A Brief History of the Roman Mass

Fr. Fabrice Loschi

The study of the Mass helps us to understand better the treasure handed down to us from generation to generation, and leads us to a greater love for, and participation in, this Sacred Mystery


Our Lord instituted the Mass at the Last Supper. On that sacred evening, Jesus gave us only the essential core of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; the externals were furnished by the Apostles and their successors. 

The Church has developed these externals slowly, year by year, like the gradual and constant growth of a living body. After centuries of careful work under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, the liturgy of the Mass has become quite a beautiful and complex structure.

The study of the Mass helps us to understand better the treasure handed down to us from generation to generation and leads us to a greater love for, and participation in, this Sacred Mystery.

I. Mass in the Primitive Church

The first Holy Mass was said by Our Lord in a very significant setting; that is during the paschal meal.

i) The Paschal Meal

In Christ’s day, the paschal meal was surrounded by a very complicated ritual.

Before the meal, at which the Easter lamb was eaten, there was a little preliminary - a serving of bitter herbs and unleavened bread that recalled the wants (food and water) felt during the journey out of Egypt.

Both before and after this pre-meal the cup was filled. Then the father of the house would tell the story of the days in Egypt and the liberation from bondage.

After this the would take a loaf of unleavened bread, break it, pronounce over it a little blessing and pass it around. This ceremony of brotherly communion in one bread was the signal for starting the meal during which the paschal lamb was eaten.

After the meal was over, the father would take the cup, newly filled with wine; he would lift it slightly while he said the grace after meals and all would drink from it. This was the third cup called “the cup of blessing”, or “chalice of benediction”. After a last blessing, all would drink from a fourth cup.

The consecration of the bread is related to the blessing before eating the lamb, when Our Lord broke the bread and handed it to His disciples with the words; “This is my body which is to be given to you.”

The consecration of the chalice is related to the grace after meals and to the third cup (the only cup passed around).

Our Lord concluded the institution with the command; “Do this for a commemoration of me.”

ii) The Apostolic Mass

In the early period of the Church, the Apostles followed the command of Our Lord literally and celebrated the Mass exactly as Jesus did at the Last Supper in the setting of a ritual and sacrificial meal.

These “reproductions” of the Last Supper unfortunately resulted in some of the faithful forgetting the original symbolism of eating the Paschal Lamb whereby they ate in selfish little groups and became drunk. That is why St. Paul rebuked the Corinthians who “drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily” (Maundy Thursday epistle).

To prevent any of these abuses all elements of a meal were removed and the Eucharistic celebration then stood out as the proper form of divine worship. A remnant of the Supper is still present in our Catholic Mass; it is indeed interesting to note that before drinking the chalice of blessing, the grace after meals was said with the double exclamation sursum corda and Gratias agamus.

The consecration of the bread which took place at the beginning of the service was also soon to be joined to the consecration of the cup of blessing.

Pliny the Younger (about 111-113 AD), Legate of Bythinia, established the fact that Christians were in the habit of gathering on fixed days before dawn. They were singing psalms in alternate verses and sharing a harmless meal during which they sang the Sanctus.

Already at that time, prayers began with the greeting: Dominus Vobiscum, the answer to which was Et cum spiritu tuo. The close of the prayers referred to God’s boundless dominion which lasts in saecula saeculorum. The answer of the faithful remained untranslated: Amen.

II. Saint Justin (c. 100-165)

St. Justin was a philosopher and martyr who wrote his First Apology in defence of the Christian religion about 150 AD. He preserved for us the first full account of a Christian Mass celebration. St. Justin mentioned the following:

  • Offering of bread and wine to the priest
  • Wine mixed with water
  • Thanksgiving prayers
  • Prayers ended with Amen
  • Distribution of communion under both species to all present
  • Necessity of faith in the Catholic truths and Baptism in order to receive the Holy Eucharist
  • Reading of memoirs of the Apostles or prophets
  • Kiss of peace

III. The Latin Mass in Christian Antiquity, up to the sixth century

A Latin Christianity made its first appearance in North Africa near the end of the second century. At that time, the liturgical language of the Mass was Greek even in Rome. Latin gradually took over and all the prayers were translated from Greek into Latin.

The beginnings of the Latin Mass in Rome are quite unknown.

What we know is that the core of our Mass canon, from the Quam oblationem on, including the sacrificial prayer after the consecration, was already in existence by the end of the fourth century.

The Mass began with the lessons followed by the general prayer for the church with a division into a prayer for the catechumens and a prayer for the faithful.

Pope Gelasius I (492-496) suppressed the general prayer for the church and introduced the Kyrie-litany. By the end of the 5th Century the framework of the Roman Mass was already determined with old simple chants between the lessons, processional chants at the beginning, at the Offertory and Communion.

IV. The Papal Mass in the Seventh Century

In the church before Mass, the Pope was led to the secretarium (sacristy). Here he put on his liturgical vestments: an alb, a shoulder cloth, a tunicle, a dalmatic and finally a chasuble.

The Pope then went in procession to the altar while the choir sang the Introit. At a sign from the Pope, the choir brought the Introit to an end with the Gloria Patri and the repetition of the antiphon. Meanwhile, the Pope prostrated himself in prayer in silent homage to God. After a moment, he rose and kissed the altar and the Gospel book.

While the Pope sat upon the cathedra the choir sang the Kyrie eleison. After the Kyrie, depending on the day, the Pope sang the Gloria in excelsis Deo. At the end of the chant he greeted the people with Pax vobis and sang the oration to which all answered Amen.

This over, a subdeacon read the epistle which was followed by the singing of the Gradual and the Alleluia or the Tract. After kissing the foot of the pontiff, the deacon sang the Gospel. There was no sermon.

The Pope again greeted the throng with Dominus vobiscum and intoned Oremus. Now was the time for the external preparations for the Mass-sacrifice to begin. Bread and wine were offered to the Pope by the faithful and then followed the Offertory and the Canon of the Mass. The Canon was followed by the Communion during which the choir sang a psalm. After the Communion, the Pope recited the Postcommunion. Then the deacon sang the Ite missa est to which the choir answered: Deo gratias. The procession then formed for the return to the secretarium.

V. The Roman Mass in the Frankish Empire

Because of the difficulty of travel and the lack of books, it was difficult for the Roman Mass to spread in Europe. Books mainly dealt with the solemn ceremonies of the Papal services and were inadequate for the Masses of a bishop or a simple priest.

Frankish liturgical books filled out the gaps and adapted the Roman liturgy to new lands and people.

Incensations were added to the singing of the Gospel as well as the invocation Gloria tibi Domine.

New prayers were added to the Mass, especially for the Offertory, which are still in use today like the Suscipe Sancta Trinitas and the Orate Fratres.

A greater awareness of the dignity of the priest who alone can perform the mystery of the Presence of God during Mass led to several changes. A line of separation was drawn between altar and people, and between clergy and laity. The altar was moved back to the rear wall of the apse. In cathedrals, the bishop’s throne was transferred to the side of the altar. The choir-stalls of the assistants, which used to form a half-circle around the altar, were now set in two rows facing each other in front of the altar.

An increased reverence for the sacrament of the altar eventually led to the introduction of pure white wafers of unleavened bread in the Mass. These can be easily broken without worrying about crumbs. By the eleventh century, the use of prepared, shaped and sized unleavened hosts for the faithful became the rule.

VI. The Gothic Period

In the Middle Ages certain rites were inserted  to make the sacred mystery taking place at the Mass more powerful. Among these were the following ceremonies:

  • The hiding of the paten under the corporal at the offertory. It signifies Our Lord’s self-abasement and the hiding of His Divinity.
  • The bowing of the head at the end of the Memento of the Dead.
  • The lifting of the voice at Nobis quoque to signify the cry of the captain of the guard.
  • The five crosses at the conclusion of the canon to signify the five wounds.
  • The lifting of eyes and hands before the last blessing after the model of Our Lord before the Ascension.

In 1210, a decree of the bishop of Paris introduced the regulation of elevating the host after the words of the consecration so high that all might see and adore.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages genuflection before and after touching the Blessed Sacrament was introduced during the Mass.

Gregorian chant enjoyed tremendous development during this time. Polyphony also began to take on some importance in Church music.

VII. Saint Pius V

During the last part of the Middle Ages, superstitious practices as well as the numerous types of Masses, veiled the value of the Holy Sacrifice to the people. The Mass was gradually disregarded and despised.  Due to the poor state of religious training, attacks on the Mass by the Protestants following Luther encountered no real resistance.

The Church fought back with the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which developed the principles of a reform. A codification of the missal was undertaken which came to completion under Saint Pius V. In the Bull Quo Primum Tempore of 14 July 1570, introducing the Roman Missal, the Pope declared that all the rites less than 200 years of age were to be abrogated. In virtue of his apostolic authority, he made the use of this missal compulsory for the Latin Church, even giving it a perpetual right:

We grant and concede in perpetuity that, for the chanting or reading of the Mass in any church whatsoever, this Missal is hereafter to be followed absolutely, without any scruple of conscience or fear of incurring any penalty, judgment, or censure, and may freely and lawfully be used. Nor are superiors, administrators, canons, chaplains, and other secular priests, or religious, of whatever title designated, obliged to celebrate the Mass otherwise than as enjoined by Us. We likewise declare and ordain that no one whosoever is forced or coerced to alter this Missal, and that this present document cannot be revoked or modified, but remain always valid and retain its full force.


The Mass of the Roman rite was the result of a slow process that rendered more explicit the nature of the Eucharistic sacrifice for a greater understanding of the supernatural mystery that takes place upon the altar.

Saint Pius V neither created a new missal nor abolished ancient reverent practices, but simply canonised a Mass that was the matured work of Catholic Tradition through centuries of liturgical practice. This approach is in clear contrast with the reform operated by Paul VI and Annibale Bugnini who wrote a new Missal suppressing ancient prayers and introducing new ones for the explicit purpose of favouring ecumenism. The 1969 Reform sought to destroy in an instant what took two millennia for the Holy Ghost to create in a gradual and homogeneous development.

It is only when the traditional Latin Mass becomes the “ordinary form” of the Mass again that the Church will be reconciled with her past and with herself and will experience the wonderful renewal foretold by mystics and saints.