If someone asked you to explain why Our Lord instituted the Mass, what would you say? Could you tell him why it’s necessary for our right relationship with God [i]?
As a result of the cosmic tragedy of Adam and Eve, the human race is plunged in darkness, misery, and guilt. Each one of us suffers from that tragedy, and we cannot rescue ourselves. This is why we need a savior. Jesus Christ delivered us from the abyss of sin and death by the mysteries of His life and, above all, by His death on the Cross, when He offered Himself to the Father as an infinitely pleasing sacrifice of love. He offers us deliverance from evil and access to eternity in the sacraments of the Church.
Because God is our creator, our redeemer, and our sanctifier, we owe everything to Him. We owe Him a debt of justice and love we can never repay in a manner worthy of His great goodness and His gifts to us. We cannot adore Him or thank Him enough. Most of all, we need to be united with our Redeemer in His sacrifice on the Cross, so that the victory He won for mankind in general may be applied to each one of us in particular. Christ’s victory over sin and death becomes our victory when we are made one with Him.
This is why the Mass is such a masterpiece of God’s wisdom and mercy. In it, Our Lord makes present His sacrifice on the Cross by the offering of the same Body and Blood that were offered up to the Father for our salvation. He collapses the 2,000 years that separate us from Calvary and brings us right to His Cross, His holy wounds, His precious Blood, His pierced Heart.
When we freely unite ourselves to this offering at the hands of the priest, we give to God the glory and honor He deserves, the right worship we owe Him and could never give Him on our own. The Father looks upon us and says: “You have given Me that which pleases Me: My only-begotten Son, in whom I am well pleased.” That is why the Mass is the most perfect prayer, and the most excellent thing we can give to God.
This being so, we can see why it is highly fitting that the custom of a daily offering of the Mass by each and every priest arose in the Catholic Church: such offerings multiply and distribute the effects of this one holy oblation continually across time and space, to all of us needy beings who depend on it for dear life [ii].
Why Do We Attend Mass?
Approaching the question from this vantage, we can better understand a feature of the lives of the saints that would strike modern Catholics as odd — namely, that so many saints assisted at Mass twice a day or even more, and yet laity and religious frequently would not receive communion. King St. Louis IX “heard Mass” (as people commonly said) twice a day. Even priests went to Mass more than once a day: we know from the accounts of the life of St. Thomas Aquinas that he would celebrate his daily Mass with his secretary Reginald serving as acolyte; they then switched places, and Thomas served for Reginald.
This behavior becomes perfectly understandable when we look at it through the lens of Catholic dogma. Since the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice infinitely pleasing to God in itself, to assist at it, joining one’s interior homage to the work of the priest, is a perfect exercise of the most excellent of all moral virtues, the virtue of religion, which honors God as the First Commandment bids us do — and since the Lord Jesus Christ is really, truly, substantially present under the forms of bread and wine, we are also brought into the throne room of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, to pay Him the homage of adoration He deserves (and rewards).
Learning from Monks
In my first visit long ago to the Benedictine monastery of Norcia in Italy, I remember seeing the priest-monks coming out of the sacristy after Lauds to offer their “private Masses” at side altars. Each Mass was served by another monk, who did not receive communion. The laity who quietly gathered around this or that altar, humbly kneeling in silent prayer, also did not receive. Then, a couple of hours later, in mid-morning, the monks celebrated their communal or conventual High Mass with full chant and ceremonial. This was the time when most of the monks and laity communicated.
Increased exposure over time to this medieval rhythm of life in various monasteries taught me to see the early-morning devotional Mass of the priests as a time of intense meditation and spiritual assimilation of the Eucharist, and how this special form of liturgy, taken together with the Divine Office, establishes a deep, abiding, strong foundation for the public, solemn, fully chanted, more “extroverted” offering of the Mass in which the day’s liturgy culminates, like a mountain summit to which one climbs by winding paths. For me this has become an ideal day of prayer (at least when on vacation or on retreat): attending Lauds and the quiet Low Mass, and later, Terce and the High Mass.
In my most recent visit to Norcia (September 2019), I had the privilege of witnessing how the monks observed Ember Saturday, which happened to coincide with the feast of St. Matthew. In the morning, several monks offered silent Masses. After Terce, the community celebrated a Solemn High Mass in red vestments in honor of St. Matthew. Then, after None in mid-afternoon, they celebrated another Solemn High Mass in violet vestments for the Ember Day, chanting the five lessons, all of the graduals, the epistle, and the Gospel. Only after all of this had been completed did the monks go to the refectory for the only meal of the day [iii].
Apart from my amazement that they had not already passed out from so many exertions, I was captivated, edified, and transported by the reverential self-giving manner in which they had dedicated themselves to the worship of God for His great glory (“propter magnam gloriam tuam”), for the honoring of His saints, and for the good of the Church, in a spirit of humble penitence and pleading. Many monks participated that day in three Masses but received communion only once. They were praying because God deserves our prayer, because it is good and health-giving to pray, and because it is absolutely necessary to pray if we and our neighbors are to be saved.
Against Sacramental Reductionism
Without this spirit of prayer exemplified by the monks, receiving Communion can become an almost meaningless ritual, something one “does” because everyone else is doing it. Indeed, Communion can become an occasion for incurring the guilt of contempt of the most holy of all holy things.
Nowadays, if one searches on the internet for “attend Mass twice a day,” the only results that come up are about whether one can receive Communion twice a day. Everything has been reduced to this question alone. The idea that someone might attend Mass twice a day and perhaps not receive at either one is simply inconceivable. This, in my opinion, reflects a massive lack of understanding of what the Mass is, which runs parallel with the lack of understanding of the Real Presence.
Our Lord makes Himself present in the Holy Eucharist for several reasons: first, that we may make a worthy offering to the divine Majesty; second, that we may not be deprived of the strength and consolation of His friendship in our midst; third, that we may partake of Him for the life of our souls. Without downplaying or denigrating frequent Communion, we can still profitably ask ourselves how clearly we see that the Mass is an action of worship necessary, worthwhile, and fruitful in itself.
For two of these reasons alone — that we may exercise the virtue of religion and that we may adore Our Lord with a privileged intimacy — assisting at Mass is the best thing a Catholic can do, even apart from the question of whether or not we may or should receive Communion [iv]. St. Peter Julian Eymard (1811–1868) said: “Know, O Christian, that the Mass is the holiest act of religion. You cannot do anything to glorify God more, nor profit your soul more, than by devoutly assisting at it, and assisting as often as possible.”
Are We Ready for More?
Granted, one has to balance religious observances with one’s other duties in life, but if St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote 50 folio volumes of the most refined scholastic theology, and St. Louis IX, who ruled a kingdom and fought crusades, could each find time for two Masses a day, we would be hard pressed to find a good excuse for not assisting at Mass as frequently as we can — provided, of course, that a truly prayerful and reverent Mass is available in our vicinity.
It’s true that monks, nuns, and friars have certain decisive advantages: being celibate and consecrated to God, their entire life can be built upon and around the liturgy of the Church — both the Divine Office and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. They would have no excuse for not being immersed in the liturgical worship of God. Similarly, royal saints have servants to take care of their basic needs, and they don’t have to worry about earning a living. They, too, have a lot of disposable time on their hands.
Still, it remains true that we — who, through no merit of our own, have received the gift of faith, and who in faith acknowledge the transcendent holiness and righteousness of God and His lawful claims upon all of creation — have a special role to play in the restoration and renewal of this creation as we unite ourselves in prayer to the oblation of the one Mediator between Heaven and Earth. When we assist at Mass devoutly, we are advancing the Kingdom of God: we are agents of the healing and elevation of the world.
All of this is true even before we have taken into consideration the most wondrous of all the Lord’s gifts, whereby He allows us — nay, invites us, if we are properly disposed — to approach with fear and trembling the altar of the “full, final sacrifice” and partake of the all-holy, life-giving mysteries of Christ.
What’s Your Plan for Lent?
In the traditional Roman Rite, the only period of the year that features a special Mass for each day, with proper antiphons, readings, and prayers, is the season of Lent. It was seen as the “time of salvation,” a time calling for much greater earnestness of observance, in our prayer (public and personal), fasting and abstinence, almsgiving, and spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
If at all possible, we should make daily Mass the axis around which our Lent revolves. This is a most practical way to give Our Lord renewed primacy in our lives.
Those who already assist daily at Mass might, for Lent, try to arrive a few minutes earlier than usual or stay a few more minutes afterward, or add — either then, or at another time of day — a portion of the Divine Office, which prepares for and prolongs the fruits of the Mass.
The Catholic’s rule of life is simple but profound: live from the Mass; live for the Mass.
Photo courtesy of Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.
[i] This necessity reaches back to the beginning of time and to the period of the old Law under Moses: all of humanity is ordered to worshiping the Father in and through the Son, even before the full revelation of this mystery. The fall into sin introduced a new dimension: the severance of the bond of friendship demanded healing and placation. One can say without exaggeration that man was created to participate, ultimately, in the Holy Mass and to enter into the heavenly sanctuary by means of it. Those, like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, who did not have access to it nevertheless longed for it implicitly with the same faith with which they longed for the intervention of the Savior of Israel, the Christ.
[iii] In this they were following the Rule of St. Benedict to the letter, which stipulates that the monks enter their annual fasting period after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
[iv] If, for example, the fasting rules were more demanding, there might be plenty of times when, although we are not in a state of mortal sin, we would still be barred from approaching the altar. And that is good for our humility and our appreciation of the greatness of what we are doing. If we knew that people were staying in their pews for reasons other than grave sin, there would be much less a feeling of social pressure to go to Communion. What this would require is the abolition of the American custom (I haven’t seen it anywhere else in the world) of ushers walking down the length of the church gesturing the time for each pew to get up. How this ever got started is beyond me, but it makes no sense and ought to stop.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism who has written many books and publishes on a wide variety of sites. His work has been translated into twenty languages. Visit his personal website at www.peterkwasniewski.com, his Substack “Tradition and Sanity,” his publishing house Os Justi Press, and his composer site CantaboDomino.