Roman Rite Q&A: How was Mass originally offered?

By: Louis J. Tofari


An 11th century fresco in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome depicting Pope St. Clement offering Mass

A reader writes:

So many traditionalists seem to think that no NO Mass can be an actual sacrifice or deliver the true Eucharist. It’s the TLM or nothing for them. While I much prefer the TLM, I’m thinking the first Masses must have been much simpler.

Question: What were the first Masses like compared to the TLM?  Is there documentation for Jesus’ instructions on how the Apostles were to celebrate it?


The problems of the Novus Ordo Missae are indeed manifold, firstly for its theological deficiencies, such as the minimalizing of the sacrificial and sacerdotal quality of the Mass as well as the doctrine of the Real Presence. This was in fact an intended object in order to ecumenically placate the Protestants. To better understand the issue of the New Mass, I would suggest reading The Ottaviani Intervention as well as the books of Michael Davies. [1]

However, this being said, the Novus Ordo Missae is sacramentally valid per se, that is, the consecration of the Sacred Host and Precious Blood does take place when offered “by the book”. The issue of invalidity occurs when there is a defect in any of the four criteria required for the validity of any sacrament: matter, form, intention and minister; but this is a discussion for another time.

To answer your questions about how the first Masses were offered…


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Beyond the specific instruction of Christ to “Do this in memory of Me”, Sacred Scripture only records His words of institution and actions that took place during the Last Supper (and the inference of being repeated at Emmaus, hence recognized by His disciples). Otherwise, Our Lord left the development of the sacred liturgy, particularly the celebration of the Mass, to His Church. Thus as with the Bible, Jesus Christ did not give a copy of the Missale Romanum to His Apostles!

Also, scant written evidence exists of how first Masses were offered during the Apostolic Age except what is written in Sacred Scripture (for example of St. Paul), or from the period of the Early Church, save for a few well-known examples such as the Didache, the Letter of St. Justin the Martyr, the Apostolic Constitutions, the so-called Liturgy of St. Hippolytus, and some texts of Syrian and Egyptian origin. From these historical documents, many liturgical-archeologists have struggled to recreate what the early liturgy of the Mass would have been like, but with limited success. [2]

That being said, it is apparent that the Holy Apostles were following some sort of basic structure, which Dr. Adrian Fortescue calls the “Parent Rite” in his book, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy. The evidence for this is from the fact that all of the liturgical rites of the East and the West bear remarkable similarities and share many essential things in common, or universals (you can learn more about this in my LARL radio show: The Liturgical Rites of the West vs. the East.

It also seems apparent that the Apostles applied to this Parent Rite the Jewish rituals of the Synagogue (i.e., our Liturgy of the Catechumens) and of the Temple (i.e., our Liturgy of the Eucharist) with which they would have been well-acquainted. Of course, in the case of the Temple rituals, these were particularly given to the Israelites by God and were a prefigurement of what Christ would accomplish in His first Mass of the Last Supper and His Passion and Crucifixion at Calvary.

To conclude this answer, in speaking of the prayers of the Roman Mass, we can trace elements in the Canon that date from Apostolic times and thus would have been uttered by St. Peter himself. This is more clear in the Roman Canon (which is used also in the other rites of the Latin Church) than in any anaphora (i.e., Eucharistic Prayer) found in the Eastern Rites. This evidence caused Fortescue to boldly make this statement in his aforementioned book:

“Our [Roman] Mass goes back, without essential change, to the age when it first developed out of the oldest liturgy of all. It is still redolent of that liturgy, of the days when Caesar ruled the world and thought he could stamp out the faith of Christ, when our fathers met together before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a God. The final result of our inquiry is that, in spite of unsolved problems, in spite of later changes, there is not in Christendom another rite so venerable as ours.”



1 For example, Pope Paul’s New Mass, The Roman Rite Destroyed, and Cranmer’s Godly Order.

2 One of the best in my opinion is Dom Benedict Steuart’s The Development of Christian Worship: An Outline of Liturgical History (Longmans & Green, 1953), who seems to resolve the issue of the Agape Meal in relation to the actual Mass.

aka 2017-2

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