‘Mass’ or ‘liturgy,’ which is it?

By Shaun Johnson | The Compass | January 21, 2021


Sometimes we call it a “Mass” and sometimes a “liturgy?” What’s the difference? Or are they the same? — Green Bay


This is a great question and the answer — as it is often the case in our faith — is “both/and.” One can think of it this way: “liturgy” is the umbrella and the “Mass” is one of the encounters underneath.

Though the sacrifice of the Mass is the most full, beautiful and expressive form of praise, thanksgiving and honor we can offer to God, there are other forms of liturgy. The Liturgy of the Hours is another form of liturgy constantly being offered to God in the life of the church.

If one breaks down the word “liturgy,” it can simply be translated from the Greek as the “work of the people.” Our greatest work is to give honor and worship to God; that is our primary and sole purpose. All we do in our daily life should be an exemplification of this.

One might ask, “Does this mean that I am supposed to lock myself in a room and pray all day, every day without ceasing?” Well, yes and no. As we see in Thess. 5:15, we are indeed called to “pray without ceasing,” but our prayer should be done in the many different activities of our daily life. Our vocation, the work that we do every day, should be offered to God as a sacrifice and is our opportunity to do our best to bring about the Kingdom of God in simple and sometimes profound ways. All of us have a part in bringing about the Kingdom. Because of the “universal priesthood” we receive in our baptism, we are all called to offer our sacrifices to God daily and especially when we come together to worship at the Mass.

In regard to the word “Mass,” it comes from the Latin “missa,” which translated means “sent.”  The word originates from the phrase “ite, missa est,” which is the sending rite that concludes the sacrifice of the Mass. There is a deeper reality hinted at by the church’s use of this word. As we know from Sacrosanctum Concilium — the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy — the Mass is the “the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed; at the same time, it is the font from which all her power flows” (n. 10). Thus, the Mass is the highest activity of the church, and the source of all of the church’s activity.

The Mass is the place where heaven and earth come together to honor and praise God. However, like the apostles who accompanied Jesus to Mount Tabor when he was transfigured, we are not called to pitch our tents and dwell there for the rest of our lives — at least not yet. While we still live in this world, we are sent from this height of our being and existence at the Mass out into the world to transform it, to draw others to the table, to further glorify God by our works.

Each time we participate in the Mass, we participate in a drawing closer into the mystery and reality of God and a sending forth into the world. The Mass, and liturgy as a whole, is a divine respiration; an inhale into the Body of Christ and an exhale into his creation to assist in its transformation so that it can be drawn back in again. When, God willing, we reach the end of our earthly journey, the work of our hands will end and we will be part of the “heavenly powers, with the angelic hosts… [who] sing together the unending hymn of [God’s] glory…” as the Eucharistic prefaces of Easter state.


Johnson is Divine Worship Director for the Diocese of Green Bay.


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