The Theology and Spirituality of the Mass

By Father Franz Schmidberger

The following extract is from an article by Father Franz Schmidberger, published by St Pius X Priory, 110A Killiney Road, Singapore 239549.


The theme of our catechetical study is the "Theology and Spirituality of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass" - a comparison between the Traditional and the New Rites of Mass.

In its 22nd Session, the Council of Trent gave the following enlightening teaching on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass:

"Under the former Testament, according to the testimony of St. Paul, there was no perfection, because of the weakness of the Levitical priesthood; there was a need, God, the Father of Mercies, so ordaining, that another priest should rise, according to the order of Melchisedech, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who might consummate, and lead to what is perfect, as many as were to be sanctified" (cf. Hebrews 10: 14 [1]). He, therefore, our God and Lord, though He was about to offer Himself once on the altar of the cross unto God the Father, by means of His death in the Last Supper, on the night in which He was betrayed, that He might leave to His own beloved Spouse, the Church, a visible sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, whereby that bloody sacrifice once to be accomplished on the Cross, might be represented, and the memory thereof remain even unto the end of the world, and its salutary virtue to be applied to the remission of those sins which we daily commit, declaring Himself constituted a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech, He offered up to God the Father His own body and blood under the species of bread and wine; and under the symbols of those same things, He delivered (His own body and blood) to be received by His Apostles, whom He then constituted priests of the New Testament; and by those words, Do this in commemoration of Me (Luke 22: 19 [2]; 1 Corinthians 11: 23 [3]), He commanded them and their successors in the priesthood to offer (them); even as the Catholic Church has always understood and taught. For having celebrated the ancient Passover, which the multitude of the children of Israel immolated in memory of their going out of Egypt, He instituted the new Passover, (to wit) Himself to be immolated, under visible signs by the Church through the priests, in memory of His own passage, from this world unto the Father, when by the effusion of His own blood He redeemed us, and delivered us from the power of darkness, and translated us into His kingdom (Colossians 1: 13 [4]) (...). This, in fine, is that oblation which was prefigured by various types of sacrifices, during the period of nature, and of the law; inasmuch as it comprises all the good things sign signified by those sacrifices, as being the consummation and perfection of them all.

"And forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the Holy Synod teaches that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory, and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid (Hebrews 4: 16 [5]) if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. For the victim is one and the same; the same now offering by the ministry of priests who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner of offering alone being different. The fruits indeed of which oblation, of that bloody one, to wit, are received most plentifully through this unbloody one; so far is this (latter) from derogating in any way from that (former oblation). Wherefore, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those who are departed in Christ, and who are not as yet fully purified, is it rightly offered, agreeably to a tradition of the Apostles." (Denzinger - Schönmetzer (henceforth "DS") 1739- 1743).

Thus speaks the Council of Trent on the matter.

In this explanation it is clarified that:

  • The Mass is a true sacrifice, that is offered to God alone;
  • This sacrifice is offered for the praise and adoration of God in three Persons as thanksgiving, impetration, and above all as propitiation for our daily sins.
  • Christ offers Himself to His heavenly Father under the appearances of bread and wine He, as High Priest of the New Covenant, accomplishes this Sacrifice through human priests and by means of the Liturgical services of the Church. Let us take a closer look at each of these points.

The Mass is a Sacrifice

First of all, it should be clear that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered to God and to God alone, whilst the Sacraments are primarily instituted for humanity, for the sanctification of souls. Therefore, quite logically, the celebrant is turned towards God, the Incarnate and Crucified God. As shepherd, he stands with the flock facing one direction: both face the Heavenly Kingdom, Churches were therefore almost always built with their orientation to the East, so that the Altar was placed against the rising sun, which was considered to be the symbol of the Resurrected and Glorified Christ, above all in His Second Coming. The liturgist Klaus Gamber has convincingly explained in various publications that the celebration versus populum never existed in the Church.

This is the invention of a theology that is fast becoming the new orientation of the liturgical celebration and is the programme of a new direction for the Church contained within and according to the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, in the turning of the celebrant towards the people, the congregation, which has become so usual nowadays, the celebrant is often turning his back on the Blessed Sacrament.

A Special Place

When sacrifice is offered to God, then it is also right and fitting to set apart a special place, to erect a proper building for this, to bless it as a chapel or to consecrate it as a church, to build a sanctuary for the exclusive celebration of this Sacrifice with all those things that relate to it and flow from it; namely the proclamation of the Holy Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments as well as prayer.

A Sacred Language

Moreover, a sacred language, which raises people above everyday concerns, is most fitting for these proceedings. In our cultural milieu, Latin has become an expression and bond of the Church's unity. Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical letter Mediator Dei of 20 November 1947 declares that,

"the temerity and daring of those who introduce novel liturgical practices deserves severe reproof It has pained Us grievously to note, Venerable Brethren, that such innovations are actually being introduced, not merely in minor details but in matters of major importance as well. There are some who make use of the vernacular in the celebration of the august Eucharistic Sacrifice (...). The use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth."

A Mystery

Meanwhile, the objection is raised that the faithful would thus not understand the Sacred Action. In response to these objections, the Holy Mass is not, in the first place, instruction or catechesis, but Sacrifice offered to God. The content of an action is understood much more in its outward gestures than by the words used.

Besides, The Holy Mass concerns an unfathomable Mystery of the Faith, that will never be grasped by our sense of reason in its uttermost profundity. May the faithful thus prepare for the Holy sacrifice at home with their missals, so that - together with the Blessed Virgin Mary - they may then stand at the foot of the Cross during the Sacred Action and offer to our Heavenly Father, united with the celebrant, the Divine Victim, and, one with Him, offer themselves and their whole lives! In the Oriental Rites this mysterious character of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is emphasised all the more inasmuch as the most important parts of the liturgy are celebrated behind the Iconostasis.


[1] Hebrews 10:14: "For by one oblation he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified."

[2] Luke 22: 19: "And taking bread, he gave thanks, and brake; and gave to them, saying: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me."

[3] 1 Corinthians 11: 23: "For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread."

[4] Colossians 1: 13: "Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love."

[5] Hebrews 4: 16: "Let us go therefore with confidence to the throne of grace: that we may obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid."