First Published in 1868.
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The Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
BEFORE speaking of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, I must first explain to you what is meant by sacrifice. A sacrifice, or oblation, in its most general sense is anything that is offered to God. In this sense, a sacrifice may consist of the internal motions of the heart, as Holy Scripture for instance calls a contrite heart "a sacrifice to God." But, in its strict sense, a sacrifice is an offering to God of some sensible object, to acknowledge, by the destruction or change of this object, the sovereign power of God and His absolute dominion over all creatures, as also to render Him the homage due to His Divine Majesty.
All nations have agreed upon the propriety of making such oblations to the Being to Whom they give supreme honor. The Holy Scripture, the most ancient of all histories, tells us that Cain and Abel offered sacrifices to God soon after the Fall of our first parents. At the time of the Deluge we find Noah offering clean animals to God, and the same was often done by Abraham and his posterity. Now, how are we to account for so general an agreement of mankind about this mode of worshiping God? Reason alone must convince man of the necessity of expressing in some external way his obligation of dependence on God. We are composed of soul and body, and as we know that God has a right to the services of both, we cannot be satisfied until we have given an adequate expression to the emotions of our heart. It is not very probable, however, that natural reason dictated that particular species of oblation which has been in use among most nations: I mean animal sacrifice.
For, although the sense of guilt, which has weighed upon all men ever since the Fall of Adam, would naturally have suggested to them the necessity of some expiatory offering whenever they were about to approach God, yet we cannot see why they should have chosen to sacrifice an animal for that purpose. On the contrary, the offering to God of the life of a harmless creature, in expiation of the sins of men, considered apart from Divine Revelation, would seem to be even absurd. It is, therefore, most probable that God Himself instituted animal sacrifice in the beginning of the world to foreshadow the meritorious sacrifice of Christ and to give man a means of acknowledging his guilt.
Now, domestic animals have been generally chosen, for sacrifice, chiefly for two reasons: first, because they stood in the nearest relation to man and consequently were the most fitting substitutes to bear the penalty which he had incurred; and secondly, because by their gentleness and innocence, they served to represent the meek and spotless Lamb of God. However, this original revelation concerning animal sacrifice, of which we find traces among all nations, became very much corrupted in the course of time. Supposing that that which they loved and prized the most would be the most acceptable offering to God, men went at last so far as to sacrifice their fellow men, nay, even the lives of their own children.
Of course such sacrifices were in the highest degree hateful in the sight of God. In order, therefore, to teach men how to worship Him properly, the Lord chose a particular people, to whom He gave express and minute directions about the sacrifices that they were to offer. This was the Jewish nation. Out of this nation He chose a particular family-----the family of Aaron-----who were to offer Him sacrifice. These sacrifices ordained by God were of various kinds: offerings of adoration, offerings of impetration, sin offerings, and thanksgiving offerings.
In some of these sacrifices the victim was only partially consumed by fire, while in others it was entirely consumed. The latter were called holocausts or burnt offerings. This system of worship lasted until the coming of our Saviour. It was then abolished because all these sacrifices were in themselves utterly incapable of appeasing the wrath of God. They were meritorious merely because they prefigured the death of Christ; consequently, after that event these sacrifices became entirely unmeaning and worthless. Ever since the death of Christ there has been no bloody sacrifice, for the death of Our Lord was the true propitiation for the sins of the world.
The Prophet, however, expressly foretold the institution of a new kind of sacrifice, a real sacrifice, though an unbloody one, which was to succeed the abrogated sacrifices of the Old Law and to be offered unceasingly in every part of the world. The passage to which I allude is very remarkable; it is from the prophet Malachy (1:10-11): "I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord of hosts," addressing the Jewish people, "and I will not receive a gift of your hand. For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, My name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to My name a clean oblation: for My name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts." Here we have the promise that when the Jewish sacrifices should have ceased, another and far more precious sacrifice would be offered, visible indeed like them, but, unlike them, possessed of an intrinsic sanctity, a sacrifice that was to be offered from the rising to the setting of the sun-----a sacrifice that was to be offered in every place, even to the End of Time.
Now all these attributes are found-----and found only-----in the Catholic sacrifice of the Mass. This is so evident that all the Fathers of the Church, with one accord, interpret this passage as a clear prophecy of this most adorable sacrifice. It is a real sacrifice in the proper sense of the word because Our Lord is not only really present in the consecrated Host, but He also truly offers Himself to His heavenly Father. It is not, however, a bloody sacrifice, because Our Lord is not really slain in the Mass; His death is merely represented in a mystical manner by the separation and destruction of the species. According to some of the Holy Fathers, the word Mass is derived from the Latin word "missa" or "missio," which signifies a "sending," because God sends His well-beloved Son to be our victim, and the priest sends Him back to the Eternal Father as our ransom and our intercessor.
But you may ask, does it not argue a want of perfection in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to continue thus to offer Himself in the Mass? By no means. The sacrifice of the Mass is the same that was offered on the Cross, the only difference being in the manner of offering. The victim is the same in both-----it is Jesus Christ, the true Lamb of God, really slain on the Cross, mystically slain in the Mass; the priest, too, is the same: it is Jesus Christ, the true High Priest, Who offered Himself immediately on the Cross and Who offers Himself mediately by the ministry of His priests in the Mass. In itself, the sacrifice which our Saviour offered on the Cross is of infinite value, and it is more than sufficient for our redemption. But of what use will it be to us, unless it is applied to our souls? Of what use is it to a poor person to know that there is somewhere a sum sufficient for his ransom, if that sum be not really given
Cardinal Hosius gives a beautiful illustration of this truth: "Suppose," he says, "that there were, in a certain city, a large fountain of water, sufficient to supply the wants of all the inhabitants. Suppose that this fountain was situated in the center of the city and entirely open to all; will the mere fact of the existence of such a fountain be sufficient to supply everybody's wants? Must not everyone that stands in need of this water either draw it himself or have it brought to him by some means or other? Now, there is a fountain of living water flowing from the open side of Jesus Christ; it is a never-failing fountain, a copious fountain, sufficient and more than sufficient to wash away the sins of the whole world and to impart life to all the children of men. In order, however, that we may experience the wonderful virtue of this living water, it must be applied to our souls.
"Now, Jesus Christ has established certain channels through which the waters of His grace come to us. Baptism is one of these channels; the daily Sacrifice, which we call Mass, is another. By this sacrifice, the fruit of the sacrifice accomplished on the Cross and the Precious Blood there shed for us are applied to our souls. How unjustly, then, do the Protestant ministers reproach us with obscuring the sacrifice of the Cross by our daily sacrifice of the Altar! Would it not be absurd to say that to desire Baptism and to place one's confidence in water, instead of in the blood of the Redeemer, would be to disparage the merits of Christ? Now, just as absurd is it to say that we, by our daily sacrifice, obscure the glory of the sacrifice of the Cross and detract from its dignity, since we, by this very means, only participate in the sacrifice of the Cross and make it available to our salvation." (Confessio Cathol. Fidei in Synodo Petriconensi, C. 41, Fol. 94.).
Moreover, our Divine Saviour instituted the sacrifice of the Mass in order that His religion might not be wanting in what even the Jewish religion possessed, a continual sacrifice, and that we might have an adequate means to worship Him properly. The sacrifice of the Mass, therefore, far from derogating from the sacrifice of the Cross, only brings it nearer to us and renews and extends its effects in a wonderful manner.
Our Blessed Lord instituted this sacrifice of the Mass at the Last Supper. On the very night in which He was betrayed, He changed bread and wine into His Body and Blood and gave to the Apostles and to their successors the power to do the same in commemoration of Him. In obedience to the commands of Our Lord, the Apostles frequently offered up the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as we see from the Acts of the Apostles (2:42) and from the writings of the Fathers of the Church, especially of St. Ignatius the Martyr and St. Clement, both disciples of the Apostles.
The wooden altar on which St. Peter and the succeeding Popes-----down to St. Sylvester-----used to say Mass is still preserved at Rome. St. Matthew the Apostle was pierced with a lance in the very act of saying Mass. When St. Andrew the Apostle was required by the tyrant Aegeas to sacrifice to the gods if he wished to escape the punishment of the cross, he replied: "I daily offer up on the altar to the only true and Almighty God the Immaculate Lamb, which, though it is consumed, remains always living and entire. And indeed St. Paul expressly declares, in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat, who serve the [Jewish] tabernacle." (Heb. 13:10).
An altar implies a sacrifice, since an altar is used only for sacrifice. Now as there is no other sacrifice in the Christian religion than that of the Eucharist, it follows that the altar of which the Apostle speaks must have been an altar for saying Mass. The Fathers of the Church commonly speak of the Mass as "a salutary sacrifice." St. Cyprian, in the third century, calls it "an everlasting sacrifice." (Lib. de coena). St. Augustine, in the fourth century, declares it to be "a true and august sacrifice, and that it has supplanted all former sacrifices." (De Civil. Dei, Cap. xx). But no one has spoken of the subject in more sublime terms than St. John Chrysostom. "O wonder!" he exclaims in his homily De Sacra Mensa. "At this table, so magnificently furnished, the Lamb of God is immolated for thee; there the Cherubim are present; there the Seraphim attend; there all the Angels join with the priest in praying for thy welfare."
And again, in his book De Sacrificio (Lib. iii), he says: "When thou beholdest the Lord immolated and lying upon the altar and the priest bending over the sacrifice and praying and all the assistants reddened with that precious blood, dost thou think that thou art still on earth? Does it not rather seem to thee that thou art rapt into Paradise and beholding with the eye of thy soul the things that are done in
Heaven?" In his eighty-third homily, he says: "How surpassingly pure ought he to be who offers such a sacrifice? Ought not the hand that divides this sacred flesh, the mouth that is filled with this spiritual fire, the tongue that is dyed with this most sacred blood be purer than the light of the sun? Think how thou art honored, to what a banquet thou art admitted! That before which the Angels tremble and veil their faces is our food; we are united to Christ; we are made one body and one flesh with Him!" "Who shall declare the power of the Lord and set forth all His praises?"
These passages give us a very exalted idea of the dignity and value of the Sacrifice of the Mass, and yet they fall far short of the reality. Indeed, if all the learned and saintly men that ever lived, or ever will live, were to unite with the Angels and Saints of Heaven and with the Blessed Mother of God herself and were each to strive to the utmost of his power to set forth the dignity of the. Mass, they would all be unable to praise it worthily.
None of the Doctors of the Church has written so fully and profoundly on this subject as St. Thomas Aquinas, and Our Lord Himself commended him for his efforts to explain and illustrate it; but even he did not receive the praise of having written worthily on the subject; Our Lord only said to him: "Thomas, bene de me scripsisti"-----"Thomas, thou hast written well concerning Me." Not worthily! Nay, if Our Lord Himself were to appear to us and to describe the greatness of the Mass, we should not be able to understand Him, for the Mass is infinite in dignity, since it is God Himself Who is the priest and victim.
St. Chrysostom was therefore right in applying to this glorious mystery the words of the Psalmist: "Who shall declare the power of the Lord and set forth all His praises!" But besides the great dignity of the Mass, there is another reason for which we should esteem this holy sacrifice: it is its great utility.
Mass is, in the first place, a sacrifice of adoration; secondly, a sacrifice of thanksgiving; thirdly, it is a sacrifice of propitiation; and fourthly, a sacrifice of impetration. I said, in the first place, that the Holy Mass is a sacrifice of adoration, that is to say, a sacrifice by which we render to God a worship corresponding to His greatness. It is evident that we are bound to worship God, for even our reason tells us that honor should be given to whom honor is due. We usually honor men according to their rank and acquirements. We honor a man of learning, for instance, more than an ignorant rustic; a Saint more than a sinner; a prince more than a peasant; a priest more than a layman. Now God is infinite in all His perfections and consequently desires supreme honor and reverence. He alone is, as the Holy Scripture says, "Blessed and Mighty, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords; Who alone hath immortality and inhabiteth light inaccessible; Whom no man hath seen nor can see; to Whom be honor and empire ever lasting.
Now, how are we to render to God the honor that is due to Him? I have said already that sacrifice is the mode by which we acknowledge the supreme sovereignty of God, but where shall we find a sacrifice pure and precious enough to be offered to His Majesty? It is plain that we finite creatures have nothing of ourselves great enough to offer Him; even the sacrifice of our lives would be an inadequate homage. "What shall I offer to the Lord that is worthy? Wherewith shall I kneel before the high God?" (Micheas 6:6). Almighty God Himself has furnished us with an offering, as He declared one day to one of His servants who was burning with love for Him and with an ardent desire to honor Him. "Oh," said this fervent soul, "I would that I had a thousand tongues that I might praise God always! Oh, that I had hearts without number wherewith to love Him! Oh, that the whole world were mine that I might see Him loved and served by all men!" "My daughter,"
replied an inward voice, "thy zeal and love are extremely pleasing to Me, but know that I am more honored by a single Mass than by all the honors that thou couldst ever conceive or desire."
The reason for this is plain. The victim which is offered to God in the Mass is Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the well-beloved Son of His Father, equal to Him in all things; and therefore, this sacrifice must be of infinite dignity and value. In this sacrifice we offer to the Eternal Father all the honor which Jesus Christ gives Him and thereby make up for our natural poverty. Hence Father Paul Segneri well says in his Homo Christianus (P. 1, diss. 12): "If, on the one hand, the Blessed Mother of God and all the Saints and Angels of Heaven were to prostrate themselves before God in the deepest humility and reverence and, on the other hand, the humblest priest on earth were to offer but one Mass, the offering of the priest would give more honor to God than the united adoration of all those Angels and Saints."
In the second place, we need a sacrifice of thanksgiving, for we are bound to return thanks to God for all the benefits He has bestowed on us. How many blessings have we not received from God? Creation, preservation and all the blessings of His Providence; redemption by vocation to the True Faith; the grace of repentance, deliverance from [going to] Hell, the promise of Heaven, the Sacraments, holy inspirations, the examples and intercession of the Saints. What a debt of gratitude do we owe for so many favors! Solomon, the wise man, requires us to "give to the Most High according to what He has given to us." (Ecclus. 35:12) But what can we render to God for all that He has done for us?
We cannot pray always; we cannot, like David, compose a whole book of inspired hymns in praise of God's wonderful dealings with us; and even if we could, our thanksgiving would be insufficient and unworthy of God. Now God in His mercy has given the devout soul a means of paying this immense debt of gratitude. The Mass is a Eucharistic sacrifice, that is to say, a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Jesus Christ has left us Himself to be offered therein by way of thanksgiving to His heavenly Father. 1 He gives thanks to the Eternal Father for us, and thus we are enabled to return to God even more than we have received from Him.
Two pious souls were one day discoursing about the graces they had received from God. One of them complained of her inability to give due thanks to God for all she had received; the other smiled and said: "I give to God every day more than I ever received from Him." This answer naturally surprised the former, and she asked how this was possible. "Oh," replied the latter, "I go to Mass every day and offer up Jesus Christ to my heavenly Father for all the graces He has bestowed upon me; and Jesus Christ, the well-beloved Son of God, is certainly of greater worth than all the benefits which I have ever received, or ever will receive."
In the third place, the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice, that is to say, a sacrifice by which God is intended to forgive us our sins and to remit the temporal punishments due to them. Such a sacrifice is very necessary, for we are bound not only to adore and thank God, but also to beg of Him new graces. Now the most important grace that we can ask of God is the pardon of our sins. Sin is an offense against the Majesty of God. Were all the men that ever lived to unite, they could not repair the outrage that is done to God by one venial sin. Hence Almighty God, Who is in a certain sense infinitely offended by sin, instituted the Sacrifice of Mass, by which an infinite satisfaction is continually rendered to Him.
The Council of Trent declares (Sess. 12, C. 1) that the same Jesus Christ Who offered Himself up on the Cross for the sins of the whole world is daily offered up by the priest in the Holy Mass. The Sacrifice of the Mass is the same as the sacrifice of Calvary, the only difference being that on the Cross He really suffered and shed His Blood in a visible manner, while in the Mass He offers Himself without suffering and sheds His Blood in a mystical manner. Our sins, indeed, are not directly and immediately remitted by the Mass, but Almighty God is moved by this mystical sacrifice to impart to us the fruits of the meritorious death and Passion of Christ, especially the grace of a true sorrow for our sins.
The Council of Trent says (Sess. 22, C. 3) that God, appeased by the sacrifice of the Mass, forgives even the most enormous sins by granting to the sinner the grace of doing penance for them. The Holy Sacrifice of Mass, then, obtains for us the grace to do penance for our sins. Without doubt it is to this efficacy of the Mass that we must attribute the less frequent occurrence in later times of those terrible punishments which God formerly inflicted on the wicked. The whole world was once destroyed by a deluge on account of sin. Seventy thousand men fell victims to a pestilence sent by God to punish the vanity of King David. Fifty thousand of the Bethsamites were punished with death for the irreverent curiosity with which they gazed upon the Ark of the Covenant. Why are there so few instances of such punishments since the coming of Jesus Christ? Sin has lost none of its inherent wickedness; on the contrary, it has become much more malicious by reason of the more abundant graces of God. The holy Fathers tell us that without doubt it is because, in all countries, and at all times, every hour, Jesus Christ is offered up by the priests of the Catholic Church, and the hands of God are bound. The voice of the Blood of the Lamb of God prevails over the sins which cry to Heaven for vengeance, and benedictions descend where punishments are due. How could it be otherwise?
Through the Blood of Christ visibly shed on the Cross, the dying malefactor obtained the grace of conversion. Now, why should not they receive the same grace who with a good will assist at Mass, where the same Blood is shed in a mystical manner? Will God the Father refuse to grant us true contrition for our sins when we offer Him the Blood of His beloved Son Jesus Christ in satisfaction for them and beseech Him, by the merits of this Blood, to have mercy on us? A nobleman named Alphonsus of Albuquerque was once on the point of being shipwrecked. He had given himself up for lost, but happening to see a child crying near him, he took it into his arms and raising it towards Heaven, he exclaimed: "Lord, if I do not deserve to be heard, at least hear the cries of this innocent babe and save us." No sooner had he uttered these words than the storm subsided, and he was saved.
Let us imitate his example. We are in peril; we have offended God and are in danger of losing our immortal souls. Should we despair? No. Let us offer to God the Divine Infant in the Mass and say: "Lord, we have grievously sinned against Thee and are undeserving of pardon, but look upon the sufferings of this Thine innocent Son and have mercy on us! " This is what St. Anselm exhorts us to do. He says that Jesus Christ, desirous to save us from eternal death, encourages us all and says, "Fear not, O sinner; if by your sins you have made yourself the slave of Hell and are unable to deliver yourself, offer Me to My Eternal Father, and you shall escape death. " And the Mother of God gave the same advice to Sister Frances Farnese. She put the Infant Jesus into her arms and said: "Behold, here is my Son; endeavor to save your soul by offering Him frequently to God."
Besides the remission of the eternal punishment due to sin, we also obtain by the holy Sacrifice of the Mass the remission of the temporal punishment. This grace we obtain in proportion to our good dispositions. On this account, the Saints, who have always been desirous to render to God a full satisfaction for their sins, have made it a point to hear as many Masses as possible. St. Margaret of Cortona, reflecting on her many grievous sins and wishing to atone for them, went to her confessor once and asked him what was the best way for her to make satisfaction to God for her sins. He told her the easiest way was to hear as many Masses as possible. From that time forward she was very careful to assist at all the Masses she possibly could.
There is still another way in which the Mass is beneficial to us. We need not only forgiveness of sins, but also numberless other blessings, both for soul and body. By the Sacrifice of the Mass we can obtain all these favors. Mass is also an impetratory sacrifice.
St. Porphyrus, Bishop of Gaza, was once going to Constantinople to ask a favor of the Emperor Arcadius. On his way, he met the servants of the Emperor carrying with them his infant son, Theodosius. The holy man immediately drew near and placed his petition in the hands of the young prince. The Emperor, agreeably surprised at this singular artifice of the bishop, readily granted his petition through love for the little bearer. (Schmid's Historical Catechism).
We must adopt a similar means in order to obtain favors from God. We need numberless and continual blessings of Providence: blessings on our daily labors; strength to resist sin and to bear patiently the manifold trials and contradictions of this life; steadfastness in faith, hope and charity. Now in the Mass, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is ever ready to carry up our desires to the throne of His heavenly Father. Let us then with confidence charge Him with our petitions, and let us rest assured that His heavenly Father will, for His sake, grant us all we ask. There are innumerable examples of the efficacy of the Mass in obtaining from God every possible grace.
St. Augustine relates (De Civitate Dei, Lib. II, C. 8) that the house of a man named Hesperius was dreadfully disturbed day and night by evil spirits. But no sooner had Mass been celebrated in it than all the disturbance ceased, and nothing of the kind ever occurred there afterwards. St. Gregory relates that on certain days the fetters used to fall from the hands of a Christian captive who had been taken prisoner by the barbarians, and after his deliverance he found out that on those days his relatives had offered Mass for him.
In the life of St. John the Almoner, an instructive narrative is told of two tradesmen, Peter and John, one of whom had a large family to support, while the other had to provide only for himself and his wife. Peter, although he was accustomed to hear Mass every day, managed to maintain his family very comfortably, while John could scarcely gain a subsistence, although he labored so hard that he very seldom found time to hear Mass and was sometimes even obliged to work on holy days of obligation. One day John asked his more prosperous neighbor how it happened that with so large and helpless a family he always managed to live comfortably, while he himself and his wife were always in want, although he worked day and night. Peter promised to show him the place where he always found everything he needed. Next morning he called on John and led him to the church, where they both heard Mass. After Mass, Peter took leave of him and went home. He did the same the next day, but upon his calling the third day for the same purpose, his friend said: "If I had wished to go to Mass, I would not have needed you to lead me there, as I know the way myself; what I wanted was to know where you find your wealth, that I also might become rich." "I know no place," answered the pious tradesman, "where there is so much to be obtained for this world and for the next as in the Church," and in proof of what he said, he added the words of Our Lord: "Seek ye, therefore, first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you." (Matt. 6:33). John immediately understood the good lesson which his friend wished to teach him, and enlightened by the Holy Ghost, he resolved to change his life and to hear Mass every day. He did so. In a very short time, he found himself greatly improved temporally and spiritually.
In the year 817 the Danes invaded England, and Ethelred, the King of England, having collected a small army, went out to meet them. But trusting more in the protection of God than in the valor of his arms, he went first to hear Mass. While he was assisting at Mass, messengers came to tell him that the Danes were at hand and that he must prepare immediately for battle, but he answered that he would not go until he had received his Saviour in Holy Communion. He stayed in the church till Mass was over, and then went forth to attack his enemies. After a short conflict he succeeded in putting them to flight. (Baronius).
One day as St. Bernard was about to say Mass in the church of St. Ambrose at Milan, the people brought to the church a lady of high rank who had been sick for many years. She had lost her sight, her hearing and her speech, and her tongue had become so long that it protruded out of her mouth. St. Bernard, having exhorted the people to join him in praying for her, began to celebrate Mass, and as often as he made the Sign of the Cross over the Host, he made it over the sick woman also. As soon as he had broken the Host and said, "Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum," she was instantly cured. The people, filled with joy and astonishment, began to ring the bells, and soon the whole city hastened to the church to witness the miracle and to give thanks to God. (Life of St. Bernard)
St. Philip Neri used to have recourse to the sacrifice of the Mass in all matters of importance. By means of this holy sacrifice he succeeded in converting many Jews and heretics. We see from these examples the great power of the Mass as an impetratory sacrifice and that it is not in vain that the priest prays that through it "we may be filled with every heavenly blessing and grace."
But I have yet one more grace to speak of which we can obtain through this sacrifice. The Mass is a very efficacious means of obtaining relief for the Souls in Purgatory. This is the common doctrine of the Fathers. St. Jerome says that by every Mass, not only one, but several Souls are delivered from Purgatory, and he is of the opinion that the Soul for which the priest says Mass suffers no pain at all while the Holy Sacrifice lasts. (Apud Bern. de Busto, Serm. 3, de Missa.) The Fathers of the Council of Trent declare that by the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Souls in Purgatory are most efficaciously relieved. This was clearly the belief of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, when she replied on her deathbed to her son's inquiries concerning her place of burial. "Bury me," said she, "wherever you please; all that I ask of you is to remember me at the altar of the Lord."
In the time of St. Bernard, a monk of Clairvaux appeared after his death to his brethren in religion to thank them for having delivered him from Purgatory. On being asked what had contributed most to free him from his torments, he led the inquirer to the church, where a priest was saying Mass. "Look," said he, "this is the means by which my deliverance has been effected; this is the power of God's mercy; this is the salutary sacrifice which takes away the sins of the world." Indeed, so great is the efficacy of this sacrifice to obtain relief for the Souls in Purgatory that the application of all the good works which have been performed from the beginning of the world would not afford so much assistance to one of these Souls as would be imparted by a single Mass.
I will illustrate this by an example drawn from the history of St. Dominic. The Blessed Henry Suso made an agreement with one of his brethren in religion that as soon as one of them died the survivor should say two Masses every week, for one year, for the repose of his soul. It came to pass that the religious with whom Henry had made this contract died first. Henry prayed every day for his deliverance from Purgatory, but forgot to say the Masses which he had promised. The deceased appeared to him with a sad countenance and sharply rebuked him for his unfaithfulness to his engagement. Henry excused himself by saying that he had often prayed for him with great fervor and had even offered up penitential works for him. "O my brother," exclaimed the soul, "blood, blood is necessary to give me some relief and refreshment in my excruciating torments! Thy penitential works, severe as they are, cannot deliver me. There is nothing that can do this but the Blood of Jesus Christ, which is offered up in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Masses, Masses, these are what I need."
If, then, dear Christian, you wish to offer the Divine Majesty a fitting worship; if you wish to thank Him as you ought for the innumerable benefits He has conferred on you; if you wish to expiate the sins you have committed against Him; if you wish to obtain for yourself and others all the blessings you need for soul and body; if you wish to practice charity toward the suffering Souls in Purgatory, you will find a suitable means to do all this in the Sacrifice of the Mass. You have but to unite your homage, your thanksgiving, your contrition, and your petitions to the fourfold offering which Jesus Christ therein makes for you; you have but to offer to the Eternal Father the Victim that is mystically immolated on the altar, and your worship becomes infinitely pleasing to God and infinitely profitable to you.
The Mass in itself is indeed always of the same value, whether those who assist at it be devout or indevout; but the fruit we derive from it is greater or less according to our dispositions. When Our Lord offered His life on the Cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, those who were present received the fruits of that sacrifice in very different degrees. Some received no grace at all, but went away as hardened as they had come, while others received great and special favors. The good thief obtained an entire remission of all his sins and of the punishment due to them; St. Mary Magdalene received a large increase of sanctifying grace. So it is also at Mass.
The Council of Trent says that God gives the grace of contrition and forgiveness of sins to those who assist at this Sacrifice with a sincere heart, with faith and reverence. The same may be said of all other blessings-----they are given more or less in proportion to the devotion and purity of intention of those who assist at Mass. In one of the prayers which the priest recites in the canon, he says: "Be mindful, O Lord, of all here present, whose faith and piety are known to Thee." It follows from this that one person may gain more graces from a single Mass than another would gain from 20 or 30. When you go to the well to draw water, you can only take as much as your vessel will hold; if it be large, you can draw much water; if it be small, you can draw but little. Now the Mass is an inexhaustible fountain of blessings; it is, to use the language of Scripture, the Saviour's fountain, from which the precious graces He has merited for us gush forth upon our souls; and the vessel in which we receive these graces is our faith and devotion.
If our faith be lively and our devotion ardent, the blessings of Heaven will fill our hearts; if our hearts be filled with the thoughts of this world, we shall receive but a small share of these blessings. All this was once shown in a vision to Nicholas de la Flue [now a Saint, canonized in 1947------the Web Master], a holy hermit of Switzerland who was greatly enlightened by God in spiritual matters. While this good man was one day present at Mass, he saw a large tree full of the most beautiful flowers. He soon noticed that the flowers began to fall down upon those who were present. But some of the flowers, as soon as they fell, became withered and dry, while others retained their freshness and fragrance.
After Mass, he related this vision to his brother and requested him to explain its meaning. The brother replied that he too had seen the vision, and he explained it as follows: "The tree," said he, "is the Holy Mass; the beautiful flowers which it bears are the fruits of the Holy Mass; the withering of many of the flowers signifies that many of the graces which Our Lord distributes in the Mass are lost because Christians are not recollected and devout while they assist at this sacrifice, or because they afterward allow worldly thoughts to stifle all the good inspirations which they have received; the flowers which retained their odor and beauty signify the permanent fruits which those Christians derive from the Mass who assist at it with reverence and devotion and who, after having left the church, are still mindful of the great blessings which they have received from this holy sacrifice." (Dr. Herbst, Vol. II, p. 409.)
After having seen of what great importance it is to hear Mass devoutly, you will not be surprised to learn that the devil makes every effort to distract Christians while they are assisting at this Holy Sacrifice. It has been often remarked that infidels and idolaters never behave disrespectfully at the sacrifices which they offer to their false gods. Now, this is not strange, for as Picus Mirandola justly remarks, there is no reason why the devil should tempt them to irreverence since it is he himself who is honored by their superstitious ceremonies; but as he knows how highly God is honored by the great sacrifice of the Christians, he does all in his power to keep the faithful from church, or at least to make them indevout or irreverent when they are there.
Once, when the Israelites were fighting against the Philistines and were on the point of being defeated, they had the Ark of the Covenant brought to the camp. As soon as it came, they all raised a great shout, so that the earth rang again. The Philistines heard the shout and were struck with terror on learning that the God Who had done such wonderful things against the Egyptians was come into the camp of their enemies. "Woe, woe to us!" they cried; "who shall deliver us from the hands of these high gods?" However, driven to desperation by the greatness of their danger, they exhorted one another to fight manfully: "Let us take courage," they cried; "let us behave like men, O Philistines, lest we become the servants of the Hebrews, as they have served us! Let us take courage and fight bravely." (1 Kings 4:8-9)
In like manner, when the signal is given for beginning Mass, the great adversary of mankind is seized with rage and terror. "Woe! woe!" he cries, "what shall we do! This is that sacrifice which every day snatches so many souls from our grasp; this is the weapon with which Antony and Francis and so many others have defeated us and weakened our power. What shall we do?"
Then, urged on by the rage he feels at his own impotence, he employs all his cunning to destroy at least some part of the good fruits of the Mass; he prevents the sinner from escaping from his power by placing before him some dangerous object on which his eyes may rest; he deprives the devout Christian of the strength and consolation which he would have received during Mass by filling his mind with vain thoughts and worldly cares, so that he cannot attend to what is going on; and thus he gradually leads him into mortal sin. It is thus that, notwithstanding the presence of God on our altars and the infinite value of the Sacrifice, so many precious graces are lost during Mass.
In order to reap all the fruits of the Mass, you should unite your intention at the beginning with that of the priest who offers the Holy Sacrifice. You may do this briefly, thus: "O my Lord, I offer up to Thee this Sacrifice for the same ends for which Thou didst institute it and for which Thy priest now celebrates it, beseeching Thee to grant that the souls of the living as well as the Souls in Purgatory may share in its fruits." After this you may spend the time of Mass in such prayers as your devotion may suggest.
According to Saint Leonard of Port Maurice, it is a very good plan to divide the whole Mass into four parts, corresponding to the four principal objects for which Mass is offered, that is to say: to consider the Mass from the beginning to the Gospel, as a sacrifice of propitiation; from the Gospel to the Elevation as a sacrifice of impetration; from the Elevation to the Communion as a sacrifice of adoration; and from the Communion to the end as a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
In the first part you will consider the holiness of God and the enormity of sin, and bewailing your offenses, you can offer the Immaculate Lamb to the Father and ask in the name of that Immaculate Lamb a more complete forgiveness of your sins and of the temporal punishment due to them and a more profound spirit of penance. In the second part, you can offer this sacrifice to obtain special graces from God for yourself and others; pray for the welfare of Christendom, for the propagation of the Catholic faith, for the extirpation of heresy, for peace among Christian rulers, for grace to fight against your besetting sin; and be not unmindful of the poor Souls in Purgatory. In the third part, you will consider your own nothingness and God's greatness; then offer up to Him the homage of His well-beloved Son, and in union with this same sublime homage of Jesus Christ, offer up your own acts of adoration to the Heavenly Father. You can rejoice in His glory and desire that all men should render Him due honor.
In the fourth part, you may consider what God is in Himself and what He is in His Saints, and offering to Him the thanksgiving which Jesus Christ makes in the Mass, you may add an affectionate oblation of yourself and of all you have, in return for the great mercies He has shown you. You may here make a special acknowledgment of the graces which the Lord has bestowed on the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother, and on your Angel Guardian; or at the beginning of Mass, you may briefly make these intentions and spend the rest of the time in meditating on the Passion of Jesus Christ, or on some eternal truth; or you may here make use of your Book of Devotions; or you may say the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin. In case you say the Rosary, it is good, after the word "Jesus" in each Hail Mary, to add: "Who offers Himself in this sacrifice to His Heavenly Father." By these means the time of Mass will never seem irksome, and you will derive great fruit from the Most Holy Sacrifice.
After all these reflections on Mass, no one will find it strange if the Holy Church obliges her children under pain of mortal sin to assist at this Holy Sacrifice on Sundays and festivals of obligation. On other days, it is true, the faithful are not bound to hear Mass, but our holy Mother the Church earnestly wishes that all her children should and would assist at this salutary sacrifice as often as possible. In most churches, Mass is said every day; in some, several times a day; and wherever it is offered, the people are invited to assist.
The good Catholic then will feel himself impelled always to assist at this Holy Sacrifice, unless an important reason prevents him from so doing. I could cite you many interesting examples which would show you how anxious pious Catholics have always been to hear Mass. St. Louis, King of France, used to hear two Masses every day, sometimes even three or four. Some of his courtiers murmured at this, but the King gave them a sharp reprimand, saying: "If I were to ask you to play or to go hunting with me three or four times a day, you would find no time too long, and now you feel weary of staying in the church during one or two Masses for the honor of Our Lord and Saviour." (Raivenius in Annal. 1270, No. 19.)
In the time of Queen Elizabeth of England, when the severe prohibitions against the exercise of the Catholic religion were in force, a rich Catholic was condemned to pay five hundred scudi in gold for having dared to assist at Mass. The nobleman selected the brightest and most beautiful pieces of Portuguese gold, on which the cross was stamped. When he was presenting them to the officers, one of them, a Protestant, smiled and made some jocose remark with reference to the beauty of the coins. "I would have considered it a sort of sacrilege," said the Catholic, "to offer a baser coin to pay for the privilege of adoring my Saviour in the Blessed Sacrament. This cross," pointing to the crest on the piece, "reminds me of the Cross of my Lord, which I shall ever be willing to bear for His sake; the purity of the gold recalls to my mind the purity of His love, which I shall ever seek and treasure up." (Schmidt's Example-book)
Gillois relates that in the beginning of the present century there lived in Roibon, a town in the diocese of Grenoble, a peasant who, by his great devotion at Mass, edified everyone who saw him. He lived three miles from the church, and yet he never failed to be one of the first worshippers in the morning. In the latter years of his life, he was subject to severe pains in his legs, which prevented his walking so far in the Winter season, but as soon as the Spring came on, he used to rise about one o'clock in the morning, and dragging himself by means of crutches, reached the church after a painful and laborious walk of four hours.
Sir Thomas More, Martyr and Chancellor of England, daily assisted at Mass with the greatest reverence and devotion. On one occasion while hearing Mass, he was sent for by the King, apparently on urgent business, but he did not stir; soon after a second messenger came, and after a while a third, with the express command to leave the church immediately and come to the royal chamber, where the King awaited him. He replied: "I am now serving the Lord of lords, Whose service I must first perform." (Stapleton's Life of Sir Thomas More, Chap. 6) Would to God that you too would imitate such fervent Christians. The Apostle St. Paul, speaking of the blessedness of those who believe in Christ, says: "I give thanks to my God always for you, for the grace of God that is given you in Christ Jesus: that in everything ye are made rich in Him in all utterance and in all knowledge . . . so that nothing is wanting to you in any grace." (1 Cor: 1:4-7)
Mass alone of itself is an inexhaustible treasure of graces. Be careful to profit well by it. Resolve, if possible, to hear Mass every day. Do not imitate those lukewarm Christians who stay away from church for the most trivial reasons. For them a little rain, a damp mist, the slight inconvenience of heat, a little moisture underfoot rise up as a sufficient excuse. Early in the morning, when Angels are descending from Heaven to take their stand around the altar of the Most High, do you too set out to assist at the Holy Sacrifice and emulate their devotion during the performance of this stupendous mystery.
Do not think the time is lost which you spend in hearing Mass; it will prove most profitable to you in this life and in the next also. See how many sins you will expiate by it! How many punishments you will avert! How many graces you will draw down upon yourself and others! How many merits you will store up for Heaven! This I can promise you: be diligent in hearing Mass, and you will find in it all that. you need, your happiness here below and your happiness hereafter. Amid all the vicissitudes of life, at the Altar you will find true peace and support.
At one time it will be Mount Calvary for you, where you will weep tears of sympathy for your Saviour and of grief for your sins and for those of others; at another time it will be Mount Thabor, where heavenly joy will be poured into your sorrowing heart and tears will be wiped away from your eyes. Again, that same Altar will be a Crib of Bethlehem for you, where you will gather strength to bear contempt, poverty, pain and desolation. Yes, at the Altar you will find that Mount of Beatitudes where you will learn the vanity of all earthly things and the way to true and lasting pleasure; and in fine, it will be to you Golgotha, where you will learn to die to yourself and to live to Him who died for you. All this and much more you will find in the Mass, if you cherish a tender devotion to it. Persevere in this devotion and you will soon experience the truth of what I have said, tasting the sweets of those inspired ejaculations: "How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord Hosts! Thou hast prepared a table before me against I them that trouble me. Better is one day in Thy courts above thousands! Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house, O Lord: they shall praise Thee forever and ever."
Note: It is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that Mass can be offered to God alone. This is indeed implied in the very nature of a sacrifice. When therefore Catholics speak of the Mass of such and such a Saint or of offering Mass in honor of a Saint, they mean a Mass offered to God in thanksgiving for the graces bestowed on that Saint or for the graces obtained through his intercession.