Let us now, dear reader, walk together into a Catholic Church in time to assist at the late Mass, which is the most solemn service of the Catholic Liturgy. Meantime, I shall endeavor to explain to you the principal objects which attract your attention.
As we enter I dip my fingers into a vase placed at the church door, and filled with holy water, and I make the sign of the cross, praying at the same time to be purified from all defilement, so that with a clean heart I may worship in God's holy temple.
The Church, through her ministers, blesses everything used in her service; for, St. Paul says, that "Every creature of God is good, ... that is received with thanksgiving, for it is sanctified by the word of God and by prayer." [I. Tim. iv. 4.]
Before Mass begins the Priest sprinkles the assembled congregation with holy water, reciting at the same time these words of the fiftieth Psalm: "Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed; Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow."
The practice of using blessed water dates back to a very remote antiquity, and is alluded to by several Fathers of the primitive Church.
As we advance up the aisle you observe lying open on the altar a large book, which is called a Missal, or Mass-book, because it contains the prayers said at Mass. The office of the Mass consists of selections from the Old and the New Testament, the Canon and other appropriate prayers. The Canon of the Mass never varies throughout the year, and descends to us from the first ages of the Church with scarcely the addition of a word. Nearly all the collects are also very old, many of them dating back to a period prior to the seventh century. I am acquainted with no prayers that can compare with the collects of the Missal in earnestness and vigor of language, in conciseness of style and unction of piety. It is evident that their authors were men who felt what they said and were filled with the spirit of God, despising "the persuasive words of human wisdom," unlike so many modern prayer-composers whose rounded periods are directed rather to tickle the ears of men than to pierce the clouds.
You are probably familiar with the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and have no doubt admired its beautiful simplicity of diction. But perhaps you will be surprised when I inform you that this Prayer-Book is for the most part a translation from our Missal.
Let us now reverently follow the officiating Priest through the service of the Mass.
You see him advance from the sacristy and stand at the foot of the altar, where he makes a humble confession of his sins to God and His saints. He then ascends the altar, and nine times the Divine clemency is invoked in the Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison. He intones the sublime doxology, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, sings the collects of the day, reads the Lesson or Epistle and chants the Gospel, after which the sermon is usually preached. Next he recites the Nicene Creed, which for upwards of fifteen centuries has been resounding in the churches of Christendom. Then you perceive him making the oblation of the bread and wine. He washes the tips of his fingers, reciting the words of the Psalmist: "I will wash my hands among the innocent and will encompass Thy altar, O Lord." He is admonished, by this ceremony, to be free from the least stain, in view of the sacred act he is going to perform. The Preface and Canon follow, including the solemn words of consecration, during which the bread and wine are changed by the power of Jesus Christ into His body and blood. He proceeds with other prayers, including the best of all, the Our Father, as far as the Communion, when he partakes of the consecrated Bread and chalice, giving the Holy Communion afterward to such as are prepared to receive it. He continues the Mass, gives his blessing to the kneeling congregation, and concludes with the opening words of the sublime Gospel of St. John.
Here you have not merely a number of prayers strung together, but you witness a scene which rivets pious attention and warms the heart into fervent devotion. You participate in an act of worship worthy of God, to whom it is offered.
But you are anxious that I should explain to you the reason why the Mass is said in Latin. When Christianity was first established the Roman Empire ruled the destinies of the world. Pagan Rome had dominion over nearly all Europe and large portions of Asia and Africa. The Latin was the language of the Empire. Wherever the Roman standard was planted, there also was spread the Latin tongue; just as at the present time the English language is spoken wherever the authority of Great Britain or of the United States is established.
The Church naturally adopted in her Liturgy, or public worship, the language which she then found prevailing among the people. The Fathers of the early Church generally wrote in the Latin tongue, which thus became the depository of the treasures of sacred literature in the Church.
In the fifth century came the disruption of the Roman Empire. New kingdoms began to be formed in Europe out of the ruins of the old empire. The Latin gradually ceased to be a living tongue among the people, and new languages commenced to spring up like so many shoots from the parent stock. The Church, however, retained in her Liturgy, and in the administration of the Sacraments, the Latin language for very wise reasons, some of which I shall briefly mention:
First--The Catholic Church has always one and the same faith, the same form of public worship, the same spiritual government. As her doctrine and liturgy are unchangeable, she wishes that the language of her Liturgy should be fixed and uniform. Faith may be called the jewel, and language is the casket which contains it. So careful is the Church of preserving the jewel intact that she will not disturb even the casket in which it is set. Living tongues, unlike a dead language, are continually changing in words and meanings. The English language as written four centuries ago would be now almost as unintelligible to an English reader as the Latin tongue. In an old Bible published in the fourteenth century St. Paul calls himself the villain of Jesus Christ. The word villain in those days meant a servant, but the term would not be complimentary now to one even less holy than the Apostle. This is but one instance, out of many which I might adduce, to show the mutations which our language has undergone. But the Latin, being a dead language, is not liable to these changes.
Second--The Catholic Church is spread over the whole world, embracing in its fold children of all climes and nations, and peoples and tongues under the sun. How, I ask, could the Bishops of these various countries communicate with one another in council if they had not one language to serve as a common medium of communication? It would be simply impossible. A church that is universal must have a universal tongue; whilst a national church, or a church whose members speak one and the same language, and whose doctrines conveniently change to suit the times, can safely adopt the vernacular tongue in its liturgy.
A few years ago a Convocation was held in England, composed of British and American Episcopal Bishops. They had no difficulty in communicating with one another because all spoke their mother tongue. But suppose they had representatives from Spain, France and Germany. The lips of those Continental Bishops would be sealed because they could not speak to their English brothers; their ears also would be sealed because they could not comprehend what was said to them.
In 1869, at the Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, were assembled Bishops from all parts of the world speaking all the civilized languages of Christendom. Had those Bishops no uniform language to express their thoughts, public debates and familiar conversation among them would have been impracticable. The Council Chamber would have been a confused Babel of tongues. But, thanks to the Latin language, which they all spoke (except a few Orientals), their speeches were as plainly understood as if each had spoken in his native dialect.
Third--Moreover, the Bishops and Clergy of the Catholic Church are in frequent correspondence with the Holy See. This requires that they should communicate in one uniform language, otherwise the Pope would be compelled to employ secretaries speaking every language in Christendom.
But if the Priest says Mass in an unknown tongue, are not the people thereby kept in ignorance of what he says, and is not their time wasted in Church? We are forced to smile at such charges, which are flippantly repeated from year to year. These assertions arise from a total ignorance of the Mass. Many Protestants imagine that the essence of public worship consists in a sermon. Hence, to their minds, the primary duty of a congregation is to listen to a discourse from the pulpit. Prayer, on the contrary, according to Catholic teaching, is the most essential duty of a congregation, though they are also regularly instructed by sermons. Now, what is the Mass? It is not a sermon, but it is a sacrifice of prayer which the Priest offers up to God for himself and the people. When the Priest says Mass he is speaking not to the people, but to God, to whom all languages are equally intelligible.
The congregation, indeed, could not be expected to hear the Priest, even if he spoke in English, since his face is turned from them, and the greater part of what he says is pronounced in an undertone. And this was the system of worship God ordained in the ancient dispensation, as we learn from the Old Testament and from the first chapter of St. Luke. The Priest offered sacrifice and prayed for the people in the sanctuary, while they prayer at a distance in the court. In all the schismatic churches of the East the Priest in the public service prays not in the vulgar, but in a dead language. Such, also, is the practice in the Jewish synagogues at this day. The Rabbi reads the prayers in Hebrew, a language with which many of the congregation are not familiar.
But is it true that the people do not understand what the Priest says at Mass? Not at all. For, by the aid of an English Missal, or any other Manual, they are able to follow the officiating clergyman from the beginning to the end of the service.
You also observe lighted tapers on the altar, and you desire to know for what purpose they are used.
In the Old Law the Almighty Himself ordained that lighted chandeliers should adorn the tabernacle.[Exod. xxv. 31, and seq.] Assuredly, that cannot be improper in the New Dispensation which God sanctioned in the Old.
The lights upon our altars have both a historical and a symbolic meaning. In the primitive days of the Church Christianity was not tolerated by the Pagan world. The Christians were, consequently, obliged to assemble for public worship in the Catacombs of Rome and other secret places. These Catacombs, or subterranean rooms, still exist, and are objects of deep interest to the pious stranger visiting the Eternal City. As these hidden apartments did not admit the light of the sun, the faithful were obliged to have lights even in open day. In commemoration of the event the Church has retained the use of lights on her altars.
Lighted candles have also a symbolical meaning. The represent our Savior, who is "the light of the world," "who enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world," without whom we should be wandering in darkness and in the shadow of death.
They also serve to remind us to "let our light so shine before men (by our good example) that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven."
Lights are used, too, as a sign of spiritual joy. St. Jerome, who lived in the fourth century, remarks: "Throughout all the Churches of the East, before the reading of the Gospel, candles are lighted at mid-day, not to dispel darkness, but as a sign of joy."
You also noticed the Priest incensing the altar. Incense is a striking emblem of prayer, which should ascend to heaven from hearts burning with love, just as the fragrant smoke ascends from the censer. "Let my prayer," says the Royal Prophet, "ascend like incense in Thy sight." [Ps. cxi.] God enjoined in the Old Law the use of incense: "Aaron shall burn sweet-smelling incense upon the altar in the morning." [Exod. xxx. 7.] Hence we see the Priest Zachariah "offer incense on going into the temple of the Lord, And all the multitude were praying without at the hour of incense." [Luke I. 9, 10.]
You perceive that the altar is decorated today with vases and flowers because this is a festival of the Church. There is one spot on earth which can never be too richly adorned, and that is the sanctuary in which our Lord vouchsafes to dwell among us. Nothing is too good, nothing too beautiful, nothing too precious for God. He gives us all we possess, and the least we can do in return is to ornament that spot which He has chosen for His abode upon earth. The Almighty, it is true, has no need of our gifts. He is rich without them. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." Nevertheless, He is pleased to accept our offerings when they are bestowed upon Him as a mark of our affection, just as a father joyfully receives from his child a present bought with his own means. Our Savior gratefully accepted the treasures of the Magi, though he could have done without such gifts. Some persons, when they see our sanctuary sumptuously decorated, will exclaim: Would it not have been better to give to the poor the money spent in purchasing these things? So complained Judas (though caring not for the poor [John xii. 6.]) when Mary poured from an alabaster vase the precious ointment on the feet of an approving Savior. Why should not we imitate Mary by placing at His feet, around His sanctuary, our vases with their chaste and fragrant flowers, that the Church may be filled with their perfume, as Simon's house was filled with the odor of the ointment?
Does not the Almighty at certain seasons adorn with lilies and flowers of every hue this earth, which is the great temple of nature? And what is more appropriate than that we should on special occasions embellish our sanctuary, the place which He has chosen for His habitation among us? It is sweet to snatch from the field its fairest treasures wherewith to beautify the temple made with hands.
The sacred vestments which you saw worn by the officiating Priest must have struck you as very antique and out of fashion. Nor is this surprising, for if you saw a lady enter church today with a head-dress such as worn in the days of Queen Elizabeth, her appearance would look to you very singular. Now, our priestly vestments are far older in style than the days of Queen Elizabeth; much older even than the British Empire. Eusebius and other writers of the fourth century speak of them as already existing in their times. It is no wonder, therefore, that these vestments look odd to the unfamiliar eye.
In the Old Law God prescribed to the Priests the vestments which they should wear while engaged in their sacred office: "And these shall be the vestments which they shall make (for the Priest): a rational and an ephod, a tunic and a straight linen garment, a mitre and a girdle. They shall make the holy vestments for thy brother Aaron and his sons, that they may do the office of priesthood unto Me." [Exod. xxviii. 4.] Guided by Heaven, the Church also prescribes sacred garments for her ministering Priests: for it is eminently proper and becoming that the minister of God, while engaged in the sacred mysteries, should be arrayed in garments which would constantly impress upon him his sacred character and remind him, as well as the congregation, of the sublime functions he is performing.
The vestments worn by the Priest while celebrating Mass are an amict, or white cloth around the neck; an alb, or white garment reaching to his ankles, and bound around his waist by a cincture; a maniple suspended from his left arm; a stole, which is placed over his shoulders and crossed at the breast; and a chasuble, or large outer garment.
The chasuble, stole and maniple very in color according to the occasion. Thus, white vestments are used at Christmas, Easter and other festivals of joy, also on feasts of Confessors and Virgins; red are used at Pentecost and on festivals of Apostles and Martyrs; green from Trinity Sunday to Advent, on days having no special feast; purple during Lent and Advent, and black in Masses for the dead.
One more word on this subject. Only a few years ago the whole Protestant world was united in denouncing the use of floral decorations on our altars, incense, sacred vestments, and even the altar itself, as abominations of Popery. But of late a better spirit has taken possession of a respectable portion of the Protestant Episcopal church. After having exhausted their wrath against our vestments, and vilified them as the rags of the wicked woman of Babylon, the members of the Ritualistic church have, with remarkable dexterity, passed from one extreme to the other. They don our vestments, they swing our censer, erect altars in their churches and adorn them with flowers and candle-sticks.
These Ritualists are, however, easily discerned from the true Priest. Should one of them ever appear before the Father of the faithful in these ill-fitting robes the venerable Pontiff would exclaim, with the Patriarch of old: "The voice indeed is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau." I feel the garment of the Priest, but I hear the voice of the parson.
God grant that, as our misguided brothers have assumed our sacerdotal garments, they may adopt our faith, that their speech may conform to their dress. Then, having laid aside their earthly stoles, may the deserve, like all faithful Priests, to be seen "standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, with white stoles and palms in their hands, ... saying: "Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb." [Apoc. vii. 9, 10.]