The taproot of liturgical distortions

At the root of almost every problematic idea advanced for “improving” the “experience” of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a failure to understand what the the Mass is. The Mass is not simply “worship” and “thanksgiving”; it is those things also, but as John Paul II put it in Dominicae cenae, “above all else, the Eucharist is  a sacrifice.” 1 The Mass is a participation in the sacrifice of Calvary, and the incredible mystery by which we are not only redeemed but receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ Jesus. That is a time for sobriety, humility, and awe, and the Mass’ ars celebrandi must reflect its ontological reality. 2

Having described the last supper and the crucifixion, the Council of Trent put it this way:

in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy Synod teaches, that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid, if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous 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.

Or hear St. Francis de Sales: “We preach that the Holy Eucharist is not only a sacrament, but also a sacrifice.” Or the Baltimore Catechism: “The Mass is the sacrifice of the New Law in which Christ, through the ministry of the priest, offers Himself to God in an unbloody manner under the appearances of bread and wine … [and] The Mass is the same sacrifice as the sacrifice of the cross because in the Mass the victim is the same, and the principal priest is the same, Jesus Christ.” Or the First Vatican Council:

In the Mass there is offered to God a true, proper and propitiatory sacrifice for the living and the dead; and that in the most Holy sacrament of the Eucharist there is truly, really and substantially the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our lord Jesus Christ; and that there takes place the conversion of the whole substance of the bread into his body, and of the whole substance of the wine into his blood, and this conversion the Catholic Church calls transubstantiation.

Or Archbishop Fulton Sheen:

[I]n the Mass, … Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary is renewed on our altars as each human being is brought in contact with it at the moment of consecration; but the sacrifice is one and the same despite the multiplicity of Masses. The Mass then is the communication of the Sacrifice of Calvary to us under the species of bread and wine.

Or Pope Paul VI:

We believe that the Mass, celebrated by the priest representing the person of Christ by virtue of the power received through the Sacrament of Orders, and offered by him in the name of Christ and the members of His Mystical Body, is the sacrifice of Calvary rendered sacramentally present on our altars. We believe that as the bread and wine consecrated by the Lord at the Last Supper were changed into His body and His blood which were to be offered for us on the cross, likewise the bread and wine consecrated by the priest are changed into the body and blood of Christ enthroned gloriously in heaven, and we believe that the mysterious presence of the Lord, under what continues to appear to our senses as before, is a true, real and substantial presence.

Or Pope John Paul II: “The Sacrifice of Calvary is renewed on this altar, and it becomes our offering too—an offering for the benefit of the living and the dead, an offering for the universal Church.” And again: “Wherever the Eucharist is celebrated, the bloody sacrifice of Calvary will be made present in an unbloody manner; there Christ himself, the Redeemer of the world, will be present..” Or the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “[Mass is called the] Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering.”

This is what Catholics understand the Mass to be. Only when we lose sight of what is really happening in the liturgical action is it possible to propose sacrilegious interpolations of inherently secular, worldly things such as so-called liturgical dance and rock music. The psalmist danced (although so too did Salome), but did anyone dance at the crucifixion? The psalmist felt like shaking a timbrel and harp (although he also felt, a sentence later, like “execut[ing] vengeance on the nations and punishments on the peoples, to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron, to execute on them the judgment written”), but did anyone do so at the crucifixion? They did not.

This is why I say that it is a good rule of thumb that music that is proposed for Mass should be played over the crucifixion scene from The Passion. If it is horribly inappropriate to the sacrifice of Calvary, to nevertheless propose it as appropriate to the Mass is to deny the connection between Calvary and the Altar, and that is heresy pressed into the service of sacrilege. I will give the last work to Archbp. Sheen: “What is important at this point is that we take the proper mental attitude toward the Mass, and remember this important fact, that the Sacrifice of the Cross is not something which happened nineteen hundred years ago. It is still happening. It is not something past like the signing of the Declaration of Independence; it is an abiding drama on which the curtain has not yet rung down. Let it not be believed that it happened a long time ago, and therefore no more concerns us than anything else in the past. Calvary belongs to all times and to all places.”


  1. 72 AAS 113, 130 (Ap. Ep. 1980) (“In primis autem est Eucharistia sacrificium”).
  2. A forthcoming whitepaper, Ut recuperare liturgiam, will advance a more detailed commentary on this point and make appropriate recommendations for the reconnection of our ars celebradi to the liturgical tradition of the latin rite.