Explanation of the Ceremonies of Holy Mass, Part I: Before Holy Mass

Sunday is the LORD’s Day. Christians rise with the sun on the eighth day, the first new day of a new age of the Resurrection, and go to buildings which have been set apart for divine worship by the name church. They are called church because it is the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, which assembles there in the presence of God just as the twelve tribes of Israel assembled at the foot of Mt Sinai to receive the Law and came to the temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to ask God to forgive their sins. Christians come to celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist, a word which means thanksgiving, in the context of a liturgy filled with rites and ceremonies called the Mass.

Every baptized Christian becomes a member of the Church when water and the Holy Spirit are poured over him at baptism. And so the Christian enters the church building just as he entered the Church through baptism, taking holy water as a reminder of his baptism and tracing upon himself the Sign of the Cross which brought about his insertion into the life of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit whose Name he invokes.

The Christian finds a space in an assembly where there are no divisions between rich and poor, races or social class. When he crosses the threshold of the church from the outside world into the church, he leaves behind all earthly cares to enter into a foretaste of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the place where heaven meets earth at this Mystical Banquet. Jesus Christ reigns in the church as surely as He reigns in heavens, from his throne in the tabernacle, where He waits for us to come and worship and adore Him. We enter the church and gaze at Christ who waits for us in the tabernacle and we touch the right knee to the ground in a simple act of adoration to Him who is worshipped by the angels and saints and by men. At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow. We prepare for Mass by kneeling, a symbol of our own submission to the will of God. We make prayers of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication. We silently prepare ourselves for the re-enactment of the drama of Calvary, to receive the fruits of the one sacrifice offered to the Father for the salvation of men.

The priest, a man ordained to offer sacrifice for the living and the dead, has no other reason to exist than to make present in the here and now the same sacrifice that the LORD accomplished on the Cross, and to give to us the fruits of that sacrifice. Every day he offers the Mass, so that at every moment somewhere in the world there is the one sacrifice of redemption is celebrated in ritual forms and under symbolic guise, from the rising of the sun to its setting, and throughout the watches of the night.

The priest enters the sacristy clad in his black cassock, a sign of his renunciation of the world and of penance for his sins. He washes his hands and prays,

CLEANSE my hands, O Lord, from all stain, that, pure in mind and body, I may be worthy to serve Thee.

Just as the priests of the Old Testament purified the hands that would offer sacrifices of animals and plants, the priest of the New and Eternal Covenant washes his hands as a symbol of a prayer that he may be worthy to offer the last sacrifice for the People of God. The priest then puts on vestments reminiscent of those worn by the priests of the temple and the doctors of the law. Adore the LORD in holy attire, the Psalmist says, and the priest, putting on these special clothes, reminds himself that what he is doing is no ordinary, everyday action, but the Act by which Jesus redeems and saves us. He makes the Sign of the Cross and picks up the amice, a linen cloth held by strings evoking the prayer shawls of Jewish men, and prays, PLACE, O Lord, the helmet of Salvation upon my head to repel the assaults of the Devil.

Satan hates the Mass, because by that sacrifice commemorated here his reign over the hearts of men was destroyed, and so he seeks to distract the priest from his noble task and draw him into hell with the damned. Undaunted, the priest picks up the alb, a white garment stretching to the feet which reminds him of the pure white robe given to him at baptism as a symbol of his restored innocence. The word alb comes from the Latin word alba, which means white. When St John had his vision of the end of the world, he saw a multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb![1] The priest standing in the place of the people, appears before them a sign of the blessed in heaven praising the Lamb slain for them in this sacrifice, and prays,

CLEANSE me, O Lord, and purify my heart, that, being made white in the Blood of the Lamb, I may attain everlasting joy.

The priest then puts the cincture around his waist,

GIRD me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity and quench in me the fire of concupiscence, that the grace of temperance and chastity may abide in me.

He is reminded that he is a sinful man, prone to the lusts of the flesh as any man, but called to a life of angelic chastity for the love of souls. As Jesus said to the Apostle Peter, he says now to the priest, When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.[2] Christ reminds the priest that he is promised to an obedience which transcends his own desires, a sacrifice willingly undertaken for love of souls. In ancient times, the priest put on his left arm a maniple, a handkerchief to wipe his sweaty brow during the Mass, and he prayed,

GRANT me, O Lord, to bear the light burden of grief and sorrow, that I may with gladness take the reward of my labor.

The priest’s life is one of hard work and solitude, so he asks for the strength to live the life Christ has asked him to live. GIVE me again, O Lord, the stole of immortality, which I lost by the transgression of my first parents, and although I am unworthy to come unto Thy Holy Sacrament, grant that I may attain everlasting felicity. This man of obedience, this man of sorrows, kisses and places round his neck a stole, a long, narrow piece of cloth. Roman government officials wore stoles as signs of their authority, and the priest, who has the authority from God to teach, sanctify and govern, wears this ancient emblem of office whenever he celebrates a sacrament. But more important than authority, however legitimate, is love, and so the priest covers the stole and everything else with the chasuble, from the Latin word casula, or little house, signifying that charity is to cover all else in the priest’s life. He prays, LORD, who hast said, My yoke is easy, and My burden is light, grant that I may so bear it, as to attain Thy grace. Amen. The priest may then put on his headcovering, the biretta. Having its origin in the Middle Ages as a scholar’s cover, the priest must be learned in the sacred sciences, so it is appropriate that he wear the sign of that learning in church.

The priest spends time in silent preparation for what he is about to do. When the time has come, he bows to the Cross in the sacristy, as just as the Word made Flesh came forth from the body of the Virgin into the world, the Word’s herald comes vested in the ancient garments of tradition from the womb of the sacristy into the Church, the Body of Christ given for the life of the world. He rings a bell as a sign that the drama of Calvary is about to begin, and everyone is ready to witness its power and glory.


[1] Revelation 7.9-10
[2] John 21.18

New Parish Polyphony

I often find myself even more inspired by amateur performances than professional ones, but this recording is very special indeed. It is a group started by a seminarian in a tiny parish in Mississippi. They have only been together for one month. This is the third piece that they have sung at Mass. Their singing has brought new inspiration and life to the parish, with accolades pouring in. At first the pastor was reluctant but, seeing the effects, he is now fully on board with the program. It begins differently in every parish. This is one direction one can take. In most parishes today, there is no choral program at all, so this kind of effort amounts to flowers blooming in a desert. Absolutely thrilling. Have a listen.

BBC interview

Readers may be interested in an interview I gave yesterday for the BBC to promote a forthcoming workshop in Lancaster Cathedral. Forgive the inaccurate introduction – much as I would like to be Dr Gale, I am afraid I am plain old Mr!


Lancaster Cathedral

Chant course at Solesmes

I have been asked by Francis Nyan to remind readers of this blog that Dom Saulnier will be running the 7th Annual Advanced Gregorian Chant Week at Solesmes from 19-23 July this year. I’m not sure how many places, if any, are still available, but further details can be found here:


The Christopher Page Book

In recent days, I find myself constantly talking about The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years. There can be no question that his account is seminal and, of course, deeply interesting to anyone who sings at liturgy or has an interest in Gregorian chant. I’m thrilled by the intense focus on the subject that I care about most deeply, so the book is a joy from the first to the last. It begins in the Apostolic period and goes all the way to Guido d’Arezzo. The production values are fantastic (thank you Yale University). My only complaint is that the book is so heavy that I could not bring it with my on travels so all I can do at the moment is look forward to getting back to my reading. I aspire, actually, to live blog the book in the Chant Cafe, chapter by chapter. Live blogging a book can be rigorous and draining but it is a wonderful way to learn. This book is certainly worth such a detailed treatment. Perhaps it will happen. In any case, you should get your own copies so we can discuss it in the comments box as we go along. The price is certainly right. I say again to Professor Page: your book is a marvel and you deserve profound congratulations on this monumental work.

A Chant Renaissance in Essex

Andrew Wright, Director of Music for the Cathedral and Diocese of Brentwood in the UK, leads the way in restoring Gregorian Chant to its rightful place in the Liturgy.

Until more recent times, Chant featured rarely in the liturgies of Brentwood Cathedral. Typical examples of its use would be the better-known Chant settings of the Ordinary, and the occasions for performance would principally have been the Sunday Choral Mass for the Cathedral/Parish. However, some Chant would be used for diocesan liturgies like the Mass of Chrism. Other examples of the occasional use of Chant would be Credo III, Pater Noster, Victimae Paschali, Veni Sancte and hymns such as the Veni Creator. Some Chant was also used for monthly Sunday Vespers, e.g Psalm 109 – either on its own or in conjunction with polyphony – and the occasional vespers hymn. In terms of the overall scheme of music at the Cathedral, the chant maintained some kind of balance with other forms of music but its role was fairly minimal.

Over the past four years, however, Andrew Wright, Brentwood Cathedral and Diocese’s illustrious Director of Music, has instigated a dramatic increase in the amount and frequency of Chant used at Cathedral liturgies. At the Sunday 11.30 Choral Mass he has extended the Chant to include an Introit, the Communion Antiphon is used every Sunday (at the start of Communion, followed by a motet), and the number of Chant Masses in regular use has been extended (for the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). Current plans include the introduction of Gloria XV and the proper Alleluia. The role of the Chant at Vespers has also been dramatically increased and the Psalms and Antiphons are now regularly chanted in Latin to the proper tones.

Andrew claims that the ability of the Cathedral Choir to perform the chant better has been a factor for its increase. He is also aware of a desire to help restore this most fundamental liturgical music of the Roman Catholic Church. “The congregation here is used to a great variety of music and I believe their listening experience has help lead to a greater appreciation of chant. We have also successfully demonstrated that repeating the chant, for example the Sanctus or Gloria VIII regularly on Sundays, gradually builds up the congregational singing and appreciation. The music of course stands much repetition and it’s very sound and construction is a product of its regular prayerful purpose. It is also music which is dispassionate and unifying and therefore good for the liturgy.”

He continues “people are increasingly conscious of the need for greater beauty and the numinous in much of our liturgical music, not least in terms of prayerfulness and deeper spirituality etc. People are more aware today of Chant in terms of art, its history and role and that it must not be lost from the liturgy. Having experienced any other forms of music people can evaluate this today better and more sensibly. However, it is important that any efforts to re-introduce chant are done sensitively and pastorally as not to do so can be counter-productive and have the opposite effect.”

“It is important to help people understand that the continued use of the traditional music of the church can find a home within the present day liturgy very successfully. Perhaps this would be true of most venues although in other venues the need and capacity to use much larger amount of chant can and does work depending on the liturgy and ritual employed. In more general venues it helps to introduce Chant with/through young choristers singing.”

Andrew has met with a very favourable response to the reintroduction of Chant in the Cathedral and a good number of the faithful have commented in particular about its beauty and prayerfulness. I have been privileged to conduct two workshops for Andrew at Brentwood Cathedral, the first for the Cathedral Choir, the second for the Diocese, and on both occasions I was struck by the wonderful welcome I received, and by the receptiveness of the people who, without exception, have open minds and hearts, and a hunger for prayerful music, the beauty of the Chant and the Sacred Liturgy. I am looking forward to my third visit to the Diocese in the Autumn for a Chant Workshop in conjunction with the local Anglican diocese, with which Brentwood enjoys particularly close ecumenical ties. I feel very honoured to have been asked again by Andrew to participate in some small way in the wonderful work he does in the Cathedral and throughout his diocese, of which he is also the Director of Music.

Andrew speaks of an awareness of what has been lost, musically, from the tradition of the Church, but also an awareness that the Holy Father has been encouraging us to look again and value our intrinsic musical heritage, and there is a real and increasing willingness to support this concern and contribute to its well-being. I know from my visits to this beautiful Cathedral Church, and from my many conversations with Andrew, that the Chant has once more found a home in the liturgy at Brentwood Cathedral, and that its use will continue to grow and flourish there under the inspired leadership of their wonderfully talented, forward-looking and inspirational Director of Music, for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration.

Please pray for Andrew Wright, for his hugely-supportive new Cathedral Dean, Fr Martin Boland, and his equally supportive and visionary Ordinary, Bishop Thomas, who has done so much to promote and encourage music in Brentwood. Please pray too for the Choir and people of the Cathedral and for the Diocese as they continue, under Andrew’s leadership and direction, in their wonderful work of restoring the Chant and lifting the hearts and minds of the faithful to God through music.

Qui bene cantat bis orat!