What is a Mass?

Many readers have probably heard parishioners say something like “I went to Mass at the cathedral on Good Friday” or “I like it when Mr Smith says Mass on Father’s day off”. After a prayer assembly at school, one parent remarked, “I’ve just been to the school Mass”. The only trouble is, these events are not ‘Mass’.
The word ‘Mass’ is not a general term for any prayer gathering in the church. It is quite specific in its meaning. It refers to the Eucharist which we normally celebrate on Sundays. It has two main parts:
n the Liturgy of the Word when we listen to the readings and the homily, say the creed and pray our intercessions;
n the Liturgy of the Eucharist when we carry bread and wine to the altar, offer the great Prayer of Thanksgiving (which include the story of the Lord’s Supper), share the Lord’s Prayer and a sign of peace and receive the body and blood of the Lord in holy communion.
It is not Mass that is celebrated on Good Friday but a liturgy consisting of the reading of the passion, veneration of the cross and receiving communion. A Liturgy of the Word with Communion led by a lay person is not Mass. When the school gathers for readings, prayers and songs it is not Mass.
On the sign in a church car park reading “This car park closes 15 minutes after Services” someone crossed out the word ‘Services’ and replaced it with the word ‘Masses’.
There are many parts of the liturgy which are not Mass: for example, baptism, anointing the sick, weddings and funerals (though all these can take place within a Mass); the sacrament of penance; morning and evening prayer (based on praying the psalms); a service of the Word; benediction and rites of blessing.
It seems that many people do not know the correct terminology when it comes to describing various forms of public worship, or liturgy. A few definitions might help:
“Mass”. The term comes from the final words of the Eucharist, Ite missa est (Go, the Mass is ended). It means ‘sent’. Having been renewed and fed at the table of the Lord, we are sent to be missionaries of the gospel in the world.
“Eucharist”. This word comes from the Greek meaning ‘thanksgiving’. We give thanks for all the wonderful things God has done for us, especially for sending us his Son, Jesus, in whose death and resurrection we participate when we offer the Mass.
“Liturgy” is a more general word which literally means ‘the work of the people’. It refers to the public work of the people of God in giving God praise and thanks.
“Prayer” refers to personal communication with a deity, especially in the form of supplication, adoration, praise, contrition, or thanksgiving. Prayer is not about God but is addressed to God.
“Ritual”. This refers to the prescribed or established form of words, actions and symbols of a religious ceremony.
Mass is unique among all liturgical prayer special because, by our offering, we join ourselves to Christ’s self offering on the cross and become part of Christ’s great act of reconciliation between the human race and God. Each Mass leads us to the heart of the Easter mystery by which we are saved.


Elizabeth Harrington