History of the Mass

Part I : The New Testament and Apostolic Times (up to 100 AD) 

Part II : Persecution and Growth (100 to 313 AD)

Part III : Constantine to Charlemagne (313 to 800 AD)

Part IV : Charlemagne to Gregory VII (800 to 1100 AD)

Part V : Gregory VII to the Council of Trent (1100 to 1545-1563 AD) 

Part VI : Council of Trent to Second Vatican Council (1545-1563 to 1962-1965 AD)  

Part VII: Second Vatican Council to present (1962-1965 to present) 

Part I : The New Testament and Apostolic Times (up to 100 AD)

A man came to me and said he hadn’t attended Mass for 8 years because he found it boring. I asked him why it was boring and he said that it was the same thing over and over again. I thought: Could it be because he misunderstood the Mass? Or could it be because he came to Mass for the wrong reasons?

The Mass is a liturgy and a ritual – it follows a form in which things are done. In that sense, it is the same thing over and over again. But only when a person sees the Mass at a superficial level will it be boring. If we understand that the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross, accomplished once for all, is made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice each time Mass is celebrated, then Mass can never be boring.

In the Gospel of John chapter 6, Jesus prepared His disciples for the Institution of the Eucharist. Shortly after Jesus had fed the five thousand, the crowd was looking for Him. Jesus said to them: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.” (John 6:26-27) The crowd then asked for a sign, and Jesus said: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:51) Then the Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52). Jesus answered them: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6:56).

At the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Jesus instituted the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar at the Last Supper when He gave His disciples the mysteries of His Body and Blood. Jesus did this in preparation of His bloody Sacrifice in Calvary. After the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, and after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the apostles went forth into the world to boldly preach the Gospel and to celebrate the Eucharist, just as Jesus Himself commanded them at the Last Supper. The earliest account of the apostles carrying on the celebration of the Eucharist is found in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, written in Ephesus at around 53-57 AD: For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, 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. (1Corinthians 11:23-26)

Documents like the Didache (50-70 AD) and writings by historian Plinius Caecilius (61-113 AD) give some information on how the early Christians came together to celebrate the Eucharist. It was communal and it was celebrated every Sunday at one of the homes of the faithful. The basic pattern of the celebration involved the sharing of the Word (oral tradition and scripture, including psalms) and then the memorial of the Last Supper (loaves of bread and wine brought in from the homes of the faithful were used for this purpose). The celebration was the way in which the early Christian community came into contact with the living Christ.

Part II:Persecution and Growth (100-313 AD)

From the second to the fourth centuries, we know that the practice of celebrating the Eucharist continued, based on the writings of several persons. I will mention three of them here: St. Ignatius of Antioch (35-108 AD), St. Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) and St. Hippolytus of Rome (170-236 AD).

St. Ignatius was an early Christian writer and the third bishop of Antioch. It has been said that when he was a child, Ignatius was the child that Jesus took in His arms (Mark 9:36-37), and that when he was an adult, St. Peter appointed him as bishop of Antioch. St. Ignatius wrote several letters on his way to Rome after he was arrested; he died a martyr when he was thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. In one of his letters, he wrote: “We are joined together in the unity of the breaking of the Eucharist.” As bishop, he encouraged the faithful to celebrate the Eucharist more frequently, and he stressed the importance of celebrating the Eucharist in union with the bishop and only by those appointed by the bishop. He is also credited as the first to introduce antiphonal singing during the celebration of the Eucharist.

St. Justin Martyr was an early Christian apologist. St. Justin converted to Christianity at around 130 AD because he was attracted to its moral beauty and truth. St. Justin wrote several treatises in defense of the Christian faith; among his most famous works were Adversus Haereses and Dialogue with Trypho. In his work called First Apology, he described the Mass: “On what is called the day of the Sun, there is a meeting of all and the memoirs of the apostles or writing of the prophets are read as long as time allows. When the reader has ceased, the presider gives his admonition and exhortation to imitate these good things. Afterwards, we all rise up together and offer prayers. After we have ceased to pray, bread is brought with wine and water, and the presider offers up prayers and thanksgivings and the people respond with Amen. Then follows the distribution to each and the partaking of things which have been made Eucharist, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. Of those who are well-to-do and willing, everyone gives what he will, and what is collected is deposited with the presider, for orphans and widows, for those who are in want through sickness or other causes, for those who are in bonds and strangers who are in need.” Doesn’t the liturgy which St. Justin described sound very much like the Mass which we celebrate today?

St. Hippolytus was a presbyter of Rome and arguably the most prolific religious writer of the Church in Rome before the time of Constantine the Great. One of his greatest works is the Apostolic Tradition, which many scholars regard as the first real liturgical document. It gives evidence of what was done and said in the liturgy. It features the Anaphora (aka Eucharistic Prayer) – two Greek words meaning “lifting on high”, which is the central prayer of the Mass. It is also the first text of a Eucharistic Prayer. Today’s Eucharistic Prayer II, which was published after Vatican II (1962-1965), was modeled after the Eucharistic Prayer of St. Hippolytus.

Part III:Constantine to Charlemagne (313 to 800AD)

In October 312 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine was marching with his army towards battle when he looked up to the sky and saw a cross of light across the sun with the words “in this sign, you shall conquer.” Constantine won that battle and attributed his victory to the Christian God. Later, in February 313 AD, Constantine (emperor of the Western Roman Empire) together with Licinius (emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire), both signed an agreement in Milan, which established religious tolerance for Christianity and ended the persecution of Christians within the entire Roman Empire. This agreement was called the Edict of Milan. Although he was not yet baptized a Christian, Constantine took great interest in Christianity and as a result, formularies and ceremonies for the celebration of the Eucharist began to develop. In addition, Latin was gradually substituted for Greek.

In 325 AD, Constantine called together the bishops to the Council of Nicaea. As a result, four patriarchates were set by the Council: Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch. In 381 AD, Constantinople was added as the fifth patriarchate. Each patriarchate began to develop its own liturgies. Milan had the Ambrosian rite, Spain had the Mozarabic rite, France and Germany had the Gallican rite, England and Ireland had the Celtic rite. North Africa had the Coptic rite, while Constantinople had the Byzantine rite.

In the 4th and 5th centuries, Rome had what was called the Stational Mass . These were Masses celebrated at churches which were designated as Stational Churches. Even now, there are 45 churches in Rome which are designated as Stational Churches, with the church of St. John Lateran being the principal church.

The celebrants of the Mass began to use Libelli or “Little Books” which contained prayers for Mass. The Verona Sacramentary is the oldest surviving liturgical book of the Roman rite. It is a collection of Libelli which contains prayers for certain Masses but not the scriptures, the canon or the antiphons. It is sometimes called the Leonine Sacramentary because it has been attributed to Pope St. Leo I (pope from 440-461 AD).

The second oldest liturgical book in the Roman rite is the Gelasian Sacramentary, which was ascribed to Pope St. Gelasius I (pope from 492-496 AD). It contains Masses for Sundays and feast days, prayers, rites and blessings. However, it did not contain the Agnus Dei, which was introduced by Pope St. Sergius I in 700 AD.

Pope St. Gregory the Great 教宗聖格利瑞 (pope from 590-604 AD) gave the Mass its definitive form. The Gregorian Sacramentary was attributed to him. It is the first liturgical book that was organized according to the Liturgical Year and it contains chants written by Pope St. Gregory the Great himself.

The History of the Mass (Part IV)

Charlemagne to Gregory VII (800 up to 1100AD)

In 476 AD, the Germanic king Odoacer overthrew Romulus, the last Roman emperor in the west. With that, the order that the Roman Empire had brought to Western Europe for 1000 years ended. Since the Fall of Rome, Western Europe became fragmented. Local dialects began to develop; however, Latin was retained to signify the unity of the Church and continued to be used for liturgy.

Clovus I, the first Frankish king to unite all of the Frankish tribes, was baptized in 496 AD. Later on, he defeated the Arian Visigoths and established Roman Catholicism as the religion of the Frankish states. In 768 AD, Charles I (Charlemagne) became the Frankish king, and he was later crowned the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD. Charlemagne has been called the “Father of Europe” because he united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. Under Charlemagne, there was an attempt to unify the liturgy, and as a result, the Roman rite adapted certain features from the Gallican rite. The Hadrianum was a product of this effort, and this sacramentary was named after Pope Hadrian I (pope from 772-795 AD).

Otto I became Holy Roman Emperor in 962 AD and he introduced the Mainz Pontifical to Rome. During this period, the Roman rite became more and more influenced with Franco-Germanic customs. For example, the procession on Palm Sunday, the foot washing on Holy Thursday and the veneration of the Cross during Good Friday was introduced in the liturgies of Holy Week.

Frankish liturgy emphasized the mystical side of the liturgy; therefore, the use of incense was also introduced, as well as observing silence during the Anaphora or Eucharistic Prayer. Several changes were made during the reception of Holy Communion: unleavened bread was used, kneeling when receiving Holy Communion, and receiving on the tongue. In addition, there began the practice of distributing Holy Communion only in one species (the Host without the Precious Blood).

The History of the Mass (Part V)

Gregory VII to the Council of Trent (1100 up to 1545-1563 AD)

In 1054 AD, the Western Church in Rome and the Eastern Church in Constantinople split apart in what is called the Great Schism. This schism resulted from a number of political, cultural and theological disputes which transpired over centuries.

Pope St. Gregory VII (pope from 1073-1085 AD) sought to reform the Church and secure its autonomy against civil rulers during his 11th century pontificate. Among the challenges which confronted him included corruption among the clergy, a hardening schism between the churches of Rome and Constantinople, and the problem of civil rulers who claimed a right to choose the Church’s clergy and control its properties. During his pontificate, Gregory VII promulgated a set of decrees known as the Gregorian Reforms, which dealt with canonical elections, simony, lay investiture and clerical celibacy. Gregory VII also undertook liturgical reform and was instrumental in affirming the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. He suppressed the Mozaribic and Celtic rites and promulgated the Roman rite.

During this period of time from 1100 up to the mid-1500s, there were ups and downs in the history of the Church. The Golden Age of Revival in the 12th and 13th centuries produced cultural advances like monastic education and Gothic architecture in the churches. However in the 14th century, there was a period of decline in which seven Popes resided in Avignon (1309-1376) rather than in Rome, and other problems which produced heretical movements.

There was also the rise of the Mendicant Orders, particularly the Dominican and Franciscan Orders. The mendicant friars traveled around preaching and celebrating the Eucharist, carrying with them their liturgical practices and supplies as they traveled. In the same time period, there was the development of Private Masses: Votive Masses which priests offered for various private intentions, Requiem Masses for the dead, and Monastic Masses. These Masses became the norm instead of the Stational Masses.

In the Private Masses, the priest used a missal which contained everything necessary for the celebration of the Mass. In addition, the priest did everything, including the readings. The people merely attended and observed. As a result, the offertory procession was removed in the Private Mass, the bread was no longer baked and brought in by the people, monetary donations replaced the offering of bread, the altar was connected to the apse instead of free-standing altars, and the Rood Screen was introduced to divide the choir from the nave.

The History of the Mass (Part VI)

Council of Trent to Second Vatican Council (1545-1563 to 1962-1965 AD)

The Council of Trent was the 19th ecumenical council of the Catholic Church which convened at Trent, Northern Italy for 25 sessions between December 13, 1545 and December 4, 1563. The Council issued key statements of the Church’s doctrine and teachings, including scripture, sacred tradition, original sin, justification, salvation, the sacraments, the Mass and the veneration of saints. In addition, the Council also reformed the inner life of the Church by addressing the abuses that had developed in it.

In 1565, Pope Pius IV issued the Tridentine Creed. His successor Pope Pius V issued the Roman Catechism in 1566 and revisions to the Breviary in 1568. The Missal of Pope St. Pius V (also known as the Tridentine Mass) was promulgated in 1570, and it remained the Church’s primary form of the Mass for the next four hundred years. As Protestant services began to use the vernacular, Catholic liturgies remained in Latin in order to maintain Catholic identity.

The Missal of Pope St. Pius V developed from the Gregorian Sacramentary, which developed from the Gelasian Sacramentary, which developed from the Leonine Sacramentary (see Part III of the History of the Mass). The Missal of Pope St. Pius V contain the Ordinary (texts which remain the same in each celebration), and the Proper (texts which change depending on the liturgical feast day). There were basically two kinds of Mass: the Solemn or High Mass  and the Low Mass. The High Mass was sung and celebrated by the priest, assisted by a deacon and sub-deacon, and the Low Mass was celebrated by the priest in a low spoken voice, assisted by altar servers.

The celebration of the Eucharist emphasized the sacrificial element: the Sacrifice that Jesus Christ offered once for all on the Cross is made present in the Mass. Outward signs like the use of bells, incense and kneeling when receiving Holy Communion became common practice.

In 1914, Pope St. Pius X issued the motu proprio Tra Le Sollecitudini, which is considered as the liturgical reform of the 20th century. He encouraged the active participation of the faithful in the liturgy by frequent reception of Holy Communion and congregational singing. He also encouraged the earlier reception of Holy Communion which should be given at the age of reason. He simplified liturgy, gave priority to Sunday Masses over the feast day of the Saints and published a revised Missal.

In 1955, Pope Pius XII reformulated the rites for Holy Week.

The History of the Mass (Part VII)

Second Vatican Council (1962-1965 up to the present)

The Second Vatican Council was the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church; it was held at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The council formally opened under the pontificate of Pope John XXIII on October 11, 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI on December 8, 1965. The liturgy was revised with the intent that the people would take part, be fully aware of what they are doing, be actively engaged in the rite, and be enriched by its effects.

In the mid-1960s, the Mass began to be celebrated in vernacular languages; however, Latin remained as the official liturgical language. Lectionaries for multiple years were introduced, thus increasing the amount of Scripture read during Mass. The celebrant faced the congregation and contemporary liturgical music was used in the Mass. The use of modern architecture and artwork began to be more common in the Catholic churches. Lay people were commissioned to be lectors and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. In countries where the bishops’ conference has obtained permission from the Holy See, the Precious Body may be received on the hand, rather than the mouth. Females were also permitted to act as altar servers, if this was approved by the diocesan bishop and if the parish priest chose to implement it.

Other modern developments included: In 1962, St. Joseph was added to the Roman Canon by Pope Paul VI. In 1964, the Prayers of the Faithful was restored, the Our Father was said by all, and the Last Gospel was suppressed. In 1965, the concelebration by priests was restored. In 1968, three new Eucharistic Prayers were introduced.

In 1970, the Novus Ordo or the “Mass of Pope Paul VI” was published. In it, the number of Prefaces was increased, the Sign of Peace was restored to all the faithful and no longer limited to clerics at High Mass. In addition, lay people were allowed to receive both Eucharistic species of the Precious Body and Precious Blood in the form of bread and wine, respectively.

The Eucharistic Fast allows a person to take only water and medicine for a period of time before receiving the Eucharist. The earliest recorded regular practice was to eat at home before the Lord’s Supper if one was hungry (1 Corinthians 11:34). The next known ancient practice was to fast from midnight until Mass that day. As Masses after noon and in the evening became common in the West, this was soon modified to fasting for three hours. Vatican II reduced the Eucharistic Fast to one-hour before receiving the Eucharist.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II introduced a new edition of the Roman Missal (Missale Romanum editio typica tertia) since the Second Vatican Council for use in the Church.

In 2010, during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican formally approved a new English translation of the Roman Missal — a translation that changed some of the words with which Roman Catholics have worshiped throughout the English-speaking world for the past 40 years. Among the most obvious change was the people’s response “And with your spirit.” Words in the Gloria, Creed and other significant parts of the Mass were also changed. The mandatory use of the new English translation was on the first Sunday of Advent in 2011.