Explanation of the Mass - Introductory Rites

Through a series of informational articles, we will try to explain terms, prayers, and actions that happen at Mass and why they happen.  You will learn about the prayers the priest prays silently during Mass, as well as the people’s parts.  References to GIRM in italics refer to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the book from which rites related to the Mass are codified.  We hope this information will help to make your participation in Mass more meaningful and understandable.


GIRM 46.  The rites that precede the Liturgy of the Word, namely, the Entrance, the Greeting, the Penitential Act, the Kyrie, the Gloria in excelsis (Glory to God in the highest) and Collect, have the character of a beginning, an introduction, and a preparation.  Their purpose is to ensure that the faithful, who come together as one, establish communion and dispose themselves properly to listen to the Word of God and to celebrate the Eucharist worthily. 

In certain celebrations that are combined with Mass according to the norms of the liturgical books, the Introductory Rites are omitted or take place in a particular way.

GIRM 47.  When the people are gathered, and as the Priest enters with the Deacon and ministers, the Entrance Chant begins.  Its purpose is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity, and accompany the procession of the Priest and ministers.

This statement presumes something very important: that we are already gathered in the church when the Mass begins.  The beginning of the Mass is not a random collection of songs and prayers, but an ordered way to help all of us who gather for Mass focus ourselves in prayer.

Procession – enter Church in orderly fashion

  • Candles – often carried by two altar servers
  • Book of the Gospels – held high by the deacon or the lector if the deacon is not present
  • Presider
  • Order – servers with processional Cross, servers with candles, usually one on either side of the Deacon or Lector carrying the Book of the Gospels, Priest.

The use of candles has ancient roots in God’s command to Moses to keep a candle burning in the Sanctuary of the Ark of the Covenant where God is present.  Christ is also referred to as the Light of the World.  It is probable that among Christians they were first employed simply to dispel darkness, when the sacred mysteries were celebrated before dawn, as was the custom, or in the gloom of the catacombs.  In the early Church, Catholics often worshipped before daybreak in someone’s home, or in the underground catacombs or burial vaults where they were protected from persecution by Roman law, so light from candles was needed.  Even when the Church emerged "above ground" in the fourth century, architectural standards were such that the interiors of most large buildings were fairly dark.  With modern lighting, candles are retained as a symbolic link with earlier ages.

Even the type of wax used is symbolic.  At Mass, at least two beeswax candles are required on or next to the altar.  The wax made by virgin bees is said to represent the flesh of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary.  The combination of the wick and the wax is seen as a symbol of the hypostatic union (a theological term used with reference to the Incarnation to express the revealed truth that in Christ one person subsists in two natures, the Divine and the human) of our Lord's humanity and divinity.  The flame is suggestive of our Lord's divinity, and reminds us of His presence among the Israelites in a pillar of flame.

You may sometimes see servers carrying lighted “processional candles” in the entrance procession.  They should be on either side of the liturgical minister who is carrying the Book of the Gospels, signifying the importance of the Word of God.  They are placed in stands on either side of the ambo where proclamation of the Word will take place. 

Opening hymn – the hymn gathers us together and makes us realize we are in a special place engaged in a special activity (worship) – unifies us for our celebration.  This orderly procession of the altar servers, deacon, and priest is accompanied by singing.  The entrance song unites the people in a community of worship and introduces the people to the celebration of the day.  This singing belongs to all of us who have gathered, not just the choir!  

GIRM 49.  When they have arrived at the sanctuary, the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers reverence the altar with a profound bow.  Moreover, as an expression of veneration, the Priest and Deacon then kiss the altar itself; the Priest, if appropriate, also incenses the cross and the altar.

When the priest, deacon, and servers reach the sanctuary steps, they reverence the altar with a genuflection.  While the people genuflect or bow before and after Mass out of reverence for Jesus present in the Tabernacle, all other reverences during the Mass are made to the altar where the Mass takes place.  The priest and deacon then venerate the altar with a kiss.  To kiss an object is a sign of respect and greeting, and dates to the 4th century.   The altar represents Christ, “the stone that the builders rejected that becomes the Cornerstone” (Psalm 118).  

On solemn occasions, the altar can be incensed, using a thurible or censer, a symbol of our prayers rising up to God.

GIRM 50.  When the Entrance Chant is concluded, the Priest stands at the chair and, together with the whole gathering, signs himself with the Sign of the Cross.  Then by means of the Greeting he signifies the presence of the Lord to the assembled community.  By this greeting and the people’s response, the mystery of the Church gathered together is made manifest.

After the greeting of the people, the Priest, or the Deacon, or a lay minister may very briefly introduce the faithful to the Mass of the day.

Sign of the Cross – we invoke the Trinity in whose name we were Baptized; the cross is the symbol of our faith and Jesus’/God’s love for us.  At the beginning of every Mass or of any liturgical activity, we begin with the sign of the cross.  The original sign of the cross practiced by the early Christians in the days of the Apostles was a small one, traced on the forehead.  The sign of the cross as we know it dates only to the 10th century, and was originally practiced only in monastic communities. By the 13th century, Pope Innocent III made its use mandatory for Catholics.  The prayer is both a blessing and a demonstration; we invoke the blessing of God as we demonstrate with a visible sign that we belong to Christ.  The prayer is both spoken and gestured, and both are done with reverence and respect.  As Catholics, we make the sign of the cross many times during the day, but we must never become complacent in how we make the sign of the cross.  When you make the sign of the cross, use your right hand as you say, “In the name of the Father (right hand touches your forehead), and of the Son (right hand touches your chest), and of the Holy (right hand touches your left shoulder) Spirit (right hand touched your right shoulder).  Amen.

Greeting – Taken from St. Paul’s letters related to grace, love, fellowship is normally how we begin; however, if the Bishop is the celebrant, he says “Peace be with you.”  After the sign of the cross, the priest greets the people using one of three options.  The most common option is for the priest to say, “The Lord be with you,” to which the people respond, “And with your spirit.” If the celebrant of the Mass is a bishop, he will say “Peace be with you,” the words of Jesus on the day of Resurrection. This greeting is not an ordinary greeting that we give to a friend on the street; its meaning is more than just saying “hi!” before we go any further.  This greeting is a shortened version of the greeting given by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians:  “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  Through this greeting we recognize Christ’s presence in the priest and in the gathered assembly, and our faith in the Holy Trinity.  The people’s response, “And with your Spirit” refers to the priest, acting in persona Christi, a reference to the special gift of the Holy Spirit received at ordination.  The priest acts as Christ throughout the liturgy.

Introductory comment – usually to set the tone and theme of the Mass.