An Anthropologist’s Field Guide to Catholic Liturgy – Part I, the Mass

Catholicism is a foreign culture to me.

When I sat down to try and figure out where Hildegard’s various musical works fit into the overall liturgical scheme, it occurred to me that although I’d studied and performed oodles of masses, I’d never actually been to Mass and couldn’t tell you where the standard musical bits happen in the context of the ritual… let alone explain the Liturgy of the Hours or the yearly cycle of readings.  (Those will come along later.)  Luckily for me, the order of the Mass pretty much hasn’t changed since far before Hildegard’s time, so consulting ancient Latin tomes wasn’t necessary to gain an understanding of the service.

Here’s an extremely skeletal overview of the Mass:


  • Enter – make the Sign of the Cross with holy water, evoking baptism
  • Genuflection – kneel/bow as a sign of respect
  • Introit – Mass is beginning now
  • Greeting from priest

Liturgy of the Word – congregation becomes united by the Word of Christ

  • Penetential Rite / Confiteor – public acknowledgement of sin
  • Kyrie – “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”
  • Gloria – “Glory in the highest to God!”
  • Prayer, usually to all three aspects of the Holy Trinity
  • First reading
  • Responsorial psalm / Responsory – call-and-response between choir and congregation
  • Second reading
  • Alleluia
  • (Sequence – chant, not directly derived from scripture)
  • Gospel reading
  • Homily – explanation of the readings
  • Credo – statement of belief

Liturgy of the Eucharist – congregation becomes united by the Body and Blood of Christ

  • Offertory – collections made, bread and wine brought to altar
  • Priest mixes drops of wine with drops of water, washes hands
  • Sanctus /Benedictus – “Holy holy holy”, “Blessed are they…”
  • Consecration of the bread and wine = TRANSUBSTANTIATION!
  • Prayer for unity / intercessions
  • Agnus Dei – “Lamb of God”, asking for mercy and peace
  • Communion – eat the wafer, drink the wine (Body and Blood of Christ)
  • Blessing and dismissal.
In extremely condensed/dense anthropological terms, the Mass is a ritual recognition and perpetuation of community through the telling of a collective history (Liturgy of the Word) and the re-enactment of a seminal myth (Liturgy of the Eucharist – symbolically the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection).

I’m still not entirely sure when to stand, sit, sing, or put my right foot in/out/about, but at least now I know where some of Hildegard’s chants go.  For a much fuller – and more heavily theological – explanation of the Mass, click here.

For a set of REALLY EXCITING VIDEOS of a historically accurate 14th century Mass (!!!), click here.

(Next up – where do those chants go?)

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