A particular theme stood out among the comments on my recent article. Some critics claimed that the Vatican II liturgy downplayed sacrificial symbolism in the liturgy in favor of meal symbolism, and so is inferior to the older forms of the Roman Rite. This idea is fairly widespread in traditionalist circles and merits closer examination.

It is important to keep in mind that the Mass is both a participation in Christ’s sacrifice and a meal. Some traditionalists seem to forget this point. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says that among the many different names for the Mass, it is fittingly called both “The Lord’s Supper” because of its connection both to the Last Supper and to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, and “The Holy Sacrifice” because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ. (CCC 1329, 1330)

With this in mind, it should be pointed out that neither the older nor the newer forms of the Roman Rite suggest a sacrifice to an untrained observer. Neither contains any visible bloodshed or immolation. Rather, both rites suggest a meal, though of a highly formalized and ritual kind.

Traditionalists claim that the symbolism of the “TLM” is intuitively obvious and that this supposedly intuitive symbolism makes it superior to the Vatican II liturgy. At the same time, however, the traditionalist movement publishes a vast amount of explanatory literature about the symbolism of their preferred liturgical form. Many of these explanations are far from obvious. For instance, I doubt anyone would realize without being told that the maniple symbolizes the burdens and toils of the priesthood. Why are traditionalists accusing the liturgy of Vatican II of being symbolically opaque when the Tridentine rite needs so much explanation?

Many of the traditionalist arguments about the modern liturgy’s supposedly defective emphasis are weak or misleading. Some focus on church decor or other issues which have nothing to do with the liturgy itself. Often, arguments that do refer to the liturgy are beside the point. For instance, the sign of the cross does not occur as often in the Vatican II liturgy as it does in older forms of the Roman Rite. It is claimed that this reduction clearly downplays the sacrificial element in the liturgy.

This is a weak argument for several reasons. Most of the signs of the cross in the Tridentine rite were small, hidden gestures only visible to the priest who was making them. Some of them even could be misunderstood as downplaying the sacrificial element, as when the sign of the cross is made over the consecrated elements. This rubric might easily be misinterpreted as the priest blessing them, which would be incompatible with their new reality as the body and blood of Christ. Further, it isn’t as if the sign of the cross isn’t used in the newer Vatican II liturgy. If more is always better, maybe the 53 signs of the cross in the Tridentine rite are too few, and we should make 77 or 120 signs instead! Also, signs of the cross are perfectly compatible with a meal; it is common for Catholics to make the sign of the cross before eating.

The arguments of some traditionalists that the “versus populum” position of the priest and the reception of Communion in the hand downplay the sacrificial symbolism are similarly weak. Other arguments can be made for and against these liturgical practices, arguments that I hope to discuss in future articles, but they don’t strengthen or weaken the sacrificial symbolism in any way. There is no fundamental reason why a priest cannot face the people while performing a sacrifice, and nor is there nothing intrinsic about a sacrificial meal that prohibits the participants from using their hands while consuming the sacrificial victim.

Some traditionalist arguments are simply false, such as the argument that the newer form lacks “sacrificial language.” The Vatican II liturgy opens with the sign of the cross. The Offertory contains the lines “may our sacrifice in your sight this day / be pleasing to you, Lord God.” and concludes with the versicle and response “Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours . . . May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands . . .” The Prayer over the Offerings has a sacrificial connotation on many occasions and feasts, such as this one for the feast of Francis de Sales:

Through this saving sacrifice which we offer you, O Lord,
kindle in our hearts that divine fire of the Holy Spirit
with which you wonderfully inflamed
the most gentle soul of Saint Francis de Sales.
Through Christ our Lord.

Additionally, there are numerous references to sacrificial themes in the four Eucharistic prayers.[*] And, of course, the liturgy centers on the words of consecration themselves, with their clear sacrificial overtones, and the separate consecrations and elevations that symbolize the separation of Christ’s body and blood.

The Purpose of the Mass

While the Vatican II liturgy contains sacrificial language, it does stress the meal aspect more than the Tridentine rite did. Is this emphasis as problematic as traditionalists make it out to be? To answer that question, it might be best to ask another: Why was the liturgy instituted?

According to the Catechism, the Sacrifice of the Mass was instituted to perpetuate the Sacrifice of the Cross. This perpetuation was for the sake of applying the benefits of the Sacrifice of the Cross to all times and places. (CCC 1323) In particular, the Mass was instituted to give all of us access to the reception of Holy Communion. CCC 1382 puts it as follows:

“The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood. But the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion. To receive communion is to receive Christ himself who has offered himself for us.”

This “direction” of the Mass towards the reception of the Eucharist is due to the fundamental nature of Christ’s sacrifice. His offering on the Cross was once and for all; celebrations of the Mass can’t possibly add anything to his one, definitive offering. The benefits of the sacrifice, however, in particular participation in the Eucharist, need to be made present for the benefit of individuals living across time and space.

This orientation toward a sacred meal can also be seen in those sacrifices of the Old Law which prefigured the Mass. The Mass fulfills both the Old Testament “Sacrifice of Praise” and the Passover, to which the Catechism says it gives a “definitive meaning.” (CCC 1340, 1359-1361). Both of these sacrifices were integrally connected with ritual, celebratory meals.

Not only is the Sacrifice of the Mass the fulfillment of the ritual animal sacrifices of the Jewish people in the temple and the perpetuation of the Sacrifice of the Cross, but it is also the foreshadowing of the “Wedding Feast of the Lamb” (CCC 1344). As a sacred meal, it prepares us for the eternal banquet of heaven.

The Church has always emphasized this Eucharistic aspect of the liturgy, from the “Breaking of Bread” of the Early Church to the Second Vatican Council, which “strongly commends” “That more perfect form of participation in the Mass whereby the faithful, after the priest’s communion, receive the Lord’s body from the same sacrifice.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 55) In light of this traditional Eucharistic emphasis, the fact that the Vatican II liturgy emphasizes the Lord’s Supper can’t be seen as problematic. Rightly understood, the Sacred Meal points back to the Divine Sacrifice of which it is the conclusion and fulfillment.


[*] Eucharistic Prayer I is substantially the same as the old Roman Canon. It contains many references to sacrifice and offering.

Eucharistic Prayer II contains the phrase “we offer you” and the Eucharistic acclamations that speak of the death of Christ. It also contains the line “partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ.” (It should be noted that the language of offering implies sacrifice.)

Eucharistic Prayer III contains the phrases “the oblation of your Church,” “eternal offering,” and “sacrifice of reconciliation”

Eucharistic Prayer IV contains the phrases “we offer you his body and blood,” “the sacrifice acceptable to you,” “Look, O Lord, upon the sacrifice,” and “For whom we offer this sacrifice.”

Image: Flickr, photo by Mark Mauno, “The Last Supper” by Carlo Crivelli, 1488. License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). Source: https://flic.kr/p/hvcQW7

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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