Marching Orders

I want people to go out! I want the Church to go out to the street!   ~ Pope Francis

What is the most important moment in the Mass?

The Anaphora and the Institution Narrative? Yes, of course, from a liturgical and sacramental perspective. If you had to choose just one, what could be more important than the very moment that God Himself is made present in our midst—when the priest “confects” the Eucharist; when that guy wearing the funny clothes up front makes God appear before our very eyes! The celebrant—a stand-in for Jesus as well as us—brings God to the altar in the guise of a meal, and then we eat Him. It’s as simple and incredible as that.

And crazy, right? Sure, but it’s what Catholics have always believed about the Mass—if we didn’t, we sure wouldn’t make such a fuss about it. Flannery O’Connor once drove that point home when she set straight a modern, enlightened believer who had referred to the Eucharist “as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one.”

I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it … except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

That about sums it up for me, too, but let’s face it: Out in the pews, it doesn’t always seem like we really believe it. When the bell rings at the minor elevations to alert us to the transubstantiating proceedings underway—reminding us to perk up, to lean in with our souls, to attend to the celestial encounter—we’re just as likely to be totally distracted by the kids lolling about in the pew, or somebody else’s cute baby two rows ahead, or the mortgage payment, or the grocery list, or who knows what. If we’re not careful, we can completely miss that “most important moment,” and if you’re like me, you often do. Thank God that moment is not dependent in any way on my paying attention. The priest will make God on the altar regardless of whether I’m keyed in or not—ex opere operatoand all that.

So, is there a different “most important moment” in the Mass that does require my full attention? Practically speaking, is there a point when it really is critical that I’m alert and caught up in what’s going on?

Yes, and it’s right there in our face every week, although it’s easily overlooked. In fact, we mistake it for a courteous formality—almost a liturgical afterthought—and so we frequently take off without hearing it.

It’s the dismissal.

The liturgy is a supernatural drama, and like any good drama, its essential meaning is both framed and encapsulated by its beginning and end: The opening lines tell us what the story is going to be about, and the closing lines wrap it all up in such a way as to direct our thoughts beyond what was just experienced.

Start with the beginning of the Mass then—the opening lines: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” That’s the most formal version of the greeting that kicks off the liturgy; here’s the simplest one: “The Lord be with you.” In all its forms, the opening lines comprise an imperative—an expression of what the celebrant intends to accomplish through God’s grace—and the rest of the Mass is about making it happen. If all goes according to plan, the Lord really will be “with us,” in both Word and Sacrament, by the liturgy’s conclusion.

Assuming that’s the case, it’s understandable then that the closing lines of the Mass follow so closely on the heels of Holy Communion and are so jarringly abrupt: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life,” or “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” or, best of all, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” Go, go, go—get outta’ here already!

So … what’s the hurry?

The key is in the Latin original for this liturgical finale: Ite, missa est. Literally, “Go, it is sent.” And what’s sent? It depends on who you ask—there’s a bit of controversy about this. No less than Thomas Aquinas, for example, thought that the “it” referred to the unbloody sacrifice of the altar and its angelic transport back to the Father. In this reading, the dismissal is a simple leave-taking: The divine Victim is gone; it’s time to hit the lights and go home.

I’ll not quibble with St. Thomas, but I’m not the only one who thinks there’s more to the dismissal than that—like Justin Martyr for instance. “When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded,” St. Justin testified in the second century, “those whom we call deacons give to those present the ‘eucharisted’ bread, wine and water, and take them to those who are absent.” For Justin, it wasn’t just that the people were dismissed after the liturgy’s conclusion, but more to the point, those same people were sent out into the world carrying Jesus with them—that is, carrying Him literally, in terms of the deacons bringing communion to the sick and frail, and figuratively, in terms of all those who’d attended the liturgy and consumed the Eucharist.

Thus, the dismissal is actually a commissioning: Feeding on the Lord isn’t an end in itself, but rather a beginning. “The word ‘dismissal’ has come to imply a ‘mission,’” Pope Benedict instructed us. “The People of God might be helped to understand more clearly this essential dimension of the Church’s life, taking the dismissal as a starting-point.” We feed on the Bread of Angels, and then we’re put to work.

And what is that work? What is our task after we consume the Christ? Here’s the crux of the matter—and the reason why the dismissal should make us wince if we take it seriously. For if we receive Christ, we carry Christ; and if we carry Christ, we become de facto missionaries to a world that rejects the Christ we carry—martyrdom in one form or another is our destiny!

Recall the English translations of the dismissal? Like the greeting at the beginning of Mass, the dismissal includes imperatives—“glorify the Lord by your life” and “announce the Gospel of the Lord”—only this time the directives are aimed at what the congregation is going to accomplish. And this is particularly true for the laity in attendance. It might seem like a herculean task and a dangerous one, but we lay folks are obliged to bring Jesus to the secular realm—through our words, our actions, our very Christ-filled presence—and then transform that realm accordingly. “This obligation is all the more insistent,” wrote St. John Paul II quoting Canon Law, “in circumstances in which only through them are people able to hear the Gospel and to know Christ.”

Jesus wants to invade every nook and cranny of the created order and our lives, yet he chooses to rely on us, His disheveled band of wannabes, to bring it about. “The Church in this world is the sacrament of salvation,” according to the Catechismthink about that! You and I and everybody around me at Mass are the Church in the world, but can we genuinely claim to be the sacrament of salvation? If we receive the Lord in Holy Communion, and then take Him with us as we go—letting Him work in us and through us to make all things new—then yes, absolutely.

It comes down to this: The Mass is a launch pad more than a lounge chair—an idea that’s actually captured in the word “Mass” since it’s derived from the dismissal’s Latin word for “sent” (missa). When we go to Mass, in other words, we’re going to the “sent-forth.” The Catechism quotes an ancient Greek sermon that drives home this idea in case there’s any confusion: “Be present at the sacred and divine liturgy, conclude its prayer and do not leave before the dismissal.” Put another way: Get to Mass, get God, get your assignment, and get going!

We’ve got work to do.

Richard Becker


Richard Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He blogs regularly at God-Haunted Lunatic.

  • hopecrolius

    Beautiful. I’ve discussed this with Father. “Go, the Mass is ended” sounds so much like “Class dismissed” or “Cross another thing off the to-do list.” One of our deacons proclaims “Go and carry the good news to the world,” which is entirely more rousing in spirit — I have been given a mission! It makes a huge difference to my ears. One causes me to feel I’m a Catholic fulfilling an obligation that is strictly for myself; the second, and obviously the one I prefer and chose to become Catholic for, makes me remember I am part of something huge in numbers and in history and in time and in scope, and that I am certainly not receiving the Host for myself alone.

  • St JD George

    Boy, do we ever. At our GA church it was usually packed and when we didn’t get there a few minutes early for the popular Mass time we normally sat in the back and sometimes even separated. I was always a little startled to see how many people left after receiving the Eucharist and how empty the pews became. Our new church isn’t quite as full and I’m inclined to sit in front so I don’t notice now, though I’m sure there are those who do so regularly. I won’t disparage them because I’m glad they are there and the Eucharist is probably the most important part, especially if done with the right spirit. However, to say one part over another is the most important is dishonest as the entirety of the Mass is what’s important. I always reflect on those final words after every Mass as a mission statement upon leaving and indeed throughout the week.

  • Vinny

    He’s right, the dismissal is a responsibility I don’t want. Often too, I wonder exactly what I’m supposed to do – stand on the corner with a “REPENT” sign on? One thing I do is pray that my thoughts, words and actions will bring others, somehow, into the knowledge of the body of Christ – though I’ll never know it. To do that effectively I believe you should be in a state of grace so you should go to reconciliation often. Another is to get-up the courage to say something, usually at work, if I hear something that I feel needs correction. But usually it’s only to ask a question or give a comment on my position and hope that in the future they’ll be other opportunities to go a little deeper so I’m not “piling-on” all at once. Just my two cents.


    “Ite Missa Est” – “Go, you are sent forth!”

  • GaudeteMan

    How many Sunday Catholics stick around for the Ite, Missa est? To them I say, remember that Judas was the first person to leave Mass early.

    • Enoch14

      you mean Iscariot?

  • Dick Prudlo

    At the NO Mass, most having been entertained by the drums and guitars with poor arrangements, lousy homilies, and church ladies handing out the Holy Eucharist, who wouldn’t be eager to get on with their lives? There is a no better dismissal than the reading of the last Gospel and finishing with the leonine prayers at the foot of the Altar.

    Until the Church and the people in it regroup and rediscover what they have tossed to the curb, the “catholic” faithful will continue with there race to the parking lot.

    • JRDF

      your post reminds me of a line I read last year:

      “If non-Catholics know anything about John XXIII, it’s that he convened
      the Second Vatican Council, otherwise known as the Sacred Guitar and
      Tambourine Project, or SGTP.”

    • Jacquelyn

      There is room for compromise between the vetus ordo and the novus ordo. These kinds of comments about the novus ordo overgeneralize and don’t serve to initiate any kind of real discourse. Also, as Catholics we shouldn’t negate the efforts of our fellow brethren who perhaps are not as well catechized, or do not have the opportunity to attend an extraordinary form Mass. They are trying. The laity are not at fault for the liturgical choices of our priests and bishops.

      • Dick Prudlo

        Jacquelyn, I understand your desire for a middle ground, however, the middle ground is sand. Our non-and not under catechized masses of Catholics need the sacred treasury of tradition passed down by the apostles and not protestants of all types.

        If you take your faith seriously do as most do: Fill up the car on Saturday night and travel 100+ miles one way and meet the Father in a place He feels welcome. Short of that; insist with your priest to destroy that which is and has destroyed the faith in most parishes Demand your birthright as a Catholic.

  • Jeanne Rohl

    Great Article!

  • St JD George

    Thank God for Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone who was bold enough to say what needs to be said about that congresswoman from CA’s 12th district. I did not know, but am not surprised to read about her having recently received the Margaret Sanger award. What a proud faith moment for her to stand in front of the infanticide industry and accept their high honor. I wonder if she’ll express the same gratitude if given the opportunity to stand in front of all the souls destroyed that never got a chance by this enterprise, some day.

    • david

      Did you post this under the wrong article? If not, I am at a loss.

      • St JD George

        It was a reach I’ll admit, but I’d be happy to follow those marching orders to call out reprehensible behavior claiming to speak for the church yet defiling her.

  • St JD George

    I guess Gary Sinese isn’t Lieutenant Dan in real life, but maybe he felt scorned after reading Austin’s column a few weeks ago for cancelling an appearance at the Legatus Summit under pressure as he appeared to find his voice standing up to the same big bullies this weekend.

    • The problem with that columnn is we have no idea what pressure Sinise faced-celebrity might make make your voice heard, but it also makes you a visible target, in every way imaginable.

  • ColdStanding

    The dismissal is the most important part of the mass? Ah, now I get it. This is why the leadership of the Church has been doing their darnedest to give people the impression that being in the Church is not were we should be at. Leaving the Church is the most important thing to do!

    And if you stubbornly insist on returning to the Church week after week, you’ll get the most banal, watered-down, un-liturgy until you get the message that you should leave the Church.

    You see, all those people that left the Church were doing just what they were supposed to do, leave the Church. Yes! Leave the Church. Leave the Church. Leave the Church.

    They keep saying that over and over, I’ve just been slow to get the message. Leave the Church. Light bulb on. Leave the Church. The most important message in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is to leave the Church. Totally missed that.

    Oi vey! I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I don’t know which joker stole the Tradition that was supposed to be handed on to me and which I am supposed to hand on, but this nonsense surely can’t be it.

  • Joseph

    I’m embarrassed to say that I thought “Ite, missa est” meant “Go, this is the mass.” I didn’t realize it was a perfect passive. I thought “missa” meant “mass.” Why I only got an A- in Latin.

  • Wisdom8:8

    The Tree of the Cross is the Tree of Life.
    The Eucharist is the Fruit from the Tree of Life.
    Folks, how are we going to convert the world when we don’t even understand the story?
    The Mystery of the Holy Eucharist has been unveiled:

    For without the Tree of the Cross, there is no redemption, the gates of heaven will not open and there is no resurrection. The Tree of the Cross is the Tree of Life.

    “The fruit of the JUST MAN is a Tree of Life…” – Proverbs 11:30

    “Now the centurion [at the foot of the Tree of the Cross], seeing what was done, glorified God, saying: Indeed this was a JUST MAN.” – Luke 23:47

  • suthulapee kolipee

    agreed , but sometimes after the “dismissal”, when after spending some time in thanksgiving ( I seem to be alone most of the time), with full of peace and joy, as i drive out , and i meet a crazy driver bent on killing somebody on the road, i seem to lose the peace , and its a great struggle to remain ” in peace”, after that, when anger knocks on the door, love flies out of the window, or so it seems,

  • Yankeegator

    You still have bells in your Mass? I haven’t heard a bell at the consecration for a very long time… I wait for the final blessing and then depart before the closing proddie hymn and the clapping and chit chat commence as if they were in a ball game and The King of kings and Lord of lords wasn’t tabernacling next to them…