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Why Mass should be called Mass, not Eucharist or Liturgy

Why Mass should be called Mass, not Eucharist or Liturgy Some Catholics tend to play down the term ‘Mass’ in favour of ‘Liturgy’ or ‘Eucharist’. Paul Andrews regrets this tendency. ‘Mass’, he argues, is more consonant with the culture of Catholics at large — and ultimately is more ecumenical.


This is a dangerous operation. The last piece I wrote for AMDG led to a bombardment of the editor and the writer, and controversy in the national press. Our critics wanted to call Catholics Roman, despite the inherent contradiction in the title, and the discourtesy of refusing to call us by the name we choose for ourselves. So the editor looks understandably nervous when I approach him with a script. However this time the topic is surely harmless, namely the Mass.

Something happened to me at a one-day retreat that readers may also have experienced. We had Mass at the end of the morning. But when I looked at the timetable for the day, it was listed as Liturgy. That puzzled me. Liturgy means a form of public worship. It might refer to Benediction, Anointing of the Sick, Penance Service, or several other types of service. Like partner when applied to unmarried lovers (in what are they partners? – golf, business, love-making?), Liturgy is too large and vague to convey meaning.

Like Catholic, Mass is a good word that makes some people nervous. Maybe it sounds too Catholic at a time when the faint-hearted do not want to be identified that way. So they reach for other words, like Liturgy, or Eucharist. Or maybe they imagine that Eucharist is somehow a more ecumenical term.

The plain people of Ireland spoke and speak of getting Mass under your belt, or getting a quick Mass. That is the terminology in which many of us grew up. The language, which might appear flippant, masked a deeper seriousness.

The contrast is often made today between the spontaneous joy of charismatic worship and what is described as the grim sense of obligation which drove people to Mass in crowds. The contrast is overstated and crude. It does no justice to something we can all remember. There were and are crowds at weekday Masses across the cities and country parishes of Ireland. They have no obligation to be there, no threat of sin, but just the deep love of this way of worship: less jubilant perhaps than charismatic prayer, but not less deep for that.

At some stage we learned that in order to “get Mass”, you had to be there before the Offertory, even if you missed the Scripture readings. This said something about the moralists’ attitude to the Word of God – something dispensable, or at least a venial matter. Our Presbyterian fellow-faithful leaned in the other direction. Hearing the Word of God was a weekly duty, but eucharistic celebration might happen just once in three months.

One manifestation of God’s Spirit touching the churches in the mid-20th century was that Catholics moved not merely to give more attention to the Word of God in the Mass, but even had homilies on it, possibly every day. And at the same time our separated brethren celebrated the Eucharist ever more frequently without losing any of their reverence for Scripture. There was a happy, spirit-led convergence of Catholic and Protestant churches towards a balanced love both of God’s word, and of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.

I used the theological term Eucharist, with its Greek and academic overtones, in reference to some Protestant celebrations. However our old word Mass is actually more ecumenical than Eucharist.

It is not merely that Mass is immediately understandable even outside religious circles (you will hear pub-drinkers speak of Mass but never of Eucharist). In the more technical ecumenical sense, Mass has a more hallowed history. For the last thousand years, composers of every persuasion have used the Mass as a vehicle for their most solemn musical creations. Devout Lutherans like Johann Sebastian Bach, devout Catholics like Bruckner and Gounod, and the whole range between, including Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Puccini, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Rossini and Schubert, poured their best talents into what they called a Missa or Mass.

More startlingly, the same is true of 20th century composers, of varied or minimal religious convictions, such as Vaughan Williams, Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, Dave Brubeck: they too composed Masses, finding there the ideal vehicle for music that reached for the transcendent. There are few words in religious vocabulary which have a more ecumenical spread, ecumenical not merely between churches, but also between social classes (as in pub-talk) and in the rich range of musical creation.

Eucharist is obviously a hallowed word as well; it is the Greek for thanksgiving, and has a long history in the church. However it smacks of the seminary and the learned world of theologians. It would sound strange on the lips of those whom Jesus would call publicans and sinners. When I see it on the timetable for religious gatherings, I feel we are retreating into the sacristy and away from the living church.

The word Mass comes from the old Latin dismissal at the end of Mass: Ite, missa est, or as we say now: “The Mass is over. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” It suggests the mission of all Christians, to go out and bring the good news to others by the goodness of their own lives. It links what happens at the altar with what happens when we leave the church.

Meanwhile recall the much-quoted comment of Augustine Birrell, the Anglican Chief Secretary for Ireland, as he left his job in 1916:

Our children will have to make up their minds what happened at the Reformation. My suggestion is that they will do so in a majority of cases by concentrating their attention upon what will seem to them most important. And especially will they bend their minds upon the Mass. Nobody nowadays, except for a handful of vulgar fanatics, speaks irreverently of the Mass. It is the Mass that matters. It is the Mass that makes the difference.