Council of Trent on the Sacrifice of the Mass: A Summary

1. In the Old Covenant, God ordained that sacrifices be offered but these were but signs, and so God ordained that “another priest should arise, according to the order of Melchisedech, our Lord Jesus Christ” to fulfill and perfect the weak and imperfect Levitical priesthood. At the Last Supper, declaring Himself a priest forever, “He offered up to God the Father His own body and blood under the species of bread and wine; and, under the symbols of those same things, He delivered (His own body and blood) to be received by His apostles, whom He then constituted priests of the New Testament.” And by His words “Do this in commemoration of me, He commanded them and their successors in the priesthood” to continue to offer His Body and Blood to the Father and to be received by the people.

He did this so that “He might leave, to His own beloved Spouse the Church, a visible sacrifice” which “the nature of man requires”. This visible sacrifice would represent “that bloody sacrifice, once to be accomplished on the cross” so that:

  1. “the memory thereof [might] remain even unto the end of the world, and
  2. its salutary virtue be applied to the remission of those sins we daily commit”.

The type (or anticipation) of this sacrifice is the Passover. For Christ, having celebrated the ancient Passover, which the multitude of the children of Israel immolated in memory of their going out of Egypt, He instituted the new Passover, (to wit) Himself to be immolated, under visible signs, by the Church through (the ministry of) priests, in memory of His own passage from this world unto the Father, when by the effusion of His own blood He redeemed us, and delivered us from the power of darkness, and translated us into his kingdom.”

This sacrifice is also “clean oblation” prophesied by Malachi:

For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. (Mal 1:11)

And St Paul clearly refers to it when he wrote to the Corinthians that,

[W]hat pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Co 10:20-21)

This sacrifice of the Mass is “that oblation which was prefigured by vvarious types of sacrifices”. It comprises “all the good things contained by those sacrifices” because it is “the consummation and perfection of them all.”

Jacob Jordaens, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1630 (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan)

Jacob Jordaens, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1630 (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan)

2. Because in the Mass, the “same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross… this sacrifice is truly propritiatory.” By it, “we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid, if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence.” This is because “the victim is one and the same… the manner alone of offering being different.” We receive “the fruits” of that bloody sacrifice on the Cross “most plentifully through this unbloody one.” Thus, it is right to offer this sacrifice “for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful”, both living and departed.

3. Although the Church celebrates certain masses in “honour and memory of the saints”, these are not sacrifices offered to them, but only to God, “who crowned them” in glory.

4. Because holy things ought to “be administered in a holy manner, and of all holy things this sacrifice is the most holy”, the Catholic Church instituted the sacred Canon, “so pure from every error, that nothing is contained therein which does not in the highest degree savour of a certain holiness and piety, and raise up unto God the minds of those that offer. For it is composed, out of the very words of the Lord, the traditions of the apostles, and the pious institutions also of holy pontiffs.”

5. Because human beings “cannot easily be raised to the meditation of divine things” without “external helps”, the Church has also instituted “certain rites” and “employed ceremonies,” so that “both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be recommended, and the minds of the faithful be excited, by those visible signs of religion and piety, to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice.”

6. The Council wishes that all the faithful who are present at Mass should communicate sacramentally (i.e. receive Holy Communion) so that “a more abundant fruit might be derived to them.” Nonetheless, it does not say that this must always be done and “approves of” those masses “in which the priest alone communicates sacramentally” because a) the people may still communicate spiritually and b) the priest is “a public minister of the Church” and therefore celebrates Mass not only for himself, “but for all the faithful, who belong to the body of Christ.”

7. The Councils also confirms that water is to be mixed in with the wine in the chalice. This is because a) “it is believed that Christ the Lord did this”, b) it recalls that “from His side there came out blood and water” on the Cross, and c) in Revelation, “the peoples are called waters, the union of that faithful people with Christ their head is hereby represented.”

8. “Although the mass contains great instruction for the faithful people, nevertheless, it has not seemed expedient to the Fathers, that it should be every where celebrated in the vulgar tongue.” This is the “ancient usage” of the Church but so “that the sheep of Christ may not suffer huger”, the Council “charges pastors, and all who have the cure of souls, that they frequently, during the celebration of mass, expound” on the readings at Mass and/or “explain some mystery of this most holy sacrifice.”

Francisco Goya, The Last Communion of St Joseph Calasanz, 1819 (Musee Bonnat, Bayonne)

Francisco Goya, The Last Communion of St Joseph Calasanz, 1819 (Musee Bonnat, Bayonne)


4 responses to “Council of Trent on the Sacrifice of the Mass: A Summary

    • You’re the best. 🙂 And I think we can both agree that the paintings are definitely bits. Sometimes, I just scroll through to look them… Some are so beautiful!

  1. Have you read Abbot Vonier’s “A Secret to the Doctrine of the Eucharist”? I highly recommend it! An excellent treatment of sacramental theology and how the Eucharistic sacrifice is still the same as Calvary.

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