A Concise History of the Mass

This is the text for an Adult Faith Workshop on the History of the Mass at a Catholic Parish. It is intended to be an incomplete, yet simple introductory History of the Mass for those with very little knowledge of Church History or the Mass.


     The Mass, like all the sacraments, was instituted by Christ, and thus has a definitive starting point and a living history in the Church. “At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of his Body and Blood … in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the centuries until he should come again.[1] The command of Christ to “do this in memory of me”[2] has been carried out unceasingly from the time of the Apostles on through history by their successors the bishops and priests. The Mass we celebrate today, while looking different, is essentially the same Mass that was instituted by Christ at the Last Supper.[3] In learning about the history of the Mass, we should come to a deeper understanding of God’s saving work in our lives and a deeper appreciation of the Holy Spirit at work in our Church through the ages.

     Throughout the 2,000 year history of the Church, the Mass has remained rooted in the core elements established by Christ, continuing to express what we believe through how we pray. A thorough study of the history of the Mass shows that the Mass we celebrate today was not made up by men in the Dark Ages, but rather was instituted by Christ and is rooted in the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles.

The Earliest Liturgy

     The earliest account of the Mass comes from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians around the year 57 AD.[4] In writing to the Corinthians he gives a verbatim explanation of the Mass at the time of the Apostles.

      For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.[5]

     Taking St. Paul’s account and the accounts of the Last Supper in the four gospels five key elements of the Mass emerge.

  1. Bread and wine are brought to the altar.
  2. The priest gives thanks.
  3. The priest takes the bread, blesses it and says the words of Consecration.
  4. The priest takes the wine, blesses it and says the words of Consecration.
  5. The bread, which has become the Body of Christ, is broken and given to the people along with the chalice.

While the celebration of the Mass grew organically over the centuries these five essential elements have remained as the Church daily commemorates the Passion of Christ by renewing it in an unblood manner upon the altar at every celebration of the Mass. From very humble beginnings, rooted in Jesus Christ, the prayers and the ceremonial actions of the Mass have developed through time to the Mass that we know today. As history has progressed different liturgies have developed with more or less emphasis was placed on certain aspects of the Mass.

The Mass Develops

     Since Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire until 325 AD, there are very few records describing the illegal action of the Mass. In the early Church, while Christians were being persecuted, they gathered secretly in each other’s homes. Praying in secret, the liturgy was very basic and practical, yet at the same time done with the greatest possible reverence. Very quickly this basic and practical liturgy began to see established customs become more normal, leading to a more ritualized liturgy.

     The early Church took its liturgical celebrations from three primary sources; the teaching of Jesus Christ, the practices of Judiasm, and those of the Greek world. The earliest liturgies contained a Liturgy of the Word (readings and a sermon) followed by a liturgical meal. The first liturgies were most probably celebrated in Aramaic, but were quickly changed to Greek. Over the first 600 years a calendar of feasts slowly developed. The feasts of Easter and Pentecost were present from the beginning while the feast of martyrs began to develop in the second century and Christmas was added in the fourth century.

     In the earliest celebration of the Mass the lessons were read from the Bible, prayers like the Psalms, the Our Father and the words of consecration were known by heart and the other prayers were offered extemporaneously. The earliest prayers of the Mass were saturated with biblical expressions which soon lead to a constant formula. As the same expressions were repeated over and over again, the faithful became accustomed to them and the next generation of priests would simply repeat, to the best of their ability, what they heard from their predecessors.

     Due to the persecution there were few rituals in the early Mass. The few rituals of the early Mass, like standing, kneeling, sitting, and offering the sign of peace were basic and inherited from Jewish practice. All of the other rituals arose from practical needs that took on a spiritual meaning in due time. For example, it was practically necessary for the priest to wash his hands before celebrating the Eucharist, for it would have been wrong to handle sacred things with dirty hands. Very quickly that practical gesture came to be seen to symbolize the spiritual action of cleansing ones soul and the priest began to recite Psalm 25 which proclaims lavabo inter innocents manus meas (I wash my hands in innocence.)[6]

The Public Mass

     Following the Edict of Milan in 325, which legalized Christianity, and the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, which made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Mass became a public act of worship. Naturally the size of the congregations increased, churches were built and people began to donate elaborate vessels and vestments to be used at the Mass. With the building of Churches and the support of the Roman Emperor the liturgical rites no longer needed to be simply practical. Influenced by the Roman Courts, the Mass developed into more elaborate celebrations that stressed the transcendental nature of what was taking place.

     With the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire different liturgical texts began to turn up. While all different texts bear similarities which shows a common descent and follow the same general outline, there were different forms of the Mass throughout the Empire. In general there were four different rites, three that were tied to the patriarchal cities of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch and the fourth, the Gallican, which was celebrated in the western Roman Empire, especially in northern parts like the city of Gaul. Today there are over 20 liturgical rites of the Mass. This introductory history will focus on the development of the Roman Rite, which is used today by Roman Catholics across the world.

The Origins of the Roman Rite

     The earliest Roman Sacramentaries, composed near the end of the fourth century, are the first complete collection of the Roman Rite. These Sacramentaries were written in Latin, which had slowly replaced the original Greek as more and more people began to speak the vulgar language of Latin and not the educated language of Greek. While there were various Sacramentaries and each had their own differences, it is clear that the essentials of the Mass remained intact. St. Ambrose of Milan, writing at the end of the fourth century, to the newly baptized quotes the central part of the Eucharist Prayer is substantially identical with the current Roman Canon.[7]

     In 590, Pope St. Gregory the Great was elected Pope and under his guidance the Church set out to reform the Mass. Using the different Mass of the time, the Gregorian Mass was compiled into one text, which is now called the Gregorian Sacramentary. The goal of the reform was to remain faithful to the traditions that had been handed down, while simplifying and arranging the Liturgy into a logical order. Additionally the Gregorian Reforms set out to give a set of readings for each day of the year.

The Spread of the Roman Rite

     Since the Western Roman Empire was constantly under attack from Barbarians there was not a great liturgical tradition in the Western Empire. The Gregorian Sacramentary was popularly used in the Western Roman empire because of its simplicity and its ties to the Diocese of Rome.  As the Gregorian Sacramentary moved north it began to absorb some of the traditions from the north (often referred to as Gallican accretions). Over time these Gallican accretions found their way back to the city of Rome and were incorporated into the Roman Rite.

     In the year 785 or 786, the Emperor Charlemagne requested that Pope Adrian I compose a unified liturgy for the whole of the Roman Empire. Aided by an English monk Alcuin the Adrianium Sacramentary was composed. This Sacramentary was based on the Gregorian Sacramentary, but had elements of the different Gallican Sacramentaries. It is from this Gallicanized – Roman Sacramentary that the finalized version of the Roman Sacamentary came and was in full use in the Western Roman Empire by the 11th or 12th century.

     By the Middle Ages Charlemagne’s desire for a unified text was in place and only small organic developments, like the introduction of the Gloria and the Creed, were introduced. While there was certainly uniformity in the West there were small differences from place to place. If one examines the different Missals from the Middle Ages they will see that nearly every diocese and religious order had some variations in the Mass, but all in all, the order and arrangement were the same and all the important prayers like the Eucharistic Prayer were left untouched.

The Reform of Pope St. Pius V

From 1517 to 1648, the Protestant Reformation raged in Europe. In response to this reformation Pope Paul III called the Ecumenical Council of Trent. Spanning three Popes and lasting from 1545 – 1563, this council sought to refute the heresies the Reformation had spread through Europe. In response to the council, Pope St. Pius V published a new Missal in 1570. Most important in this reform was the decree that the Roman Rite should be said in the same way in all places. Local customs were removed, the Liturgical Calendar was cleaned up and a uniform Missal was presented for use in the Roman Rite throughout the entire world. From 1570 on, while some minor changes were made, mostly concerning the liturgical calendar, the Mass remained pretty much unchanged until 1970 when the Missal of Pope Paul VI was issued.

The Reforms of the Second Vatican Council

On October 11, 1962 Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Eccumenical Council. Facing several political, social and economic challenges, the Bishops of the world gathered in Rome to address the Church’s response to the new post World War II Church. Over three years, the Council produced 16 different constitutions, declarations and decrees including a constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, set out to reform the Liturgy.

In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.

In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.[8]

     This Document, approved overwhelmingly with a 2700 to 4 vote of the world’s bishops, sought to restore the active participation of the people, remove duplications in the Roman Missal, and more fully manifest the sacramentality of the Mass.

     In 1960, Pope Paul VI, establish the Council for Implementing the Constitution on the Liturgy, often called Consillium. By October of 1967, Consillium had completed a draft of the revised Mass which was sent to the Synod of Bishops for their approval. Some of the major changes were the simplification of rubrics and some prayers, the allowance of concelebration, the addition of three new Eucharistic Prayers in 1968, a new lectionary with more of the Scriptures read at Mass, the permissibility for the priest to face the people, and the permissibility of approved vernacular translations of the Roman Missal. These revisions were originally approved with a vote of 62 – 43 at the synod. After making some minor changes Pope Paul VI issued the Motu Proprio Misale Romanum on April 3rd 1969, which approved the New Roman Missal and set its start date for the first Sunday of Advent in 1969. Today the Roman Missal of 1970 has undergone three revisions leading us to the Mass we know and love today.


     At the Last Supper, Jesus Christ, instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist. For two thousand years the Church has unceasingly carried out the command of Christ to “do this in memory of me.”[9]  Over the years the Church has organically grown and developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit culminating in the Mass we know today. A study of that history, demonstrates that “among the liturgical books of the Roman rite, a particular place belongs to the Roman Missal, which developed in the city of Rome and over the centuries gradually took on forms very similar to the form which it had in more recent generations.”[10] That same study reminds us that “the sacred liturgy, celebrated according to the Roman use, enriched not only the faith and piety but also the culture of many peoples. It is known, in fact, that the Latin liturgy of the Church in its various forms, in each century of the Christian era, has been a spur to the spiritual life of many saints, has reinforced many peoples in the virtue of religion and fecundated their piety.”[11]






[1] Vatican Council II. Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, (4 December 1963) §47.At The Holy See. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html

[2] Luke 22:19

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1323.

[4] Introduction to St. Paul in The New Jerusalem Bible. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990. Pg 1854.

[5] 1 Cor 11:23-29

[6]  Fr. Adrian Fortescue. The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (London: Longmans, 1912) pgs. 50 – 52.

[7] St. Ambrose of Milan De Sacramentis Chapter 5 section 6. Accessible at http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/219

[8] Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Conculium, §21.

[9] Luke 22:19

[10] Benedict XVI, Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum (7 July 2007) at The Holy See, http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/letters/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_let_20070707_lettera-vescovi.html

[11] Summorum Pontificum

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