“In the very act of giving right praise to God, we achieve an inner harmony.”
–Dietrich von Hildebrand
The eye cannot see, nor the tongue tell,
nor can the heart imagine how many paths
and methods I have, solely for love
to lead them back to grace so that
my truth may be realized in them.
–St. Catherine of Siena
When my husband and I set out to write down the story of our reconciliation with The Roman Catholic Church, we were primarily concerned that our family and friends hear from us and not someone else about our journey. The longer we journeyed, the more we realized how uninformed non-Catholics (including us) are about the history of our Christian Faith. We desired to help dispel the intolerance spread through the ignorance of truth by providing our learned perspective on The Roman Catholic tradition of The Faith. We prayed that once our friends and family completed the reading, they would be open to what The Roman Catholic Church teaches rather than what they thought she teaches. That, in itself, would go a long way to restoring the Christian Faith to the unity that Christ intended when he authorized his first disciples to spread the good news of God’s redemption of humanity through His Church.
I remind you that we credit the wisdom of Bishop Barron, Fr. Dwight Longnecker, Dr. Brandt Pitre, and Dr. Edward Sri. These men were our tutors in our initiation to the Sacred Worship of the Mass. Now, 8-years later, of our formal journey to The Roman Catholic Church, we have come to see and understand the beauty of The Mass; only Heaven awaits to reveal the fullness of this holy worship. I honestly don’t know, now, as I post this, whom I can credit for some of the insights, these esteemed men or our own as we learned The Worship of the Mass.
Let us Worship
The conformity of worship in The Roman Catholic Mass to the biblically ordained purpose for the worship of God is unmistakable. The Old Testament reveals the long history of God’s covenant with humanity through the Jewish nation; they were set apart from all others because of their worship and their conduct. The Messiah, Jesus Christ, fulfilled that covenant through his incarnation, death, and resurrection. He incarnated God’s ultimate desire for humanity–fidelity to and worship to our Creator so that we may live at peace with ourselves and with others and intimately know the LORD as the Lover of our Soul! The disciples and the Early Church already knew how to worship God in the Jewish tradition; now they understood why they worship God, and God alone in the Sacred Tradition of the Old Covenant, now fulfilled in the New Covenant. The wholeness and holiness of their lives depended on their rightly ordered conduct and the value they placed on biblically ordered worship of The Almighty God.
The order of worship in The Roman Catholic Church adheres to in the celebration of the Mass is the continuation of the covenantal form of worship established through Moses and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It is a communal prayer to God. An ancient Jewish or Gentile Christian could walk into any Mass on any day at any place in history and recognize that the actions taking place are the worship of the Triune God.
The word liturgy refers to public worship – the work of Christ and that of the Church, the Body of Christ. By our participation in the worship of the Mass, we also participate in the divine life of the Trinity. The “divine life” is an eternal exchange of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist hold fast to this Sacred Tradition of worship. Worship in the Mass reconciles us to understand that we are the receivers and the givers in a love story between God and humanity.
Let’s look at each movement of this life-giving communion celebrated in the Mass. Firstly, The Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy of the Word is what we do utterly for its own sake, simply because it is good and beautiful to speak, read, and hear the Word of God to his Creation. When we worship God through the reading of His Word, we become rightly ordered. The Mass is where a rightly-ordered life is protected and preserved in the center of a sinful world. As you will soon recognize, the Mass (“Go, it is sent” the “it” being the Church) is our participation and anticipation of the great heavenly liturgy described by the prophets and St. John. It is the right worship given to God by the saints and the angels just beyond the scrim of time. In nearly every way, we may sense the passing over of a sacred threshold when we enter into worship in the Mass; it is palpable to me.
The gravitas of the worship of the Mass is that it echoes the Sacred Scriptures in several forms. The Word of God is proclaimed in the Old Testament and New Testament; the psalmist’s songs in the antiphons and the prayers also declare the truth of Sacred Scripture. These all prepare us for the second movement of worship, The Liturgy of the Eucharist. If the Mass could become any more solemn than it is, it is in the graceful movement toward the sacrum secretum; sacred secret–the Mystery of Christ’s real presence in the substance of bread and wine.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the Mass this way. “The Eucharist is the heart and the summit of the Church’s life, for in it Christ associates his Church and all her members with his sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving offered once for all on the cross to his Father; by this sacrifice, he pours out the graces of salvation on his Body which is the Church.” (No. 1407)
When you enter the nave of any Catholic Church, you are immediately aware of the reverence in the silence of the worshippers. The centrality of the altar and tabernacle in the sanctuary of our LORD draws the eye toward things eternal; it infuses the imagination with the sense that something sacred and awe-inspiring is about to unfold. Bishop Robert Barron writes that “The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist is a ritual acting out of the divine order revealed in the dying and rising of Jesus and, as such, it is a continual summons to transform the dysfunctional ‘city of man’ into the ‘City of God.‘” In his book, Heaven in Stone and Glass, Bishop Barron uses one of the oldest terms to describe The Roman Catholic Church–porta Coeli, the gate of heaven. Entering into the ritual action of the divine order of worship in The Roman Catholic Church is like entering into the gates of the heavenly realm into the worship of the Mass; we join the worship of Eternity. We enter as novices and eventually become saints!
But I’m getting ahead of things. Before we celebrate the Mass, let us quietly talk about the sacred item next to the entrance to the nave. The font contains holy (blessed) water and is a miniature reminder of a baptismal font. It is appropriate that this water of baptism is the first sacred matter we encounter as we pass through the doors into the nave. The water is a conjuring of the waters of the Red Sea where God delivered his people from enslavement to Pharoah and the waters of the Jordan River where Christ himself passed through the waters of baptism in preparation to deliver us from enslavement to Sin that separates us from freedom and eternity. Each time we enter and leave the nave, we remind ourselves, by dipping our fingers into the water and making the sign of the Cross of Christ on our physical being, that we have died to sin, and we live in Christ through our baptism into his Church. This is our private moment to reverently and gratefully acknowledge the Triune God by praying, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen”
“To speak of the cross is to reference the fact by which the Father
sent the Son into godforsakenness in order to gather us through the
Holy Spirit into the Divine life. Because the Son went all the way
down he was able to bring even the most recalcitrant sinner back
into fellowship with God. Thus when we invoke the cross at the
beginning of the Liturgy we signify the fact that we
are praying IN God and not merely to God.”
–Bishop Robert Barron
We are about to pray the greatest prayer any Christian can pray–the Mass, which is, in effect, a prayer of confession, consecration, thanksgiving, and praise gathered up into worship. Therefore, after we bless ourselves with the waters of baptism, we genuflect and make the sign of the Cross facing toward the tabernacle at the front of the church before entering the pew where we will join Heaven in the worship of the Triune God. (Genuflecting is the humble lowering of ourselves onto our right knee until it touches the floor) We are in the presence of the King of kings; what a fitting way to prepare our souls for adoration and worship of his ultimate sacrifice.
Other worshippers are reverently entering the church, young and old. Families make their way to the pew like we just did. Do you see that little family with small children? Did you see their father lift each one to the baptismal font so they could do what their father and mother are doing? Did you see the 2-year-old follow her mother’s lead in offering a wobbly little bow on her knee and clumsily crossing herself before entering the pew with her family? Families worship together, and parents imprint their children’s lives with the actions of worship present in the Mass.
Our first action of worship to do in the pew is to kneel in prayer and meditation. Notice some fellow worshippers reading their prayers from a prayer book or praying while holding a rosary. Others will be meditating on one of the many visual cues in the nave, giving thanks for a saint’s life, or silently releasing distractions from their mind as they focus on the Crucifix suspended from the chancel arch.
The visual schemes and elements present in The Roman Catholic Church have been referred to as a Poor Man’s Bible in that they illustrate the Life of Christ and other biblical narratives. The ancient Church’s worshippers were predominately illiterate; therefore, every visual cue aimed to educate the worshipper in The Faith. A picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words! Depictions of the Paschal suffering of Christ in the Stations of the Cross are found in every Catholic Church around the world, no matter how austere. Other figurative representations include statues or illustrations of saints and prophets. Magnificent stained glass windows in our cathedral illuminate the eyes of the body and the heart with images of martyrs and saints, disciples, and biblical accounts. The testimony of their lives enlightens our faith in God and encourages us to live our lives as living sacrifices to the Lord God.
When it is time for the Mass to begin, a bell sounds. It is nothing more than a non-verbal call for all to rise for worship, but it is a tradition that sometimes makes a non-Catholic wonder. As we sing the opening hymn, you will see a solemn procession as it makes its way to the sanctuary. It can feel like a wedding is about to begin; it is! Christ and His Church united through his Word and his Body and Blood. A deacon or lector may lead the procession carrying the Book of the Gospels overhead. Next comes the cross-bearer lifting up the sign of our salvation–our Lord’s image on the cross. The crucifix serves as a reflective illustration of John 3:16, For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. Often there are two altar servers holding candles walking beside the cross-bearer. Last is the celebrant, the priest, who will preside over our worship together.
“By the sign of the cross all magic ceases; all incantations are powerless;
every idol is abandoned and deserted;
all irrational voluptuousness is quelled;
and each one looks up from earth to heaven.”
We join our priest in making the sign of The Cross to remind us of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and that he died for us on the wood of The Cross. We remember again that The Cross is a sign of God’s love for us, that while we were sinners, He sent His Son to save us from our sin. We remind ourselves that Jesus on His Cross has overcome the powers of sin and death. We join everyone in making the sign of The Cross over our heads, heart, and shoulders. The action of crossing ourselves together reminds us we are no longer alone; we are a part of the universal Church! Every moment of the Mass is a reminder that we are not alone, God is with us, and so are the believers that surround us, those visible and those invisible.
From this point forward in the Mass, we speak, hear, and read words formed out of the three-building materials of the Catholic Church. The priest will often thank the congregation for praying the Mass with “us” today. The “Us” is the visible and invisible Church offering up the offering of the entire Mass, which is a prayer to the Triune God. Much of what you hear or say will be recognizable to you. We begin by hearing our priest say a version of Saint Paul’s words in I Corinthians 1:3, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” And we respond, “And peace be with your spirit.” It’s a simple gesture. But, when you think of the state of mind that we often come to worship in, what better way to remind ourselves that we are to bring peace and offer peace to others. It is a moment to center our souls on Christ’s promise. Consider the first hearers of Christ’s promise. The apostles were locked away, fearing for their lives, when suddenly our risen Savior was greeting them, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:26) We, like the disciples, are prone to dread, fear, doubt, and regret. But our priest, in persona Christi (a Latin phrase meaning “in the person of Christ”)reminds us that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is among us. We are now ready to pray the Mass.
Confess your offenses in church and do not go up to your prayer
with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.
–Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), A.D. 110
“There are saints in my religion, but that just means men who know that they are sinners.”
–G. K. Chesterton
St. John of the Cross compared recognition of sin to the soul looking through a pane of glass. When we face away from the Light, we cannot or will not see all the smudges and imperfections that cloud the glass; they are barely noticeable, easily overlooked. But when we direct our lives toward the Light, every smudge and flaw becomes visible. It is the rebellious spirit that ignores what the Light clarifies.
Sin is anything that “breaks my relationship with God.” Sin can be as heinous as murder, but the sins that we often do not recognize and confess, perhaps because of our turning away from the Light, are the venial sins of jealousy, murmuring, anger, lust, gossiping, resentment and bitterness, fear, pride. We delude ourselves when we believe we are truly worshipping God while harboring venial sin in our hearts, the pane of our soul marred by pride. The following action in the Mass is Confession; we pray with every other sinner present, including the priest. A brief silence allows us to consider what we are about to say. It is our time to look at the smudges caused by our sin so that we may release sinful thoughts that keep us in the habit of sin. We open up to the presence of God by recognizing the resentful thoughts we have against our spouse or the fretting over our possessions, or the hidden habit of envy, as sin. Anything that clouds the glass of our soul disorders our lives.
“I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do. Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore, I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.“
When we confess our sins, we participate in a tradition from the ancient world when we say the words, “through my fault.” We can see its origins in the scriptures. We declare our sinfulness by imitating the tax collector who, “standing far off, would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.'” (Luke 18:13). Our confession ends with a prayer of absolution by the priest. It is a general prayer of absolution; it does not have the power to forgive us of all our sins. In a general way, it reminds us that God has given the Church the authority to heal the rift between Creation and God. What began to unravel of God’s image in us at The Fall is restored through Christ’s sacrifice for the entire human race. We, together, accept God’s mercy by responding either by singing or saying, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” This moment has become one of the most cherished moments for me as we worship. After all that has transpired in our lives, I am profoundly aware that our Lord’s mercy has protected us and continues to provide for all our spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical needs.
We rise together to sing the Gloria. It is the most magnificent prayer of the Sacred Tradition of the Church.
Glory to God in the highest,
and, peace to his people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King,
Almighty God and Father,
we worship you, we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer.
For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen.
Bishop Robert Barron refers to the first line of Gloria as a kind of formula for a happy life. When we give God the highest glory, when He is the supreme value for us, our lives become harmoniously ordered around that central love. Peace, as it were, breaks out among us when God, and not pleasure, money, power, distraction, or entertainment, is given glory in the highest. He writes that the old English worth-ship is the precursor for our word worship. Worth-ship designates what we hold dear. And the Liturgy is the place where we act out our worship, where we demonstrate, by word and gesture, what is of most significant worth to us. And this is why the worship of our LORD is essential for peace.
The Jewish tradition forms how we worship in the Mass; it has its roots in the Old Testament pattern of worship. The first believers in Christ were Jews, God’s chosen people; therefore, God continued his fulfillment of the Old Testament in the tradition of that worship in the New Testament. These were not little “t” traditions that cultures embrace as they form; these are capital “T” traditions in that they are the acceptable and ordained form of worship according to God’s point of view. That is Sacred Tradition.
At the Roman Catholic Mass, we join the invisible Church (heavenly hosts, saints and martyrs, and the great multitude of the faithful) with our visible worship of the Triune God. In fact, when you anchor worship in this biblical understanding, you see more clearly the purpose of the Book of Revelation. The historical understanding of the prophecies has always maintained a vision of eternal heavenly worship; the veil of eternity lifts as we join all of heaven in rightly ordered worship of God. In other words, the Mass is heaven’s reality on earth. Consider a brief section from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
1136 Liturgy is an “action” of the whole Christ (Christus totus). Those who even now celebrate it without signs are already in the heavenly liturgy, where the celebration is wholly communion and feast.
1137 The book of Revelation of St. John, read in the Church’s liturgy, first reveals to us, “A throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne”: “the Lord God.” It then shows the Lamb, “standing, as though it had been slain”: Christ crucified and risen, the one high priest of the true sanctuary, the same one “who offers and is offered, who gives and is given.” Finally, it presents “the river of the water of life . . flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” one of the most beautiful symbols of the Holy Spirit.
1138 “Recapitulated in Christ,” these are the ones who take part in the service of the praise of God and the fulfillment of his plan: the heavenly powers, all creation (the four living beings), the servants of the Old and New Covenants (the twenty-four elders), the new People of God (the one hundred and forty-four thousand), especially the martyrs “slain for the word of God,” and the all-holy Mother of God (the Woman), the Bride of the Lamb, and finally “a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and tongues.”
1139 It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the Church enable us to participate whenever we celebrate the mystery of salvation in the sacraments.
We, the earthbound worshippers, are a great multitude from every nation, every tribe, every tongue who sing a heaven-bound love song with all the saints and martyrs to the Lover of our soul. The Mass from this point forward fulfills foreshadowing in the Old Testament revealed in the New Testament, especially in St. John’s Revelation: The Liturgy of the Word and The Eucharist. There is so much to learn about the ancient and authoritative understanding of worship, and I cannot do it justice here.
The Roman Catholic Mass follows the same liturgical order the world over, so if you were in Sudan, Indonesia, or South Dakota on June 12, 2022, you were worshipping according to the liturgical calendar, in Ordinary Time. The liturgical calendar harkens back to the earliest traditions of using a chronological calendar to mark the times of the year, showing seasons, holidays, and special events. Instead of recognizing the times of the year, The Roman Catholic Church recognizes the events in the life of Christ here on earth as He fulfilled God’s plan of salvation. It also includes solemnities and feast days of the Church universal-Saints, Our Blessed Mother, and titles of Jesus, i.e., Christ the King Sunday. The 3-year cycle of reading Scripture from the perspective of Salvation History developed over time in the two millennia of The Church.
How can I close this blog? The fullness of The Faith present in The Roman Catholic Church is more than words on a page. I can only say what the disciple Phillip asked of his friend Nathaniel, Come and See. Yes, Nathaniel, something good came out of Nazareth; God made flesh, Jesus the Messiah, the fulfillment of the entirety of the Old Covenant God made with man. Jesus, the Son of God, grew up among us; he showed us the way through God’s New Covenant with humanity to find our way back to our created identity as our Heavenly Father’s beloved child through his life, crucifixion, and resurrection. Jesus, the Son of God, ascended to the Father, and then the Holy Spirit of God descended upon His Church. His Holy Spirit guides us through the worship of the Mass and his presence within us into the divine life he has promised us.
Come and see for yourself the truth of Salvation History fulfilled in The Roman Catholic Church! I am praying for you.