The Mass They Made, What Catholics Believe About Worship
Many Protestants do not know what happens in a typical Catholic Mass.
As the Catholic faithful enter the building, they cross the threshold, symbolizing leaving the world and entering God’s house. They immediately encounter the baptistry, symbolizing that entrance into Christ and his Church is through the sacrament of baptism; indeed, they believe that is necessary for salvation. They take a quantity of holy water and make the sign of the cross by which they remember their baptism into the name of the triune God; the motion is with their right hand from their forehead (for the Father), to their lower chest (for the Son), to their left shoulder then their right shoulder (for the Holy Spirit).
As they approach a pew, they kneel as an indication of reverence. At the front of the building is the altar on which the sacrifice of Christ will be re-presented during the sacrament of the Eucharist. At the left of the sanctuary stands the tabernacle, a sacred receptacle in which the leftover communion elements are stored so the faithful can worship the Lord who is present in those elements.
On the walls of the building are the fourteen stations of the cross, paintings or sculptures depicting the key events of Jesus’s crucifixion. The building also houses paintings, mosaics, and sculptures of Jesus, Mary, saints, and angels. Church leaders wear garments symbolizing their office — the diaconate, the priesthood, or the bishopric — as well as the season in which the Mass is being celebrated (for example, violet for Advent, white for Easter).
The Mass Begins
As the Mass begins, its key leaders process from the back of the sanctuary to the front, carrying a sizeable crucifix (Christ on the cross), a large Bible, a censer (to burn incense), and other elements. In the introduction, the leader — the priest or bishop — greets the congregation, then leads in a penitential act in which the faithful recall their sins and cry out to God for mercy (the Kyrie Eleison). They praise the triune God for his majesty, singing the Gloria (“Glory to God in the highest” from Luke 2:14). The leader offers the collect, an opening prayer that collects the intentions of the faithful and prepares them to hear the word of God.
This introduction leads into the Liturgy of the Word — “liturgy” refers to a structured or ordered service of worship. This aspect focuses on three readings of Scripture — the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Gospel (a passage from one of the four Gospels). Interspersed with the first two readings is the singing of a psalm; the third reading is preceded by singing “Alleluia.” The reading of the word leads to a homily, a short sermon ideally explaining the three readings. The congregation then confesses the faith by reciting one of the Creeds (the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed), and prays the Prayer of the Faithful, interceding for themselves, the Church, and the world.
Bread and Wine
The next part of the Mass is the Eucharist. It begins with representatives of the congregation bringing bread and wine from the back of the sanctuary to the altar; these elements will be consecrated for the sacrament. Another representative brings the financial gifts for the support of the Church and care for the poor. As these members are processing forward, the priest or bishop prepares the altar for the celebration.
In the anaphora (the most solemn part of the liturgy, when the bread and wine are consecrated), the leader gives thanks to God, calls upon the Father to send down the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and recites the institution narrative (the words of Jesus when he instituted the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26–29). By these actions and the power of the Spirit, Catholics believe, the bread is transubstantiated, or changed, into the body of Christ, and the wine into the blood of Christ.
The anaphora is followed by the anamnesis in which the Church remembers Christ’s death, resurrection, and second coming. Next is the offering by which the Church offers to the Father the pure, holy, and spotless victim, Jesus Christ. This is not a bloody sacrifice, but an unbloody one, a re-presentation of the sacrificial Lamb of God who was slain for sinful people.
The congregation acknowledges its unworthiness through reciting the Lord’s Prayer, exchanging the sign of peace, and praying, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (based on Matthew 8:8). The faithful then stream forward to consume the consecrated bread, which they believe is literally “the Body of Christ,” and drink the consecrated wine, “the Blood of Christ.”
The Mass concludes with the leader announcing, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” In Latin, the phrase is “Ite, missa est,” with the word missa implying “mission.” This is the reason the Roman Catholic liturgy is called the Mass.
How Protestants Approach God in Worship
Generally speaking, Protestant church buildings are simpler than Catholic Church buildings. The reason for this absence of adornment is to avoid objects and decorations, even if they are intended to be symbolic, to detract from singular devotion to the Lord. Protestant buildings are known for their pulpit in place of the Catholic altar. This displacement underscores the Reformation movement away from the sacrament of the Eucharist as the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ, which takes place on the altar, to the elevation of God’s word in Scripture in terms of preaching the gospel, which takes place from the pulpit. Without detracting from this central feature, Protestant buildings also place the baptistry and the table for the Lord’s Supper in prominent locations.
Protestant worship services are quite varied. Some services (for example, in Anglican churches) may resemble the Mass described above. Other services (for example, in some baptist churches) have little to nothing in common with so-called highly liturgical varieties. Still, most Protestant churches feature certain common elements.
Elements of Protestant Worship
A call to worship is a common opening element that reminds worshipers that God takes the initiative to reach out to and save us, so it is he who invites us into his presence. Songs and prayers of praise and thanksgiving ascend to the Lord in recognition of who he is and what he has done through creation, providence, and redemption. Acknowledging God’s holy nature and gracious work reminds worshipers of their fallenness.
Accordingly, confession of sin is another element. This aspect may be done by giving space for individuals to confess their sins and/or for corporate confession. In both cases, the worship leader assures the congregation of God’s forgiveness. Prayers of intercession — for individuals, the church itself, its missionaries, its city, the government, the marginalized, unbelievers — are offered, as are the members’ financial gifts. The apex of the service is the word of God read, preached, and applied.
Sermons may be expositions of a biblical text (for example, Galatians 3:10–14), topical messages (for example, marriage or justification by faith alone), seasonal addresses (for example, the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, the birth narratives during Advent), or evangelistic appeals. The ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered as means by which the gospel is portrayed, remembered, and promised. The service concludes with a final song, prayer, benediction, or blessing for the road.
At the heart of these differences in worship services are important core divisions between Catholics and Protestants. Though these divergences are numerous, I’ll focus on one of the most important Protestant disagreements with the Catholic Mass: the Lord’s Supper.
The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the only Church of Christ in virtue of its common faith, apostolic succession (the hierarchy possesses the authority of Christ), and Eucharist. Because Protestants lack these essential elements, the Catholic Church considers its Mass to be the only true celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Accordingly, when Protestant churches administer this ordinance, it is considered invalid.
Because Protestant leaders are not priests or bishops consecrated by the Catholic Church, they cannot act in the person of Christ to truly celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Thus, a second reason why the Protestant administration of the Lord’s Supper is invalid (again, according to the Roman Catholic Church) is that the leaders who celebrate it do not have the proper authority to do so.
But why does the Lord’s Supper have to be administered by a Catholic priest or bishop? Because, third, the Roman Catholic Church believes in transubstantiation: when a priest or bishop consecrates the bread and wine — and only Catholic priests and bishops can rightly sanctify these elements — the substance of the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus Christ, and the substance of the wine, his blood. Specifically, the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ on Calvary is re-presented at the Mass as a bloodless sacrifice, in which the Catholic faithful take part by eating the bread (Christ’s body) and drinking the wine (Christ’s blood). Because Protestants strongly disagree with transubstantiation, the Lord’s Supper that we celebrate is invalid according to the Roman Catholic Church.
Not only do Protestants counter the first three points by disagreeing that (1) the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church of Jesus Christ, (2) only Catholic priests and bishops have the authority to administer the Lord’s Supper, and (3) the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. Protestants also disagree with the Catholic view that justifying grace is communicated through this sacrament of the Eucharist. According to Catholic theology, such grace is infused into the Catholic faithful who participate in the celebration. This infused grace transforms their nature and enables them to engage in good works of love so as to merit eternal life.
Appealing to Scripture, Protestants insist instead that justification is not a matter of grace being infused to help good people work to obtain eternal life. Rather, by his mighty act of justification, God declares ungodly people “not guilty” but “righteous instead” as they believe in Christ as announced in the gospel: “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Not good people, but ungodly people. Not infused grace, but the righteousness of another, Christ, credited to us through our faith-union with him. Not grace plus human cooperation. Not faith plus good works. Rather, grace alone (sola gratia). Faith alone (sola fide). Christ alone (solus Christus).
Being characterized by its solas, Protestants dissent from the Roman Catholic Mass and its claim to be the only true Eucharist because it is performed by the only true administrators (priests and bishops) who are the only ones who can affect the transubstantiation of the bread and wine.
Are They Compatible?
The Roman Catholic Church, grounded on different principles and disagreeing with the Protestant principles of sola Sciptura and justification according to the solas, approaches the worship of God and the salvation he offers in a way not compatible with Protestant churches. The culminating expression of this incongruity is the sacrament of the Eucharist, with the Catholic view of transubstantiation, the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ and the infusion of grace.
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For this reason, Protestants do not participate in the Catholic Eucharist. This negative decision is not only and even primarily their own; the Catholic Church officially excludes Protestants from such participation. Someone may counter, “But I know a Catholic priest who invites Protestants to take the Eucharist.” Without wanting to be polemical, it must be said that this priest is simply wrong in extending the invitation. Protestants are not to celebrate the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist, whether on Catholic terms or Protestant.
If you, as a Protestant, attend a Catholic Mass for whatever reason (for example, when I teach my seminary course on Roman Catholic Theology and Practice, I take my students to a Mass), it is important to prepare yourself in advance for what is to come. Before leaving the Church, a respectful conversation with the priest who celebrated the Mass can make for a wonderful educational experience.
Protestants gain nothing by mischaracterizing the Catholic Mass, and seeking to understand its dynamic elements, and the theology undergirding them, should help Protestants appreciate and embrace more fully their own theology and the changes in worship Protestant theology has produced.
Much has happened over the five hundred years since the Reformation, but the Roman Catholic Mass is still every bit at odds with the worship the Reformers rediscovered in Scripture and fought to preserve for us.
By Gregg Allison
Gregg Allison is professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and co-author of The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years.