As Catholics we know and believe as a certain and unshakable truth that the Mass is a sacrifice. Not, of course, that each Mass is a separate sacrifice or that the Mass is a sacrifice other than the one which Christ offered once for all on the Cross; rather, the sacrifice of the Mass is one with that perfect sacrifice of Christ’s flesh, which he offered to his eternal Father.
With utmost clarity, Trent taught that the Mass is a sacrifice, against the protestant heresy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is truly the Catechism of Vatican II, likewise insists that the Mass is a sacrifice and one with the Sacrifice of Calvary.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that many people (and even some Catholics) deny this truth. Either through direct rejection of this doctrine (as in the case of heretics) or through an implicit and indirect rejection manifested by external actions during the Liturgy (as in the case of countless Catholics and even some priests), many people deny that the Mass is a true sacrifice.
However, whatever is at the root of this denial, the problem could perhaps be remedied (at least to a great extent) if more of the faithful knew and understood not merely that the Mass is a sacrifice, but also how the Mass is a sacrifice. For, although a good number of Catholics believe in the sacrificial nature of the Mass, very few indeed are able to explain what makes the Mass to be one with the Cross. Moreover, I would submit that certain prominent ways of understanding the Real Presence (especially among devout Catholics) have led to a serious confusion which has ultimately obscured the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is a sacrament, therefore it is a sign and symbol
Question 574 of the Baltimore Catechism defines a sacrament as follows: “An outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” Sacraments are signs, they are figures; but they are not mere signs and figures, for they give a thing, namely they give grace. In order for a sacrament to be a sacrament it must be a twofold reality: It must be an outward or visible sign and it must convey an internal invisible thing (grace). If a given reality is not a sign, or a figure, or a symbol, then it cannot be a sacrament. If a given reality is only a sign, figure, or symbol, then it cannot be a sacrament.
The Eucharist is a sacrament. This is a teaching which we hold with divine and Catholic faith. This doctrine was not always held, or at least it was not always expressed in this way. For many of the Fathers in the early Church, the Eucharist was not a mere sacrament, but was more than a sacrament. Hence, though some Church Fathers enumerate even twelve sacraments (and some included more than 300), many did not include the Eucharist in the list.
During the Scholastic period, especially through the influence of Peter Lombard, the theology of the sacraments developed and took on a form which is close to that which we hold presently. Uniting the idea of res (thing) and sacramentum (sign or symbol), the Scholastic doctors came to understand that all sacraments are sings which convey grace. Moreover, it became a matter of doctrine that the Eucharist is one of the seven sacraments.
Even the Eucharist is a sign and a symbol, though it is not a mere symbol. The Council of Trent regularly refers to the Eucharist as a symbol – it is a symbol of the unity which is to come in heaven. In reaction to the heretical reformers, the notion of “sign” fell into disuse, so as to avoid confusion. Still, the Church continues to maintain that the sacraments are “signs,” though they are certainly not merely signs.
Of what is the Eucharist a sign and symbol? The Real Presence as sacramental presence
That which appears to be bread is the sacrament of Christ’s body. While that which appears to be wine is the sacrament of Christ’s blood. Obviously, we know that Christ is wholly present body, blood, soul, and divinity under both species – whoever receives even the smallest particle of the Sacred Host, receives the whole Christ; and whoever receives even a drop of the Precious Blood, receives the whole Christ. Nevertheless, it is with good reason that, when distributing Communion to the faithful, the priest gives the Host, calling it the Body of Christ; and he gives the chalice, calling what it contains the Blood of Christ. The Host is the sacrament of the Body. The species in the chalice is the sacrament of the Blood.
As a matter of faith we must not merely affirm that Christ is present in the Eucharist “really, truly, and substantially,” for we must also confess that the Lord is “sacramentally” present as well. The sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the foundation of all the others, since if the Eucharist were not a sacrament, Christ would not be present in any manner whatever.
In reaction to Protestantism, many in the Church have denied or at least ignored the fundamentally sacramental nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Often, when reading devout Catholic authors, it seems that speaking of the Real Presence as a sacramental presence is at least of only secondary importance. All too often, the faithful are led immediately into the controversies of transubstantiation verses consubstantiation – a point which is certainly important, but which can only be understood after affirming that the Eucharist is a sacrament. Indeed, we get the impression that any talk of the Eucharist as a “sign” or “symbol” (language which is common not only in the Father’s of the Church, but even in the Scholastic doctors and, to a much diminished degree, the Council of Trent) is immediately suspect of heresy.
Some will even start to speak of the Eucharist in highly physical terms, as though the presence of Christ were physical. Here, the real problem lies in the hidden presumption is that, unless a thing is physical, it is not real – hence, it would seem that a sacrament is not really real, if there is no physical change.
A citation from Cardinal Ratzinger will suffice to correct this error: “But this [the doctrine of transubstantiation] is not a statement of physics. It has never been asserted that, so to say, nature in a physical sense is being changed. The transformation reaches down to a more profound level. Tradition has it that this is a metaphysical process. Christ lays hold upon what is, from a purely physical viewpoint, bread and wine, in its inmost being, so that it is changed from within and Christ truly gives himself in them. […] [The Eucharist] is not a thing. I don’t receive a piece of Christ. That would indeed be an absurdity.” (God and the World, 408) The future Pope says it with extreme clarity: “From a purely physical viewpoint” the Eucharistic species is “bread and wine” because the change is not to be understood “in a physical sense.” However, on a more profound level, on the level of being and of essence, indeed the level of substance; there is a radical change by which what was once bread and wine now has become the Body and Blood of our Savior.
The Sacrifice of the Mass is a sacramental sacrifice
A sacramental reality is just as real (perhaps even more real) than a physical reality. The mere fact that a change is sacramental, does not mean it is not real – no, the most real things this side of heaven are the sacraments! Hence, we need not fear when we state that the Mass is a sacrifice insofar as it is a sacrament. The sacrifice is sacramental.
The species of the Host is the sacrament of Christ’s Body, and is substantially Christ’s glorified body. The species contained in the chalice is the sacrament of Christ’s Blood, and is substantially Christ’s glorified blood. However, the Scholastic doctors (notably, St. Thomas Aquinas) go further and state that the glorified body of Christ, substantially present in the Host, is itself a sacrament of another reality: It is the sacrament of Christ’s dead body hanging upon the Cross. Moreover, the glorified and living blood of Christ, substantially present in the chalice, is itself a sacrament of Christ’s dead blood which was poured forth from his lifeless body.
This is how the Mass is a sacrifice: As the body and blood of Christ were separated when he hung dead and pierced through upon the Cross, so too in the Mass the sacrament of Christ’s body and the sacrament of his blood are separated upon the altar. Here we have a sacrament: An outward sign which gives grace. As the bread and wine have become the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, so too the substantial presence of Christ’s body and blood have become the sacrament of the Cross. The separation of the Host and the chalice is the sacrament of the sacrifice, it is this separation which makes the Mass to be a sacrifice.
For a profound (and yet easily approachable) study of this topic, consider “A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist,” by Abbot Anscar Vonier and available in a new edition from Zaccheus Press.
Why many do not believe that the Mass is a sacrifice
It should be clear why so many Catholics deny the sacrificial nature of the Mass – it is because they deny the sacramental nature of the Mass. Precisely because so few Catholics (devout and impious alike) have little time or interest in the Eucharist as a sacrament, sign and symbol, many Catholics have lost any notion of the Mass as a sacrifice. If the Eucharist is not a sacrament, neither is it a sacrifice.
If we do not believe that a sacramental presence is a real presence, and if we do not accept that a sacrament is real, then we will soon fail to believe that the sacramental sacrifice of the Mass is a real sacrifice. If our whole understanding of the Eucharist is fixed on some notion of physicality, we will have no place for Calvary – for, surely, we are not physically present at Calvary when we attend the Mass.
Moreover, if we lose the notion of the Eucharist as a sacrament, we will soon fail to believe in the reality of the other sacraments (since they do not bring about any substantial change). Indeed, this has already begun to happen with sacraments like Marriage and Confession. With regard to the sacraments which bestow a character (namely Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Order), it is not uncommon to hear certain theologians speak of this character as a “substantial change” – as though the indelible mark were called a “substantial” rather than a “sacramental” character. In modern approaches to the sacraments, all tends to be reduced to "'substantial" changes; and the whole idea of substantial change is reduced to physical change. And it all starts when people begin to say that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist; recall that the Church states he is really, truly, substantially, and sacramentally present, but she has never said he is physically present (though he is present in his physical reality, i.e. dimensive quantity).
To recover our faith in the sacraments in general, we must recover our faith in the Eucharist as a sacrament. And there may perhaps be no better way to bring about a renewal in a sacramental understanding of the Eucharist, than to study the sacrificial nature of the Mass.