Mass Observances




Reception of Holy Communion

    Agape Meal et alia


Given the natural and intimate relation between body and soul, it is not surprising that the holy sacrifice of the Mass should influence physical comportment and behavior in all sorts of ways. These observances, which grew from an ever-deepening awareness of the dignity that the Incarnation has given the flesh, are designed to facilitate -- for oneself and one's neighbor-- a fuller and holier initiation into the sacred mysteries.



Clothing bears an important symbolic meaning. From the shabby aprons of Adam and Eve's sewn-up figleaves to the holy articles of apparel worn by Jesus during His passion, clothes function as visible intimations of one's invisible disposition. Little wonder, then, that Christians have always paid special attention to what they wear to Mass. Just as catechumens baptized on Holy Saturday would wear white garments for eight days thereafter to signify their new life, so too did all the faithful appear in new clothes on Easter Sunday. And just as there is a special delight in wearing new clothes for the first time, so too was there a widespread custom to do so at Sunday Mass out of gratitude and

reverence. Appropriate attire, moreover, reflects one's awareness of the supreme importance of the Holy Sacrifice. Putting on "one's Sunday best" is not meant to display one's wealth or taste or to call attention to oneself, but to use physical acts of sartorial piety as an aid in putting on the spiritual "wedding garment of charity" (Mt. 22:12).

What constitutes appropriate attire? The answer depends on many cultural and economic circumstances, but there are two principles that must always be kept in mind. The first is the virtue of modesty. Anything that draws too much attention to the body takes attention away from the soul: perhaps not always for the wearer, but certainly for those nearby. Second, the enormous honor in being called to the royal banquet of the Lamb should never be forgotten. Clothes befitting manual labor or physical recreation (e.g., blue jeans and tennis shoes) are at odds with the sacred leisure of contemplating and uniting with Divine Wisdom.

One of the more noticeable religious customs regarding dress is women in church wearing a chapel veil or some kind of head covering. It can be argued that this apostolic tradition is a compensation for male weakness. Men tend to be easily distracted by the sight of women, and so by veiling part of their sensuality, women are helping them stay focused on the higher. St. Paul, however, offers another explanation. When commanding women to wear veils, he tells them to do so "because of the angels" (I Cor. 11:10), a reference to the spiritual beings present everywhere but especially in sacred places. Because hair has a symbolic significance for women that it does not have for men, veiling seems


to be woman's quintessentially appropriate gesture of modesty and respect. All eastern and western churches officially adhere to this principle (contrary to a widespread misperception, Vatican II never abandoned it), though the practice in the Catholic church has lamentably suffered in recent years.


Many who remember the old Mass as it was celebrated before the Council might be surprised to learn that the laity were never forbidden from verbally participating in the responses of the Mass. In fact, no less than Pope St. Pius X encouraged the congregation to recite or chant aloud the responses made by the servers, as well as the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei said by the priest. (This encouragement, it should be pointed out, was not intended to force anyone to change his habits, but to foster a stronger link between exterior and interior participation for those who wanted it.)

How to make responses. Responses are verbal acts of participation meant to deepen one's spiritual participation in the action on the altar. This is facilitated by responding in the same spirit in which the Mass is celebrated. Responses should be audible but they should not be loud: prayerful solemnity, not booming proclamation, is the goal. They should also be made in unison with the priest or servers, which requires a careful coordination of one's recital. Finally, responses should be made in conformity with the rubrics, since preconciliar documents prohibit reciting aloud any part of the Mass which is not explicitly permitted. The congregation, for example, is not encouraged to recite the "Our Father" along with the priest. Eastern churches (as well as the Novus Ordo) use the Lord's Prayer as the beginning of the communion rite, but the traditional Roman rite has used this prayer as the conclusion to the Canon. (Just as the Preface functions as the prologue to the Canon, the Pater Noster functions as its epilogue.)

Gestures. The ritual gestures of the traditional liturgy allow one to participate in the mysteries in a physical yet dignified manner. Therefore, congregants are also encouraged to take part in the appropriate liturgical motions (the different places may be found in the missal). For example, in addition to bowing at the Holy Name of Jesus, one should bow at the word Oremus and when the three Divine Persons are invoked as Pater, Filius, and Spirtus Sanctus. (Hence, one should bow during all Gloria Patri's.) And in addition to making the sign of the cross with the priest at the end of the Gloria in excelsis and the Credo, one should make it with him at the beginning of the Mass and the beginning of the Introit.

Finally, like responses, gestures should be made in the same spirit in which the Mass is celebrated, that is to say, gracefully and prayerfully.

Reception of Holy Communion

The legend of the Pelican feeding her young with her own blood, Symbol of Christ feeding his flock during Holy Communion


Sound teaching has always affirmed that only practicing Catholics who are "properly disposed" -- i.e., who are not in a state of mortal sin -- may receive Holy Communion. To this general precept the traditional Roman rite has three additional practices.

First, when receiving the Eucharist, one would traditionally fast, beginning from midnight of the night before (our word "breakfast," breaking the fast after Mass, comes from this practice). This has the effect of slightly weakening the body so that the soul may concentrate better on the higher things. Preparing an empty tomb within us, so to speak, also shows respect for the Body and Blood of Christ. Many indult Masses

in this country, however, take place rather late in the day, and so some communicants might want keep in mind Pope Pius XII's reduction of the fast to the three hours prior to reception. Current ecclesiastical law sets the fast at one hour prior to reception of communion.

Mention may also be made of an ancient practice that married couples abstain from conjugal relations the night before they receive communion. (This custom is still observed in Eastern rites: a married priest who has relations with his wife is not allowed to offer the sacrifice of the Mass the following day.) Like fasting, this practice is susceptible to misinterpretation and misapplication. The point of any kind of abstinence is not to contemn or condemn what is being abstained from (quite the contrary: it presupposes that what is being given up is good, which is why giving it up is a sacrifice in the first place). The point is to make a sacrifice that better prepares one for the Sacrifice of the Mass. Unlike fasting, however, conjugal abstinence was never prescribed by the Church for laymen.

Second, since the 600's Roman practice has had the Eucharist distributed under one species only (for practical and sanitary reasons), with the communicant receiving on the tongue (since only the priest's hands have received a special blessing for touching the Body of our Lord).

Third, because of the logistical difficulty of holding out one's tongue and speaking at the same time, the communicant does not say, "Amen": the priest says it for him instead.


Agape Meal et alia



The Agape Meal is a reference to the primitive Church's feasting in joyous Christian fellowship after the conclusion of the divine liturgy. A modern equivalent of this is the coffee-and-donuts hour which many churches offer, or the traditional family Sunday dinner.

Solemn Vespers
on Sunday evening is also a longstanding tradition. In medieval times Catholics, both clerical and lay, would attend the recitation of this Divine Office, with its incensation of the altar and chanting of the Magnificat. (In fact, in some European countries the Sunday evening supper is still called the "vesper meal.") Sometimes, however, other devotions, such as Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, replaced Vespers or were combined with it.




In any case, Sunday is to be reserved as a Day of Rest. This involves abstaining from "servile work," such as nonessential household or professional labor, though it does not involve abstaining from "liberal work," e.g., reading and writing, arts and entertainment, music and sports, and hobbies. The rest of Sunday is a wonderful anticipation of the peace that will come from the beatific vision, the Christian's ultimate hope. Hence Sunday should be spent in honorable leisure, or what St. Augustine calls "the Sabbath of the heart" -- intellectual or spiritual delight, the celebration of family, and the discharge of charity and mercy.


Top of Page

Parish Home Page | Latin Mass Homepage