By DON FIER
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as we saw last week, is a true sacrifice in the fullest sense of the word “because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1366). The perfect sacrifice of Christ on Calvary becomes present and actual each time the Holy Eucharist is offered.
“No less than on Calvary, Jesus offers His life to His heavenly Father,” explains Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ. “It is the same Priest (Jesus Christ) whose human life, united to the divine, offers Himself; furthermore, it is the same Victim (Jesus Christ) whose human life, united with the divinity, is sacrificed. The only difference is that, being now glorified, Christ cannot die a physical death in the Sacrifice of the Mass as He did on the Cross” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 142).
Fr. Hardon elaborates on this foundational mystery of our faith in a short volume entitled The Blessed Sacrament (TBS), published posthumously in 2011. His basis of explanation relates to the principle that “the heart of sacrifice is in the will” (p. 63). As we know, Jesus Christ died once-for-all on Good Friday; He cannot physically die again. But when God became man, His primary reason for doing so was “to assume a human will so that on the Cross He could offer Himself in Sacrifice, offer Himself as man Who, faith tells us, was the living God. It is the same Jesus now present on the altar, and He has, therefore, not just a human Body and human Blood; He has a human will! If He could die, He would in every Mass which is offered” (ibid.).
By definition, we know that a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ that makes present efficaciously the grace that it signifies (cf. CCC, n. 1084). What is visibly signified externally is effected internally.
How do we see this in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? There is a double consecration, first of bread and then of wine. Why? “To signify that just as on the Cross on Calvary, Christ drained His Blood from His living Body and thus died, so the double consecration is the sacramental sign,…the manifestation of Christ’s willingness to die again if He could” (TBS, p. 64).
Christ dies mystically and spiritually every time Mass is offered — in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, He has the same free will by which He chose to die on Calvary.
Our faith teaches us that Jesus Christ, through His Sacrifice on Calvary, won all the graces necessary to redeem the whole human race. However, as Fr. Hardon explains in an unpublished manuscript entitled A Eucharistic Retreat: Twenty-Six Meditations, “Christ’s death on the Cross objectively merited the graces to redeem the world, but He must now subjectively communicate those graces to us.” It is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that “is the single most effective means by which Christ applies the merits He gained, and by which He communicates the graces He won by His Sacrifice on the Cross” (BCCC, p. 142).
The Catechism now highlights that “the Eucharist is also the sacrifice of the Church” (CCC, n. 1368). What does this mean? The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ — He is her Head and the faithful are her members. We have been given the ability to participate in the sacrifice offered by Christ in the Mass — His sacrifice becomes our sacrifice. “The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value” (ibid.).
The Second Vatican Council, in fact, teaches that “we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22 § 5).
To make this teaching more concrete for us, a beautiful image is recalled by the Catechism. In the catacombs of Rome, the final resting place of many early Christian martyrs who “fought the good fight, have finished the race” (2 Tim. 4:7), and bask now in the light of eternal beatitude, “the Church is often represented as a woman in prayer, arms outstretched in the praying position” (CCC, n. 1368).
This image is likened to that of Christ on Calvary with His arms outstretched on the cross. Similarly, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, through Him, with Him, and in Him, the Church “offers herself and intercedes for all men” (ibid.).
It is thus that the Catechism is able to declare that “the whole Church is united with the offering and intercession of Christ” (CCC, n. 1369). We see this expressed in Eucharistic Prayer I of the Roman Canon when the petition is made to the Father “to grant her [the Church] peace, to guard, unite, and govern her throughout the whole world, together with your servant <N> our Pope, and <N> our Bishop, and all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith.”
It is significant that the first one named is the Vicar of Christ. Why is this true?
As taught by Vatican II, “the Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful” (Lumen Gentium [LG], n. 23). Every Celebration of the Eucharist is therefore associated with the Pope. Likewise, “individual bishops are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches” (ibid.). It is for this reason that the local diocesan bishop’s name is mentioned — he “is always responsible for the Eucharist, even when a priest presides” (CCC, n. 1369).
The local bishop acts collegially with all other bishops throughout the world, for as Pope Pius XII states in his 1957 encyclical Fidei Donum:
“Even though each bishop is the pastor of that portion only of the Lord’s flock entrusted to him, nevertheless as lawful successor of the Apostles by God’s institution and commandment he is also responsible, together with all the other bishops, for the Apostolic task of the Church, according to the words of Christ to the Apostles: ‘As the Father has sent me, I also send you’ (John 20:21)” (n. 42).
As far back as the early second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch pronounced this truth of eucharistic unity: “Let only that Eucharist be regarded as legitimate, which is celebrated under [the presidency of] the bishop or him to whom he has entrusted it” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8:1; as cited in CCC, n. 1369).
The Catechism now calls to mind the doctrine of the Communion of Saints by instructing the faithful that “the offering of Christ is united not only to the members still here on earth, but also those already in the glory of heaven” (CCC, n. 1370) and, as dogmatically proclaimed by the Council of Trent, is “offered for the faithful departed who ‘have died in Christ but are not yet wholly purified’ (Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, n. 1743)” (CCC, n. 1371).
Our Blessed Mother and many great saints are recalled in Eucharistic Prayer I of the Roman Canon and the Church also celebrates Mass several times throughout the liturgical calendar to commemorate their memories.
However, as pointed out by Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, in volume 3 of his Fundamentals of Catholicism (FoC-3), “she does not offer the sacrifice to the saints but to God alone. Masses in honor of this or that saint are offered to God with the intention of thanking him for the grace and goodness he has shown to the saints and of appealing to those saints for their intercession in heaven” (p. 269).
After all, “by reason of the fact that those in heaven are more closely united with Christ, they establish the whole Church more firmly in holiness” (LG, n. 49). Thus, they are able to powerfully intercede, from their heavenly home, that the fruits of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass be applied on our behalf.
Remember Me At
The Lord’s Altar
For the poor souls in Purgatory, a powerful effect of the fruits of the Mass is the remission of temporal punishment still due for past sins. Assured of salvation, they are able to have their period of purgation shortened.
The Council of Trent spoke decisively on the propitiatory value of the Holy Eucharist:
“If any one shall say, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice offered on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it avails him only who receiveth; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema” (session 22, canon 3).
St. Monica, fully attuned to this teaching, gave fitting instructions to her son St. Augustine in preparation for death: “Lay this body anywhere, let not the care for that disquiet you: this only I request, that you would remember me at the Lord’s Altar wherever you be” (Confessions, book IX, chapter 11).
St. Augustine admirably sums up this doctrine is his City of God: “This is the sacrifice of Christians: we, being many, are one body in Christ. And this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God” (book X, chapter 6; as cited in CCC, n. 1372).
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)