Bible [lives of Saints and homilies in the Divine Office]; a complete Index giving references for the readings is the “Companion to the books.” comes, liber comitis or comicus. Lastly, to save trouble, the whole texts are written out as they are wanted, so we come to the [liturgical] Gospel­book (evangelarium), Epistle­book [epistolarium], and finally the complete Lectionary [lectionarium]. St. Jerome [324-420] is widely believed to have been commissioned by the pope to select the Epistles and Gospels used for each Sunday of the liturgical year, which have been used since in the traditional Roman Missal. 

5 Meanwhile the prayers said by the celebrant and deacon are written out too.The Canon of the Mass Dates
from the 4th Century

Towards the end of the fourth century St. Ambrose of Milan, in a collection of instructions for the newly baptized entitled De Sacramentis, quotes the central part of the Canon which is substantially identical with, but somewhat shorter than, the respective prayers of the Roman Canon. This proves beyond doubt that the core of our Canon, from the Quam oblationem [the prayer before the Consecration], including the sacrificial prayer after the consecration, was in existence by the end of the fourth century.

The earliest Roman Sacramentaries are the first complete sources for the Roman Rite. These were written in the Latin language which had gradually replaced Greek as the language of the Roman liturgy. Scholars differ as to the precise time when the transition was complete, giving dates from the second half of the third century up to the end of the fourth. Both languages must have been used side by side during a fairly long period of transition.

7 The genius of the Latin language certainly affected the ethos of the Roman Rite. Latin is naturally terse and austere when compared with the rhetorical abundance of Greek. It was a natural tendency of Latin to curtail redundant phrases, and this terseness and austerity are a noticeable mark of the Roman Mass.

The Reform of St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great became Pope in 590 and reigned until 604. His achievements during those fourteen years almost defy credibility. Prominent among the many important reforms that he undertook was that of the liturgy. His pontificate marks an epoch in the history of the Roman Mass, which, in every important respect he left in the state that we still have it. He collected the Sacramentary of Gelasius into one book, leaving out much but changing little. What we now refer to as The Gregorian Sacramentary cannot be ascribed to the Pope himself as, apart from other evidence, it contains a Mass for his feast, but it is certainly based upon his reform of the liturgy and includes some material composed by him.

The keynote of the reform of St. Gregory was fidelity to the traditions that had been handed down [the root meaning of the Latin word traditio is to hand over or hand down]. His reform consisted principally of the simplification and more orderly arrangement of the existing rite—–the reduction of the variable prayers at each Mass to three [Collect, Secret, and Postcommunion], and a reduction of the variations occurring at that time within the Canon, prefaces and additional forms for the Communicantes and Hanc Igitur. These variations can still be found on a very few occasions such as Christmas and Easter. His principal work was certainly the definitive arrangement of the Roman Canon. The Lectionary was also given a definitive form, but was still to undergo considerable change subsequently. The Order of Mass as found in the 1570 Missal of St. Pius [1566-1572], apart from minor additions and amplifications, corresponds very closely with the order established by St. Gregory. It is also to this great Pope that we owe, to a large extent, the codification of the incomparable chant that bears his name

A Sacred Heritage Since the 6th Century 

We have now arrived at the early middle ages. From this time forward there is little to chronicle of the nature of change in the order of the Mass itself which had become a sacred and inviolable inheritance, its origin forgotten. It was popularly believed to have been handed down unchanged from the Apostles, or to have been written by St. Peter himself. Dr. Fortescue considers that the reign of St. Gregory the Great marks an epoch in the history of the Mass, having left the liturgy in its essentials just as we have it today. He writes: There is, moreover, a constant tradition that St. Gregory was the last to touch the essential part of the Mass, namely the Canon. Benedict XIV [1740­ 1758] says: “No pope has added to or changed the Canon since St. Gregory.”

The Protestant Break with Liturgical Tradition

The sound and invariable practice of the Church in the West was breached for the first time by the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers. They broke with the tradition of the Church by the very fact of initiating a drastic reform of liturgical rites, and this would still have been the case even had their reformed liturgies been orthodox. The nature of their heresy was made clear not so much by what their rites contained as by what they omitted from the traditional books. [Emphasis added] In 1898 the Catholic bishops of the Province of Westminster published a scathing denunciation of the liturgical revolution initiated by English Reformers, a revolution which was radically incompatible with the principle enunciated by Canon Smith. The Anglican claims that their services aimed at simplicity and a return to primitive usage were dealt with in very vigorous language. The Catholic Bishops denied the right of national or local churches to devise their own rites.

They must not omit or reform anything in those forms which immemorial tradition has bequeathed to us. For such an immemorial usage, whether or not it has in the course of ages incorporated superfluous accretions, must, in the estimation of those who believe in a Divinely guarded visible Church, at least have retained whatever is necessary, so that in adhering rigidly to the rite handed down to us we can always feel secure; whereas, if we omit or change anything, we may perhaps be abandoning just that element which is essential. And this sound method is that which the Catholic Church has always followed . . . That in earlier times local churches were permitted to add new prayers and ceremonies is acknowledged . . . But that they were also permitted to subtract prayers and ceremonies in previous use, and even to remodel the existing rites in the most drastic manner, is a proposition for which we know of no historical foundation, and which appears to us absolutely incredible. [Emphasis added] Hence Cranmer, in taking this unprecedented course, acted, in our opinion, with the most inconceivable rashness.

History of the Mass

Short History of the Development of the Mass in the past several years

Following the Council of Trent, Pope St Pius V, concerned with some innovations and improper accretions in the Order of the Mass in some areas, reviewed the Roman Missal. When he was finished, he declared that all priests of the Latin Church throughout the World must use the Roman Missal he prepared when they said Mass. They could not add a single word to it, or choose to leave a single word out, without his authority. Only those rites which had already been established for more than two centuries before the date he promulgated the new Missal were allowed to say Mass differently (eg, the Milanese Rite, the Dominican Rite).

And so the Mass changed very little for over 400 years. (Parts of it, such as the Kyrie and the Eucharistic Prayer have remained unchanged for well over 1,000 years!) A few Popes made minor changes to the Missal over time. The Holy Week liturgies were changed in the 1940s. And then, many thought it was sacrilege, Pope John XXIII added the name of St Joseph to the Canon of the Mass (the Eucharistic Prayer). For over 1,000 years, since it had been settled by Pope Gregory the Great, the Canon of the Mass had not been changed. It was considered the untouchable core of the Mass.

Over the last 100 years, there had been considerable momentum in the “Liturgical Movement” calling for reform of the Mass, the possibility, for example, of saying Mass in the local language of the people rather than Latin.

And, of course, the Mass was so very different from the way the Protestants worshipped God.

Then, Pope John XXIII (not content on adding the most chaste spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the Canon) convened the Second Vatican Council. The Fathers discussing the Sacred Liturgy decreed that Latin must remain the language of the Mass and the Church, that Gregorian Chant must retain pride of place in Sacred Music. They said that any reforms that were necessary and could grow organically from the existing form which would allow for greater participation of the laity was to be encouraged. They said that only where the local Bishop considered there were sufficient pastoral reasons could part of the mass be said in the vernacular. There was no permission for Mass to be said with the priest’s back to God rather than facing Him. There was no suggestion that communion could be given in the hand standing. There was no suggestion of almost all reference to the Sacrificial aspect of the Mass being downplayed or removed. There was no suggestion that most references to angels and saints and Heaven should be removed.

After the close of the Council, Pope Paul VI set up a Consilium to prepare a new Mass, to “implement the desires of the Council”. He called a number of Cardinals together to see the new Mass celebrated and to comment. Apparently, favourable comments did not abound. The focus of the Consilium was clearly to reform the Mass far beyond what the Council Fathers had intended or desired. Several Protestant theologians were observers at the Consilium, the intention being that they should be able to say of the new Mass that there was nothing offensive in it to them.

The Holy Father promulgated the New Missal and declared that within a matter of practically a few months, no other Missal could be used without the Latin Church, not even those rites which Pope St Pius V had deemed sufficiently established to be retained. All other ways of saying Mass were banned.

Within a couple of years, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster in England had obtained permission from the Holy Father for any priest in England and Wales to celebrate Mass according to the Roman Missal of 1962

At the commencement of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II sought information from bishops throughout the world on the situation of those who were “resisting” the liturgical reforms. As a result of these reports, the Holy Father, seeking to accommodate the concerns of Archbishop Lefebvre’s followers and others who preferred the pre-conciliar Liturgy authorised an Indult in 1984 allowing a limited permission for the Tridentine Mass to be said. There were quite a few restrictions imposed, however (eg, the Masses could not be said in Parishes).

In 1988, the Vatican and Archbishop Lefebvre signed a Protocol that would see the Holy Father approving the appointment of a bishop of Lefebvre’s choosing in return for Lefebvre and his followers accepting the Church’s Magisterium and that Vatican II and the promulgation of the new Mass were part of it.

Archbishop Lefebvre signed it, but later reneged on the agreement and went ahead and consecrated three bishops illicitly. He, the bishops, any priests of the Society and any members of the faithful who formally adhered to their schism were swiftly excommunicated… and remain excommunicated. The Holy Father, however, issued a motu proprio Ecclesia Dei stating that the aspirations of those who were attached to former liturgical traditions were “legitimate” and that Bishops should be “generous” in allowing Tridentine Masses to be offered in their dioceses. He established a commission whose primary responsibility was to help the faithful to obtain Latin Masses in their dioceses and to facilitate the return to the Church of those who were now in schism.

And return some did… Several priests of the Society soon returned to the Church and at the urging and with the blessing of the Holy Father formed the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, an order of priests with permission to administer the Sacraments solely according to the Missal of 1962. END QUOTE

My NOTE [PJM]: More recently still, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has removed ALL restrictions on saying the Mass in Latin. While it REMAINS the “Extraordinary Form”  [meaning the secondary form for Mass], it nevertheless can be requested and can be said by QUALIFIED and trained priest, without a Bishops authorization being required,

Further, many language changes shall shortly appear restoring the actual meanings of the Original Latin Text, which had been weakened to accommodate the English language.

God less you ALL,





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