In Which We Wonder if Mass Is a Sacrament

A reader's question led to some inconclusive but fruitful investigation of the connections between the Blessed Sacrament and the Sacred Liturgy.

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Well.  That escalated … if not quickly, at any rate to a higher altitude than expected.  Apparently, at least over here at the Register, the topic of children’s liturgies is even hotter than Game of Thrones (pun obviously intended).  I don’t know whether to lament this as an instance of one of those regrettable skirmishes in the endless wars over religious nonessentials, or to take it as a net positive that people are more eager to defend their children’s souls than to defend their entertainment choices.  (Why not both?)

A few comments indicated points itching for clarification.  First, I confess that I have never attended or taught at a children’s liturgy—I’ve only watched the kids march out.  This does indeed preclude my critiquing children’s liturgies per se (although many of my readers, being more experienced, felt no such qualms).  But my point was not that children’s liturgies are bad (see disclaimers in the previous post) but rather that there are (at least for my family) better options.

Second, and more importantly, one commenter (“Sharon”) had this question:

Can I ask, though, in what way is Mass itself a sacrament?  I know we refer to the Blessed Sacrament, that comes to us at the Mass, but we don’t refer to the Holy Sacrament of the Mass.  I think I’m missing something, and I don’t like missing anything about what the Mass is!

Actually, I doubt Sharon is missing anything.  She was reacting to my statement that “The Mass is a sacrament—yes, even for those too young to receive Communion—and there’s an advantage to a young soul in being there, beginning to end, even if it isn’t always perfectly comprehensible to a young mind.”  That is, I think, substantially right; but Sharon is also right that we don’t speak of “the Holy Sacrament of the Mass.”

The word “sacrament” does seem to indicate something concrete, a thing rather than an action.  It is our term for a word in the New Testament which could also be translated “mystery”; etymologically it is related to “sacred,” or “holy.”  In the Old Testament “holy” has the sense of “set apart”—or, as we would now say “consecrated”—”reserved”—not to be touched by unworthy or ordinary hands.  Moreover, when we speak of “the Blessed Sacrament” we are referring to Jesus Christ, present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity under the species of bread and wine.

On the other hand, the Baltimore Catechism defines sacrament as “An outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”  A “sign” need not be static.  Indeed, other sacraments—Baptism and Confession come readily to mind—seem to be more like actions than like objects.  All sacraments, it is true, require some matter (stuff, thing, object) and some form (action, words, or more likely both).  And some of the other sacraments in some sense “remain” after the words are said and done: Matrimony yields the married couple, while Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders bestow permanent “characters” upon the soul of the receiver.  But the Holy Eucharist does seem to be unique in that there is always Sacrament, whether you are present for the actual moments of consecration at Mass, or merely present for Adoration, Exposition, or Benediction.

Why then speak of the Mass as a sacrament?  Perhaps, technically, it would be more correct to speak of the Mass as “the celebration of a sacrament.”  The Mass is the making present to us of the Sacrifice of the Cross; most properly, this occurs in the moments of consecration, in which the Blessed Sacrament is confected.  However, Mass itself is a unity, all of which is geared towards those moments; and the Catechism lists the several names for “this sacrament” which show the strong connection between the liturgy and the mystery it contains.

1328 The inexhaustible richness of this sacrament is expressed in the different names we give it. Each name evokes certain aspects of it. It is called: Eucharist, because it is an action of thanksgiving to God. the Greek words eucharistein and eulogein recall the Jewish blessings that proclaim—especially during a meal—God’s works: creation, redemption, and sanctification.

1329 The Lord’s Supper, because of its connection with the supper which the Lord took with his disciples on the eve of his Passion and because it anticipates the wedding feast of the Lamb in the heavenly Jerusalem. 

The Breaking of Bread, because Jesus used this rite, part of a Jewish meat when as master of the table he blessed and distributed the bread, above all at the Last Supper. It is by this action that his disciples will recognize him after his Resurrection, and it is this expression that the first Christians will use to designate their Eucharistic assemblies; by doing so they signified that all who eat the one broken bread, Christ, enter into communion with him and form but one body in him. 

The Eucharistic assembly (synaxis), because the Eucharist is celebrated amid the assembly of the faithful, the visible expression of the Church.

1330 The memorial of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection. 

The Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering. the terms holy sacrifice of the Mass, “sacrifice of praise,” spiritual sacrifice, pure and holy sacrifice are also used, since it completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant. 

The Holy and Divine Liturgy, because the Church’s whole liturgy finds its center and most intense expression in the celebration of this sacrament; in the same sense we also call its celebration the Sacred Mysteries. We speak of the Most Blessed Sacrament because it is the Sacrament of sacraments. The Eucharistic species reserved in the tabernacle are designated by this same name.

1331 Holy Communion, because by this sacrament we unite ourselves to Christ, who makes us sharers in his Body and Blood to form a single body. We also call it: the holy things (ta hagia; sancta)—the first meaning of the phrase “communion of saints” in the Apostles’ Creed—the bread of angels, bread from heaven, medicine of immortality, viaticum....

1332 Holy Mass (Missa), because the liturgy in which the mystery of salvation is accomplished concludes with the sending forth (missio) of the faithful, so that they may fulfill God’s will in their daily lives.

The money quote here is this: “We speak of the Most Blessed Sacrament because it is the Sacrament of sacraments. The Eucharistic species reserved in the tabernacle are designated by this same name.”  Here, the Catechism makes a distinction that seems to indicate that “Sacrament” refers both to the Thing That Happens and the Thing That Remains.  Technically, the Sacrament, “the mystery of salvation … accomplished” falls within “the liturgy,” which is what we generally mean when we say “Holy Mass.”  But then, the Catechism is also quite insistent about the unity of the liturgy.

1346 The liturgy of the Eucharist unfolds according to a fundamental structure which has been preserved throughout the centuries down to our own day. It displays two great parts that form a fundamental unity: 
- the gathering, the liturgy of the Word, with readings, homily and general intercessions; 
- the liturgy of the Eucharist, with the presentation of the bread and wine, the consecratory thanksgiving, and communion. 
The liturgy of the Word and liturgy of the Eucharist together form “one single act of worship”; The Eucharistic table set for us is the table both of the Word of God and of the Body of the Lord.

So much for the terminological point, regarding whether or not it makes sense for the Mass to be called a sacrament.  I think it does—though I stand ready to be corrected by a real theologian (I only play one on the internet).

The more important point, however, regards our attitude towards the Mass.  Whether we call it a sacrament or not, it is a source of grace, and not merely for those who are able to receive Our Lord, but for everyone present.  It is, of course, also a number of lesser things: it is an opportunity for catechesis; a vehicle for the expression of man’s artistic talent (or lack of talent, as the case may be); and not infrequently a penance.  And it behooves us, because we are men and not angels, to order well these lesser aspects of the Mass: to ensure that those attending understand the readings, gospel, homily, and liturgy; to make the appearance and conduct of the Mass visually and aurally appropriate; and to suffer as needed when points A and B are insufficiently met.  But when we focus too strongly on any of these lesser aspects of the Mass, we tend to forget what it’s all about.

On that note, I’ll let the Catechism take it away.

1405 There is no surer pledge or dearer sign of this great hope in the new heavens and new earth “in which righteousness dwells,” than the Eucharist. Every time this mystery is celebrated, “the work of our redemption is carried on” and we “break the one bread that provides the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death, and the food that makes us live for ever in Jesus Christ.”


The section of the Catechism dealing with the Blessed Sacrament starts here; click through to read it all.

Thomas Aquinas addressed the Blessed Sacrament in his Summa: view the index here, and search for "The Holy Eucharist" (Tertia Pars, Questions 73-83).  Particularly relevant to this discussion is Question 83, Article 4, which concerns the Mass, as well as the following article.

Ed Peters has an interesting piece on the perennial “How much of Mass do I hafta attend” question, which touches on the unity of the Mass.