January 2018 Print

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: The Grandeur of the Roman Rite

by Fr. Christopher Danel

“Countless goods, incomprehensible wonders and mysteries are contained in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This holy Sacrifice is too great, too precious and too glorious to be adequately expressed in words or to receive an appropriate name: it surpasses all created knowledge, it is unspeakably grand and sublime.” – Msgr. Nicholas Gihr


Of the commentaries on the liturgy of the Roman Rite, one of the most edifying is The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically, and Ascetically Explained, by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Gihr. We will henceforth examine some aspects of the Mass of the Roman Rite based on his fundamental opus and presenting his work.

A word about the author is in order. Monsignor Gihr was a priest of the Archdiocese of Freiburg in Breisgau, in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, whose liturgical expertise was appreciated in Rome during his lifetime. He earned his doctorate during the pontificate of Pope Pius IX and published his principal study at the very end of the same, sealing it with his preface from St. Peter’s Basilica in 1877. He was active during the pontificate of Pope St. Pius X, was created a Monsignor by Pope Benedict XV, and was later honored also by Pope Pius XI.

The French translation of the study was received with great acclaim, after which the first English translation appeared in 1902, published by Herder in St. Louis. The priests of the American Ecclesiastical Review described the work as follows: “The immediate object of Dr. Gihr’s volume is not so much to rehearse the historical data which mark the development of the Catholic liturgy, as rather to lead his readers to a deeper appreciation of the devotional significance of each rite.... It treats of the reality, the essence and efficacy of the Eucharistic sacrifice, and shows us its distinctive and important place in the organic structure of the Church” (AER, vol. XXVII, n. 6, pp. 692-3). The original study is: Gihr, Nikolaus. Messopfer dogmatisch, liturgish und aszetish erklärt. Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1877.

The Term Missa

This article will focus on some preliminaries of the Mass: its name, its origin, and its grandeur. We begin with the name customarily given to the Holy Sacrifice in our Rite. Almost the only one used since late antiquity is the term Missa. In the beginning it referred to the dismissal of those assisting at the Holy Sacrifice, and by extension became applied to the divine worship itself. Although it is unclear precisely when this took place, by the time of St. Ambrose (+397) it was commonly employed. This Doctor of the Church used the term in his writings in such a way that it clearly was already in his time the traditional term used to refer to the Holy Sacrifice.

After this primary explanation, Msgr. Gihr expounds upon a second one which was developed by the liturgists of the Middle Ages. “The Eucharistic Sacrifice is called Missa, because in it there is a sending forth (missa = transmissio) from earth to heaven and from heaven to earth. The Church sends up to the throne of God by the ministry of the priest the Eucharistic Sacrifice and prayers, and the necessities and desires of the faithful; God in return sends down upon men the riches of heavenly grace and blessing. Or we may put it in a different way: Christ is sent into the world by the Father as a sacrifice, and in turn He is sent back again to heaven by the faithful as a sacrifice, in order to reconcile us to the Father and to procure for us all blessings. This signification of the Missa is implied by the very nature of the thing, and thus far undoubtedly contains truth; but this point of view probably did not determine the selection of the expression Missa to designate the, Holy Sacrifice : in other words, the faithful of the first ages did not choose the word Missa to express that in the Sacrifice the above mentioned mission or sending forth from God to man and from man to God takes place; it was only later that this was so understood and explained.”

Jesus Christ and the Apostles

The First Mass was offered by Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Cenacle in Jerusalem on the evening of Maundy Thursday, the eve of his Crucifixion. At the Last Supper, He gave the Apostles the mission and mandate to continue this Sacrifice in His Church for all time and conferred His Priesthood upon them. By His command, then, they celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass wherever they went on their missionary journeys. The Mass of Christ was their sole model and they devotedly carried out what He had done before them. According to His instructions and the light given to them by the Holy Ghost, they added various prayers and ceremonies to the essential act of the Sacrifice according to the circumstances of time and place, so that the greatest glory would be given to God by the sacred liturgy and that souls would be supremely edified by its observance.

Msgr. Gihr describes this development of the Apostolic liturgy in the East and West: “The Apostles, who had been instructed by the Lord Himself in the mysteries of the kingdom of God, and were filled with the Holy Ghost, assuredly observed a fixed order in the daily celebration of the Holy Sacrifice[.] The essential and fundamental features of the sacrificial rite, introduced and enlarged upon by the Apostles, were preserved with fidelity and reverence in the churches founded by them and their successors; but in the course of time, according as it was deemed necessary or expedient, it was always more and more developed, enriched and perfected, yet after a different manner, in the various churches of the East and West. ‘The Lord never ceases to be present to His beloved Spouse the Church, never fails to be at her side in her office of teaching and to accompany her in her operation with His blessing,’ consequently, He had the power, as He also had the will, to bequeath to the chiefs and shepherds of the Church the right to give to the Sacrifice instituted by Himself the most natural and the wisest development and the best adapted form, that is, to give it due liturgical form and solemnity.”

Thus it is clear that the Church’s liturgy traces directly to the twelve Apostles themselves. The liturgy of the Roman Rite, furthermore, traces directly to St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles and first Pontiff of Rome. Pope Innocent I (402-417) wrote to the Bishop of Gubbio about the ceremonies of the Mass, adding, “Who does not know that what has been handed down by Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, to the Roman Church is still observed unto this day, and must be observed by all?” Therefore St. Peter is recognized as the founder of the Roman Rite, and in celebrating it and establishing it in Rome, he followed the outline given out by Christ and laid the essential foundation for all of its later organic development. The nineteenth-century liturgist Rev. Dr. Joseph Kössing of Regensburg aptly described, “This liturgy, as yet a tender plant, was brought by St. Peter, the Prince of the Church, into the garden of the Roman Church, where by his nursing care and that of his successors, assisted by the Holy Ghost, it has grown to a large tree, and although the trunk has long ago attained its full growth, it nevertheless shoots forth in every century new branches and new blossoms.

The Grandeur of the Rite

Msgr. Gihr describes the grandeur of the Roman Rite, the grande dame amongst Holy Church’s liturgical rites, in the following elogium: “Thus has the Church in the course of time set the jewel of the Holy Sacrifice in the most magnificent manner with heavenly wisdom and skill for the praise of God and the edification of the faithful, by surrounding it with the precious decorations of holy prayers, of holy hymns, lessons and ceremonies. She has enveloped the celebration of the adorable Sacrifice in a mystic veil, in order to fill the hearts and minds of the faithful with religious awe and profound reverence, and to urge them to earnest, pious contemplation and meditation. The beauty, the worth and the perfection of the Roman liturgy of the Mass are universally acknowledged and admired.”

Father Faber referred to the Holy Sacrifice as the most beautiful thing this side of heaven. He furthermore remarks, “It came forth out of the grand mind of the Church, and lifted us out of earth and out of self, and wrapped us round in a cloud of mystical sweetness and the sublimities of a more than angelic liturgy, and purified us almost without ourselves, and charmed us with celestial charming, so that our very senses seem to find vision, hearing, fragrance, taste and touch, beyond what earth can give.”

The liturgical prayers of the Church exceed all others, as Cardinal Wiseman of Westminster wrote in 1854: “If we examine each prayer separately, it is perfect; perfect in construction, perfect in thought, and perfect in expression. If we consider the manner in which they are brought together, we are struck with the brevity of each, with the sudden but beautiful transitions, and the almost stanza-like effect, with which they succeed one another, forming a lyrical composition of surpassing beauty. If we take the entire service, as a whole, it is constructed with the most admirable symmetry, proportioned in its parts with perfect judgment and so exquisitely arranged, as to excite and preserve an unbroken interest in the sacred action. No doubt, to give full force and value to this sacred rite, its entire ceremonial is to be considered. The assistants, with their noble vestments, the chant, the incense, the more varied ceremonies which belong to a solemn Mass, are all calculated to increase veneration and admiration. But still, the essential beauties remain, whether the holy rite be performed under the golden vault of St. Peter’s, with all the pomp and circumstance befitting its celebration by the Sovereign Pontiff, or in a wretched wigwam, erected in haste by some poor savages for their missionary.”

The Rite is admirably structured and composed, as the Prussian liturgist Fr. J. H. Oswald wrote in 1877: “That overruling influence of the Spirit of God, that directs even in secondary matters the affairs of the visible Church, nowhere else appears so marked and evident as in the arrangement of the rite of the Holy Mass, which,…in its present state forms such a beautiful, perfect whole, yea, a splendid work, that it excites the admiration of every reflecting mind. Even the bitterest adversaries of the Church do not deny it; unprejudiced, aesthetic judges of good taste admit that even from their own standpoint the Mass is to be classed as one of the greatest masterpieces ever composed. Thus, the momentous sacrifice is encompassed with magnificent ceremonies: it is our duty to study, to penetrate more and more into their meaning, and to expound what we have learned[.]”


In concluding his treatment of what he terms the preliminaries of the rite, Msgr. Gihr sums up with fervor: “The Roman liturgy has for some centuries been a complete masterpiece of art wonderful in the harmony and union of its parts. The most sacred and venerable prayers and chants, breathing religious fervor and tenderness, follow most ingeniously upon one another, and together with the most appropriate and significant actions and ceremonies, form a beautiful whole, serving as a protecting garment and a worthy ornament to the divine mystery of the Holy Sacrifice. Their language, for its kind and object, cannot be surpassed; for it is biblical, ancient, simple, grave, dignified, solid, full of the spirit of faith, humility and devotion, and penetrated with the perfume of piety and holiness.”