(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Roman Catholicism from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. For this lesson, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
The MassHere we look at the Catholic Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist—or the Mass. It has been called the sacrament of sacraments, and understanding it is vital for anyone who wants to witness to Roman Catholics. As always, we want to present what Rome officially teaches. Let us once again refer to the Council of Trent, and some of the canons of the thirteenth session:
Canon 1. If anyone denies that in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist are contained truly, really and substantially the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ, but says that He is in it only as in a sign, or figure or force, let him be anathema.These teachings are reiterated in the modern Catholic Catechism—in no manner have they been modified since Trent. Indeed, this is one case where I suspect most Catholics are well versed on the teachings of their own church. Unlike, say, in the case of the Roman view on Justification which is not well understood by the laity, your everyday Catholic will give a fairly accurate accounting of the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. This is perhaps related to an interesting fact that James White points out: The new Catechism of the Catholic Church has nine paragraphs on the topic of justification but eighty-four on the Eucharist and fourteen summary paragraphs as well.
Canon 2. If anyone says that in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denies that wonderful and singular change of the whole substance of the bread into the body and the whole substance of the wine into the blood, the appearances only of bread and wine remaining, which change the Catholic Church most aptly calls transubstantiation, let him be anathema.
Canon 8. If anyone says that Christ received in the Eucharist is received spiritually only and not also sacramentally and really, let him be anathema.
In the twenty-second session of Trent (eleven years later!) the conferees again return to the subject of the Eucharist. In Chapter 2 of that session we read:
And inasmuch as in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner the same Christ who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross, the holy council teaches that this is truly propitiatory and has this effect, that if we, contrite and penitent, with sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence, draw nigh to God, we obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid. For, appeased by this sacrifice, the Lord grants the grace and gift of penitence and pardons even the gravest 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 alone of offering being different. The fruits of that bloody sacrifice, it is well understood, are received most abundantly through this unbloody one, so far is the latter from derogating in any way from the former. Where, according to the tradition of the Apostles, it is rightly offered not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those departed in Christ but not yet fully purified. (emphasis added)Which is followed by the usual anathemas:
Canon 1. If anyone says that in the mass a true and real sacrifice is not offered to God; or that to be offered is nothing else than that Christ is given to us to eat, let him be anathema.Well known Catholic writer Father John O’Brien puts this into everyday language in his book, The Faith of Millions:
Canon 2. If anyone says that by those words, Do this for a commemoration of me, Christ did not institute the Apostles priests; or did not ordain that they and other priests should offer His body and blood, let him be anathema.
Canon 3. If anyone says that the sacrifice of the mass is only of praise and thanksgiving; or that it is a mere commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross but not a propitiatory one; or that it profits him only who receives, and ought not to be offered for the living and the dead, for sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities, let him be anathema.
Canon 4. If anyone says that by the sacrifice of the mass a blasphemy is cast upon the most holy sacrifice of Christ consummated on the cross; or that the former derogates from the latter, let him be anathema.
Canon 5. If anyone says that it is a deception to celebrate masses in honor of the saints and in order to obtain their intercession with God, as the Church intends, let him be anathema.
Canon 6. If anyone says that the canon of the mass contains errors and is therefore to be abrogated, let him be anathema.
When the priest announces the tremendous words of consecration, he reaches up into the heavens, brings Christ down from His throne, and places Him upon our altar to be offered up again as the Victim for the sins of man. It is a power greater than that of saints and angels, greater than that of Seraphim and Cherubim. Indeed, it is greater even than the power of the Virgin Mary. While the blessed virgin was the human agency by which Christ became incarnate a single time, the priest brings Christ down from heaven, and renders Him present on our altar as the eternal Victim for the sins of man—not once but a thousand times! The priest speaks and lo! Christ, the eternal and omnipotent God, bows his head in humble obedience to the priest’s command.The Catholic priest is said to have the power to call God down from heaven to continue to do what the Lord Jesus said was finished. By the power of the priest’s voice, Christ bows His head in humble obedience! On uncountable times each day, all around the world, priests believe they re-present Jesus as a sacrificial victim for sins.
Of what sublime dignity is the office of the Christian priest who is thus privileged to act as the ambassador and the vicegerent of Christ on earth! He continues the essential ministry of Christ; he teaches the faithful with the authority of Christ, he pardons the penitent sinner with the power of Christ, he offers up again the same sacrifice of adoration and atonement which Christ offered on Calvary. No wonder that the name which spiritual writers are especially found of applying to the priest is that of 'alter Christus.' For the priest is and should be another Christ. (emphasis added)
White, fairly in my opinion, summarizes the official Catholic teaching on the Mass:
- Jesus Christ is truly, really, and substantially present in the sacrament of the Eucharist following the words of consecration.
- Transubstantiation involves the change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ, and the change of the whole substance of the wine into the blood of Christ.
- Since Christ is said to be really present in the Eucharist, the elements themselves, following consecration, are worthy of worship.
- The sacrifice of the mass is properly called “propitiatory” in that it brings about pardon of sin.
- In the institution of the Mass at the Lord’s Supper, Christ offered His own body and blood to the Father in the signs of the bread and wine, and in doing so ordained the Apostles as priests of the New Testament.
- The Sacrifice of the Mass is properly offered for sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities, not only for the living but for the dead.
- Finally, anyone who denies the truthfulness of any of these proclamations is under the anathema of God.
The first is transubstantiation, which refers to the belief that following consecration the bread (wafer) and wine are turned into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. We won’t deny that God could do this. We will argue that scripture never teaches it.
The second theme is Rome’s claim that the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus, differing only one way from the Cross: it is bloodless rather than bloody. Other than that, they are the same. Christ is offered as a substitute for the sins of man every time an Catholic priest performs the Mass. There is a self-consistency here: Rome acknowledges that the efficacy of the Mass is not guaranteed. You can, in theory, attend Mass a thousand times during your lifetime, which gives you a thousand and one (the cross) times that Jesus was sacrificed on your behalf—only to commit a mortal sin at the last hour and lose your salvation. The Mass is needed because the Cross is not a guarantee to believers—and so the Mass has to be just as incomplete.
The sacrifice of the Mass effects the remission of the temporal punishments for sin which still remain after the forgiveness of the guilt of sins and of the eternal punishment, not merely mediately by the conferring of the grace of penance, but also immediately, because the atonement of Jesus Christ is offered as a substitute for our works of atonement and for the sufferings of the poor souls. The measurement of the punishments of sins remitted is proportional, in the case of the living, to the degree of perfection of their disposition. In the case of suffering souls, the Satisfactory operation of the Mass is applied by way of intercession.
As a propitiatory and impetratory Sacrifice, the Sacrifice of the Mass possesses a finite external value, since the operation of propitiatory and impetration refer to human beings who, as creature can receive a finite act only. This explains the practice of the Church offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass frequently for the same intention. (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ludwig Ott, p.414, 1974.)
Next: A more careful look at transubstantiation.