The Mass and Its Folklore

The Mass and Its Folklore

Publisher: Tumblar House
Publication Date:
Format: Paperback
Pages: 102

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There are many good and popular English books on the Mass. Some of them treat the subject after the manner of a Rationale, explaining the significance of the prayers and ceremonies of the Eucharistic rite; others are historical and antiquarian, and elucidate the origin and evolution of the ceremonial—while of devotional books there is no end. This book, however, is a treatise on the folklore and minor antiquities of the Mass; by which are meant the various aspects and the numerous details of the Holy Sacrifice which have so impressed the minds of Catholics in the past as to leave permanent traces in the popular traditions and speech. The aim of this book is to stimulate love for the ancient Mass by showing how it was valued by our ancestors in ages of faith, and what our predecessors in the penal times willingly suffered for its sake. Foreword by Charles A. Coulombe.

"A very remarkable book by a very remarkable man...This little book can be a powerful inspiration." -- Charles A. Coulombe, author of Puritan's Empire

Read the Foreword and Preface Now


The Mass is the liturgical rite whereby the Catholic Church, from the Last Supper until this very morning, has celebrated throughout the world the divine mystery of the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is His perpetuation of the one sacrifice of the Cross. It is the great act of worship of historic Christianity, the mainspring of the Church’s mechanism, the throbbing heart of the Bride of Christ. Whether celebrated by mitred prelate amid the clustered columns and tinted lights of some Gothic cathedral, with all the splendid accessories of ecclesiastical pomp, or by a poor blackrobe missionary in a wigwam of the Far West, the Mass is the supreme and central Catholic worship; the one great reality, as Carlyle deemed it, which yet survives in an age of unsubstantial insincerities. As a still more modern thinker[1] has pithily said, “It is the Mass that matters.” It was for the Mass that the ancient Briton constructed his wattled eglwys, the Gael his drystone oratory. For this the Norman baron built the parish church hard by his manor house and the lord abbot erected his stately minster. For the sake of the Mass the painter, the goldsmith, the scribe, and the limner, produced the masterpieces of art which are the despair of our artistically degenerate age.

Though we know but little of the precise mode in which the sacred mysteries were solemnized by the apostles themselves, there is abundant evidence in the writings of the early fathers that in the sub-apostolic age the necessity for the decent and orderly celebration of the Eucharist had led to the formation of a liturgy with a definite ritual. When once the infant Church had emerged from the catacombs into the enjoyment of political freedom, this primitive ritual rapidly developed in ornateness and, hallowed by time, was lovingly enshrined in a rich outer casket of popular sentiment and tradition, studded with gems of poetry and folklore.

The word “Mass” is in Latin missa, Italian messa, Spanish misa, French messe, Saxon mæsse, German messe. It is thought to be connected with the words Ite, missa est, pronounced by the priest at the conclusion of the rite; and the editors of the “Catholic Dictionary” adduce some evidence to support this derivation. Although the word is, in nearly all the languages of the Western Church, derived from the Latin missa, this is not universally the case. Thus the Celtic tongues name it by a word of purely native origin, namely, Irish qiffrionn, Welsh offeren; and in Maltese it is expressed by the Arabic word koddiesa—“the sacred thing.”

The Mass has left upon the English language marks which centuries of Protestantism have not been able to efface. Our greatest festival is still called “Christmas,” i.e., “the Christ Mass.” An attempt was made, in the age of Puritan ascendancy, not only to abolish Christmas, but also to eradicate its name by substituting the term “Christ-tide”; but ancient custom proved too strong for the innovators, and the Mass conquered once more. We have also Candlemas, Lammas, Martinmas, Michaelmas, Childermas and other words of similar formation—which is one almost peculiar to the English tongue. The earliest Mass in our old churches was called the Morrow-Mass. There were also the Jesus Mass and the Lady Mass. In the same manner were formed the old English words “mass-priest” and “mass-penny.” In a later age the Protestants dubbed our poor chapels “masshouses”; and we still sometimes call a missal a “mass-book.”

In French there are several proverbial phrases bearing reference to the Mass. Thus, of a man who eats a big breakfast before attending early Mass, they say: “He is going to the Mass of the Dead, he takes bread and wine with him.” “Going to Midnight Mass” is an ironical term applied to a person who haunts taverns late at night. A hypocrite is sometimes spoken of as “a man who hears two Masses.” Of another they will say: “He has made a short Mass, he will make a long dinner.” “He goes neither to Mass nor sermon,” is said of an irreligious person.

Mass is celebrated only during the first half of the day, the twelve hours from midnight to noon. Most frequently Mass is said in the early morn.[2] It is peculiarly a morning service. To this rule there are hardly any exceptions. There is a church at Naples which from time immemorial has possessed the peculiar privilege of a Mass said at two o’clock after noon. A Mass may be commenced at noon, in which case it will end between half an hour and an hour after; or it may, on rare occasions, be begun before midnight, provided the consecration does not take place before the stroke of twelve.

A priest may only say one Mass a day. But on Christmas Day he says three Masses, in honour of the solemn mystery of the Incarnation. Of these three, the first is—in theory, though not always in practice—to be said or sung at midnight of Christmas Eve, the second at daybreak and the third in the forenoon. Commonly, however, a priest says three low Masses in quick succession on Christmas morning early.

At St John’s Church, Valetta, Malta, a low Mass is said on every holiday of obligation at 12 noon. It is called La Messa dei pigri—“The lazy folk’s Mass,” testifying to the fact that the Mass is essentially a morning act of worship. I once heard an excellent but generally prejudiced Nonconformist say: “One thing I do admire in Roman Catholicism: it is a six-o’clock-in-the-morning religion,” which he evidently considered as admirable a thing as “two-o’clock-in-the-morning courage.”

The celebrant always says Mass absolutely fasting: i.e., he must not have tasted food or drink from the previous midnight. This rule has been framed out of reverence for the Eucharist. A legend is current in Malta that one day, towards the end of the eighteenth century, when the Knights of Saint John were to make their Easter Communion together in their conventual church, a young knight expressed his intention of taking a meal after midnight. When remonstrated with upon this sacrilegious resolve, he defended himself by saying that it was more respectful to receive the Host upon food, than to put food upon the Host. The story goes no further, being considered by the Maltese, in this inconclusive form, a sufficient object-lesson in impiety.

One of the most ancient and indispensable rules requires that Mass should be celebrated upon an altar of stone; but, although the whole structure of the altar must in general be stone, the law is, in certain cases, held to be observed when the lower portion is of wood, provided the altar-stone be of the required material. The altar-stone, before it can be used, must be consecrated by the bishop according to the form laid down in the Pontificale Romanum. Five small equilinear crosses are incised upon its surface, one at each corner and one in the middle, and a small square cavity is made near one side. At the consecration of the altar-stone the crosses are anointed with chrism, and relics are deposited in the cavity, which is thereupon sealed up. Portable altar-stones are sometimes consecrated for the use of itinerant clergy, such as missionaries in remote and uncivilized countries, where no churches are to be found.

The priest celebrates Mass standing with his back to the congregation. At St Peter’s and the other basilicas in Rome, however, the Pope celebrates Mass on the opposite side of the altar, which stands insulated, and thus faces the congregation.

A High Mass is one which is accompanied with the full ceremonial. In Latin it is termed Missa Solemnis.

Mass which is performed by the celebrant alone, without deacon or sub-deacon, and assisted by a simple clerk or server, but chanted, and with or without incense and the six lights, is termed Missa Cantata, “Sung Mass.” Of this kind is the last or parochial Mass in our small mission churches. It is often, but erroneously, called “High Mass.” At such a Mass the clerk or server must wear cassock and surplice or cotta, and there are often several acolytes to assist.

Low Mass is said by the priest without chant or incense, with a simple clerk or server, who need not wear cassock, surplice or cotta. There are only two lights on the altar.

Every Catholic of the age of seven years and upwards is bound, under pain of mortal sin, to attend Mass on all Sundays and “holidays of obligation,” unless prevented by sickness, remoteness, or other lawful and bona-fide excuse. A Catholic may not, without some good reason, take up his abode in a place where he knows or suspects that he will not be able to get Mass. Also, he is in conscience bound to see that all Catholics over whom he has any authority, parental or other, perform their duty in this respect.

Mass is the only public service which the Church obliges her children to take part in. Vespers, Compline and Benediction are also solemn and beautiful liturgical functions; the service of Good Friday morning is largely made up of the prayers and manual acts of the Mass. Yet the Church, desirous as she is that we should benefit by participation in these devout services, does not bind us to attend them under pain of mortal sin. That supreme sanction is reserved to the Mass alone; and even the Good Friday service (“Mass of the Presanctified”[3] as it is called), because it comes short of being the Holy Sacrifice, is not “of obligation.” It is the Mass that matters.

The question is often asked by Catholics: How much of the Mass must be heard in order to “fulfil the precept”? The Church has not seen fit to state definitely what is the irreducible minimum; but it is generally held and seems certain that it is essential to be present before the commencement of the Offertory, and to remain until after the priest’s Communion.



[1] Mr. Augustine Birrell

[2] “Best refection, to gladden all our cheer, Is every morrow early to hear a Mass.”  -LYDGATE.


[3] The Host has been consecrated on the previous day; hence this service is no true Mass. Consecration, as well as Communion, is essential to the Sacrifice.

Customer Reviews

Based on 18 reviews
Give Me That "Olde Tyme" Religion

Things that I knew but haven't experienced for too long a while; things I didn't know but know now; things I suspected that were confirmed. A wonderful reminder of the the reverence once prevalent in the One True Faith. Oh Captain, my Captain.

A nice little book to help us love the holy Mass

Not in any way comprehensive, perhaps somewhat eccentric, but quite enjoyable. Looks like one more remarkable Coulombe discovery!

Fascinating and Unique

This book really gives the reader an insight on how valued the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was to the faithful of old in the penal times. The first half talks about the virtue of the Mass and how it was celebrated in the penal times. The 2nd half talks about specific parts of the Mass. There is a lot of detail and stories in here that will sure to inspire a new sense of awe and excitement when you go to Mass after reading. So much information that people have never heard of. Definitely recommend it as a gift for yourself and others.

Way back to the Mass

Those interested in the history of the church especially of the Brit. Isles will enjoy it . Those interested in the development of the liturgy will find insights aplenty. Even serious non-religious folklorists will be fascinated . It was a delight.

Compelling story of the Mass and its reverence and beauty

Lovely little book on some of the history of the Mass and its folklore - an insight into why certain traditions and items were used in the Mass, and a true depiction of how considerably the Mass is imprinted into old stories and ways of life. It is interesting to note how some of these customs still remain in the modern Latin Mass, if done well, and how strikingly these traditions are etched into remembrance and love of God and of the Faith and how they may be shown in the Mass. The book was not as extensive as I would have liked and thought (talking more comprehensively about the objects and rituals used during the Mass) but, rather, it was a compelling story of the Mass and the reverence and beauty surrounding it.