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A History Of The Mass And Its Ceremonies In The Eastern And Western Church -Rev John O'Brien A.M.

From the various circumstances attending the celebration of Mass, from the ceremonies employed, and the peculiar end for which it is offered, different names have been given to qualify it, such as Solemn High Mass, Simple High Mass, Low Mass, Conventual Mass, Bridal or Nuptial Mass, Golden Mass, Private Mass, Solitary Mass, Votive Mass, Dry Mass, Evening and Midnight Mass, Mass of the Presanctified, Mass of Requiem, and Mass of Judgment.

Solemn High Mass.—When Mass is celebrated with deacon and subdeacon and a full corps of inferior ministers, it is denominated a Solemn High Mass. In many places of Europe the name grand is given it on account of its ritualistic display. It is called high from the fact that the greater part of it is chanted in a high tone of voice. When there is neither deacon nor subdeacon ministering, a Mass of this kind receives the name of Simple High Mass, or Missa Cantata.

Low Mass.—Low Mass is so called from its being said in a low tone of voice, in contradistinction to High Mass, which is chanted aloud. At a Mass of this kind the usual marks of solemnity are dispensed with. It is, in great part, read by the priest in an ordinary tone of voice, without any assistants save the server, who answers the responses in the name of the people and administers to the wants of the altar.

Conventual Mass.—Conventual Mass, strictly speaking, is that which the rectors and canons attached to a cathedral are required to celebrate daily after the hour of Tierce—that is, at about nine o’clock.

According to several authorities of note, this Mass is also of obligation in convents where the Blessed Sacrament is kept, and even in rural churches which enjoy the same privilege (De Herdt, i. 14). Conventual Mass is also known by the several names of Canonical, Public, Common, and Major. The last appellation is given it on account of the peculiar privileges it enjoys over ordinary Masses.

Bridal or Nuptial Mass.—It has always been the wish of the Church that at the solemnization of holy matrimony Mass should, if possible, be offered in behalf of the newly-married couple, in order that Almighty God may bless their union and favor them with a happy offspring. A special service is set apart in the Missal for this end, called in Latin “Missa pro Sponso et Sponsa”—i.e., Mass for the Bridegroom and Bride—and the Mass itself is considered among the privileged, for it may be celebrated on days of greater rite (Bouvry, Expositio Rubricarum, ii. 601).

At a Mass of this kind a few ceremonies may be seen which are peculiar to it alone. As far as the “Pater Noster” it differs in nothing from an ordinary Mass; but when the priest has come to that part of the service immediately before the “Libera nos,” he stands at the Epistle corner of the altar, and, having turned towards the bride and bridegroom, who are kneeling in front of him, reads over them from the Missal two prayers upon the nature and solemnity of their union. This being done, the bridal party retire to their places, and the Mass goes on as usual until the time of the last blessing. Here the priest turns round to the party again, and reads over them the following prayer: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob be with you; may he shower his blessing upon you, that you may behold your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation; and may you enjoy afterwards eternal, unending life through the help of our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth God, world without end. Amen.” After this the priest is directed to admonish the newly-married pair of the mutual faith and love they owe each other, and of the obligations they are under to remain continent on those occasions that the Church has set apart for special prayer and fasting. They are finally exhorted to live in the fear of God. The priest then sprinkles them with holy water, and Mass concludes as usual.

Bridal Mass according to the Sarum Rite.—According to the Sarum rite, of which we shall give a full account further on, Bridal Mass was celebrated with peculiar and interesting ceremonies. The marriage itself was performed at the church door, in order that all might witness it. From this the priest led up the married couple to the altar-steps, where he prayed over them and begged also the prayers of the people in their behalf. Mass was then begun, and the moment the “Sanctus” bell sounded the newly-married knelt near the foot of the altar, while some of the clerics of the sanctuary held over them a large pall commonly called the care cloth. This cloth was not removed until a little before the “Pax.” The bride was required on this occasion to allow her hair to flow moderately upon her shoulders, and wear, if her circumstances allowed it, a wreath of jewels, or at least of flowers, upon her head.

The dress of Margaret, eldest daughter of Henry VII., King of England, when going to be married to King James of Scotland, is thus described by Pauper: “She had a varey riche coller of gold, of pyerrery and perles round her neck, and the cronne apon hyr hed, her hayre hangyng.” Just before the “Pax” the priest turned round to the new couple and imparted the marriage blessing, after which the care cloth was removed. The “Pax” was then given according to the ancient mode, and not with the Pacifical. The bridegroom received it first from the priest at the altar, and then bestowed it on his spouse. After Mass bread and wine, hallowed by the priest’s blessing, used to be distributed among all the friends of the newly-married couple who happened to be in church during the ceremonies.

According to the rite followed at York, the nuptial blessing was generally given by the priest with the chalice, and this on account of the great dignity of the Sacrament of Matrimony. (The reader who wishes to see more upon this subject will do well to consult that excellent work of Dr. Rock known as the Church of our Fathers, vol. iii. part 2, 172.)

Golden Mass (Missa aurea).—Golden Mass was one that used to be celebrated formerly on the Wednesdays of the quarter tenses of Advent in honor of the Mother of God. It used to be a Solemn High Mass of the most gorgeous kind, and was often protracted three or four hours, in order to give full sway to the ceremonies and musical pieces employed on the occasion. The bishop and all his canons assisted at it, as well as the members of the different religious communities of the place where it was celebrated. It was customary, too, to distribute gifts, and those very often of the costliest kind, among the people who assisted at it; and, from the nature and excellence of the mystery in honor of which it was offered, it used to be written in letters of gold, hence its name (Gavantus, Thesaur. Sacr. Rit., 27; Bouvry, ii. 105). Traces of this Mass may be witnessed yet here and there through Germany; but at the Church of St. Gudule, in Brussels, the regular Mass is celebrated every year on the 23d of December. Thousands assist at it on this occasion.

Private Mass.—Whenever the expression “Missa private” is used by the rubrics, Low Mass, in contradistinction to High Mass, is always, or nearly always, meant. But by Private Mass we mean something entirely different. Strictly speaking, a Private Mass is one in which only the priest himself communicates (Gavantus, p. 29). It receives its name of private from the fact that no concourse of people assists at it, and that it is celebrated in some private oratory or chapel to which all have not access. According to the mind of the Council of Trent (session 22, chap. 6), no Mass is private in the Catholic acceptation of the word; for all, whether private or public, are offered by a public minister of the Church, not for himself alone, but for the entire household of faith (ibidem).

And that Masses of this kind have been practised from the very days of the Apostles themselves the most indubitable testimony proves; although the heretics of the sixteenth century would fain have it that such Masses were unheard of, nay, even forbidden, by the early Church. But Cardinal Bona shows to a demonstration that Private Masses have been in use always, and mentions, among others, the testimony of Tertullian, who lived away back in the second century, in proof of his assertion (Bona, Rer. Liturg., p. 231).

The first daring attack made upon Masses of this kind was by the arch-heretic Luther himself, who declared that, in a conversation which he had had with the devil, it was revealed to him that such Masses were real idolatry (Bouvier, Theol. Moral., iii. 224).

To put an end to all cavil on this subject, the Holy Council of Trent, in its 22d session, canon 8, thus decreed: “Si quis dixerit Missas in quibus solus sacerdos sacramentaliter communicat illicitas esse ideoque abrogandas, anathema sit.” That is, If any one shall say that those Masses in which only the priest communicates sacramentally are illicit, and that hence they should be abolished, let him be anathema.

Solitary Mass.—When Mass is said by a priest alone, without the attendance of people, or even of a server, it is called a Solitary Mass. Masses of this kind were once very common in monasteries and religious communities (Bona, p. 230), and they are still practised to a great extent in missionary countries. They cannot, however, be said without grave necessity; for it is considered a serious offence by theologians to celebrate without a server, and this server must be always a male, never a female, no matter how pressing the necessity be.

Strangely enough, Solitary Masses were forbidden in days gone by by several local councils, and this principally for the reason that it seemed ridiculous to say “Dominus vobiscum,” the Lord be with you; “Oremus,” let us pray; and “Orate fratres,” pray, brethren, when there were no persons present. The Council of Mayence, held in the time of Pope Leo III. (A.D. 815), directly forbade a priest to sing Mass alone. The prohibition not merely to sing it, but to celebrate at all without witnesses, was repeated by the Council of Nantes, and for the reasons alleged. Gratian cites a canon in virtue of which two witnesses at least were required for the due celebration of every Mass; and this we find to be the rule among the early Cistercians.

Cardinal Bona (Rer. Liturg., p. 230), from whom we copy these remarks, seems much in doubt as to whether Solitary Masses were wholly abrogated in his day. He instances, however, a well-known exception in case of a certain monastery which enjoyed the privilege from the Holy See of celebrating without having any person to respond.

According to the present discipline of the Church, whenever necessity compels a priest to celebrate alone he must recite the responses himself, and otherwise act as if he had a full congregation listening to him. He must not omit, abridge, add, or change anything to suit the peculiar circumstances of the occasion, but must do everything that the rubrics prescribe for ordinary Mass, and this under pain of sin.

Votive Mass.—As every day in the year has a Mass more or less peculiar to itself, whenever this order is broken in upon the Mass introduced is denominated Votive. Rubricists define it as a Mass not in accordance with the office of the day; and it receives its name Votive from the fact that it is celebrated to satisfy either the pious wishes of the priest himself or of some member of his congregation.

Masses, of this kind are subject to various restrictions. They cannot be celebrated unless on days of minor rite, nor without a reasonable cause; for the rubrics of the Missal are very explicit in saying that, as far as can be done, the Mass ought to agree with the office of the day. St. Liguori says that a Votive Mass cannot be said merely on the plea that it is shorter than the Mass of the day, but that a more serious reason is required (Book vi., No. 419). A sufficient reason, however, would be if either the person asking such a Mass, or the person offering it, had a special devotion to some particular saint or mystery (De Herdt, i. 27).

Dry Mass.—When neither the consecration nor consumption of either element takes place the Mass is said to be a Dry Mass. In ancient times the word Nautical was applied to it, from the fact of its being confined principally to voyages on sea, where the difficulty of celebrating ordinary Mass would be very great on account of the rolling of the vessel and other causes. In celebrating a Mass of this kind all the sacred vestments were allowed; but, inasmuch as no consecration took place, the use of a chalice was forbidden. All those prayers which did not bear directly on the Offertory or Consecration could be recited, such as the opening psalm, the “Introit,” “Kyrie eleison,” “Gloria in excelsis,” “Credo,” Epistle and Gospel, as well as the “Preface.” It was also allowed to impart the usual blessing at the end. It was customary, too, in some places to employ the services of deacon and subdeacon, in order to give it as solemn an air as possible. Genebrard, a Benedictine monk, who died towards the end of the sixteenth century, testifies that he himself was present at a Solemn Dry Mass celebrated at Turin one evening for the repose of the soul of a certain nobleman who had just departed life. These Masses were often said for the special gratification of the sick who could not attend church on account of their infirmities; also for prisoners, and, as has already been said, for seafaring people. But such Masses have long passed into desuetude. They are practised no more, and deservedly, for many well-meaning but simple-minded people were often led to put as much faith in their efficacy as in a real Mass (see Durandus, Rationale Divinorum, § par. 23; Bona, Rer. Liturg., 235, 236; and Gavantus, Thesaur. S. Rit., 33).

Evening Mass (Missa vespertina).—In the time of St. Augustine (fifth century) it was customary throughout Africa to celebrate Mass on Holy Thursday evening in memory of the institution of the Blessed Sacrament on that day. It used to be said by a priest who had already broken his fast (Martene, De Antiquis Eccl. Ritibus; Bona, Rer. Liturg., 255). Touching this Mass the fourth Council of Carthage decreed as follows: “The Sacrament of the Altar must not be celebrated unless by a priest who is fasting, except on the anniversary of the institution of the Holy Eucharist.”

Another custom, too, that prevailed in certain places was to say Mass for the dead at any time of the day that one of the faithful died, and this whether the priest had broken his fast or not (see article on the Offertorium of Masses for the Dead). But this practice was condemned almost as soon as its introduction by several councils, and among others by those of Carthage in Africa and Braga in Spain (Bona, 255).

Evening Mass in the Eastern Church.—As the majority of the Oriental churches do not reserve the Blessed Eucharist as we do, and this principally for the reason that leavened bread will soon corrupt in such climates as theirs, they are necessitated, in order to give the Holy Viaticum to the dying, to celebrate frequently in the evening, which, of course, they will do after having broken their fast.

The Copts never reserve the Blessed Sacrament from one Mass to another, for reasons which we shall give when treating of Holy Communion, but will celebrate any hour of the day or night that they are called on to communicate the dying (Denzinger, Ritus Orientalium, p. 85).

Midnight Mass.—Midnight Masses, and Nocturnal Masses generally, were very frequent during the days of persecution, when the Christians were forbidden to assemble anywhere in daytime.

There were certain festivals, also, in later times for which Midnight Mass was prescribed, but all these privileges have long since been taken away, the only one remaining being that attached to Christmas, upon which night a Nocturnal Mass, as of old, is yet celebrated in many places.

In the Eastern Church Midnight Mass has never been much in vogue. One of the most gorgeous displays, however, of ritual ever known is to be witnessed in Russia at the Midnight Mass of Easter. As soon as twelve o’clock is announced all the bells of the Kremlin, whose number is legion, begin to toll, and they are immediately answered by all the other bells in Moscow. At the sound of these bells every inhabitant rises from sleep and repairs to church to hear the news of the risen Saviour. The whole city is in a blaze, for every window has a light, and a torch burns at the corner of every street. The great tower of the cathedral is illuminated from base to summit with myriads of lights, and lights burn in the hands of every man, woman, and child. The scene inside the different churches, but especially in the cathedral, defies description. The most costly vestments are used on this occasion, and neither labor nor expense is spared to make it worthy, in some way, of the great mystery it commemorates (Burder, Religious Rites and Ceremonies, p. 154).

Mass of the Presanctified.—This Mass receives its name, Presanctified, from the fact that it is celebrated with a Host consecrated on a previous occasion, and has no consecration of either element itself. In the Latin Church this Mass is celebrated but once a year—viz., on Good Friday—but in the Greek Church it is peculiar to every day in Lent except Saturdays, Sundays, and the Feast of the Annunciation, when the regular Mass is offered (Goar, Euchologium Græcorum, p. 205). This custom of not celebrating daily in the East during Lent is as old at least as the Council of Laodicea, held in A.D. 314. When the custom began in the Latin Church it is not easy to determine. Another difference in discipline between the Latin and Greek Church in regard to this Mass is this: that in the former no Communion is given during the service, but in the latter it is customary to communicate always on such occasions. The service in the Russian Church is thus spoken of by Romanoff:

In the early days of the Christian Church the Fathers did not consider it seemly to celebrate the comforting feast on days of humiliation and mourning for sin, and permitted Mass to be sung on Saturdays and Sundays only during Lent, and on the Annunciation and Holy Thursday. But as many pious Christians, accustomed to daily Communion, could not bring themselves to forego the strengthening and refreshing of their souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, the holy Church granted them the indulgence of the Liturgy of Preconsecrated Elements, when the bread and wine consecrated on the Sunday preceding are administered on Wednesdays and Fridays to those who desire them” (Romanoff, Rites and Customs of the Greco-Russian Church, p. 123).

Mass of Requiem.—This is a Mass celebrated in behalf of the dead, and is subject almost to the same rules as a regular Votive Mass. If the body of the deceased be present during its celebration, it enjoys privileges that it otherwise would not, for it cannot be celebrated unless within certain restrictions. Masses of this kind are accustomed to be said in memory of the departed faithful, first, when the person dies—or, as the Latin phrase has it, “dies obitus seu depositionis.” which means any day that intervenes from the day of one’s demise to his burial; secondly, on the third day after death, in memory of our Divine Lord’s resurrection after three days’ interval; thirdly, on the seventh day, in memory of the mourning of the Israelites seven days for Joseph (Genesis 50:10); fourthly, on the thirtieth day, in memory of Moses and Aaron, whom the Israelites lamented this length of time (Numb. 20; Deut. 34); and, finally, at the end of a year, or on the anniversary day itself (Gavant., Thesaur. Rit., 62). This custom also prevails with the Orientals.

Mass of Judgment.—The Book of Numbers, in its fifth chapter, has special directions for establishing the guilt or innocence of the wife who, whether justly or unjustly, had fallen under the suspicion of her husband. She was first to be taken before the priest with an offering of barley. The priest “took her before the Lord,” as the expression goes, and put into her hand holy water mingled with some of the dust of the floor of the tabernacle. In this solemn condition the nature and enormity of the charges preferred were clearly explained to her, and she was assured that, if guilty of them, the water she held in her hand would, when she drank it, cause her “belly to swell and her thigh to rot,” and she would be as a curse among the people; but if she were innocent she had nothing to fear. This was called the trial by the “waters of jealousy” (see Bannister’s Temples of the Hebrews, p. 305), from which, no doubt, we are to trace what we are now going to treat of—the Mass of Judgment. That Masses of this kind were at one time very common we cannot deny, but we can deny, and that most emphatically, that they ever had the free sanction of the Church. They were altogether local abuses, and, when permitted to go on, it was wholly because, under the pressing circumstances of the times, better could not be done. Dr. Lingard, in his History of the Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church, ii. 130, thus speaks upon this subject: “Before I conclude this chapter I must notice an extraordinary practice which united the most solemn rites of religion with the public administration of justice. To elicit, in judicial proceedings, a truth from a mass of unsatisfactory and often discordant evidence demands a power of discrimination and accuracy of judgment which it were vain to expect from the magistrates of a nation just emerging from ignorance and barbarity. The jurisprudence of an illiterate people is generally satisfied with a shorter and more simple process. While the Anglo-Saxons adored the gods of their fathers, the decision of criminal prosecution was frequently entrusted to the wisdom of Woden. When they became Christians they confidently expected from the true God that miraculous interposition which they had before sought from an imaginary deity.” A little further on the author thus describes what used to take place on such occasions: “Three nights before the day appointed for the trial the accused was led to the priest; on the three following mornings he assisted and made his offering at Mass; and during the three days he fasted on bread, herbs, salt, and water. At the Mass on the third day the priest called him to the altar before the Communion, and adjured him by the God whom he adored, by the religion which he professed, by the baptism with which he had been regenerated, and by the holy relics that reposed in the church, not to receive the Eucharist or go to the ordeal if his conscience reproached him with the crime of which he had been accused.” The priest then administered Holy Communion with these words: “May this Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ prove thee innocent or guilty this day.” When Mass was finished the accused was again expected to deny the charge and take the following oath: “In the Lord I am guiltless, both in word and deed, of the crime of which I am accused.” Dr. Lingard remarks in a footnote (p. 131) that the practice of ordeal prevailed among all the northern nations that embraced Christianity after the fifth century. But Masses of Judgment were by no means confined to the illiterate or to those newly emerging from barbarism. The most cultivated and civilized had recourse to them, and they were in vogue among some of the most refined nations of Europe. St. Cunegunda, wife of King Henry II. of Germany, proved herself innocent in this way of a charge of adultery. She went through the ordeal of walking over a number of red-hot ploughshares, from which she escaped unhurt (Butler’s Lives of the Saints; Gavantus, Thesaur. Sacr. Rit., p. 38). Queen Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor, subjected herself to a similar test, in order to establish her innocence of a foul calumny circulated of her. Lingard, however, seems to discredit this latter story; but authorities of good standing make mention of it (see the Month, February, 1874, p. 214, for full particulars).

We have said that this practice of detecting crime by having immediate recourse to God through the holy sacrifice of the Mass was never directly sanctioned by the supreme authority of the Church, but only permitted because of the great difficulty and danger of eradicating it all at once. Our proofs of this are the following: Pope Gregory the Great condemned it as far back as A.D. 592; it was condemned expressly by the Council of Worms in 829, and Pope Nicholas I. repeated the condemnation upon his elevation to the chair of St. Peter in 858; Pope St. Stephen condemned it, too, and so did several other popes and councils (see Butler’s Lives of the Saints and Alzog’s Universal Church History, vol. ii. p. 155, by Pabish and Byrne). It is hardly necessary to add that Masses of this kind are now unknown in the Church.

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