Church or “Mass”—what is the difference and why does it matter???


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Someone challenged me the other day to write about what the difference between a Protestant church service entailed and the Catholic Mass/Eastern Catholic Liturgy experience.  It is strange because, as a child, I was always slightly embarrassed that we didn’t just call it “going to church” like the vast majority of my Protestant school friends did.  But I know some things now that I did not know then, and hopefully sharing them will help some of you who may still have those same questions as I once did.  I would start by categorically stating that I am not a theological expert in this area, and that much has been written which is far more eloquent and scholarly than this piece will ever attempt to be.  I will however include a bibliography and some links at bottom of the page for further study, and hope that you may decide to check them out. This article will simply be my own observations, and what has jumped out at me since my return to the Church in 2005.   So here goes:

First let me say with every conviction that I can muster—Protestant church services are not a bad thing. I will here define “Protestant” more narrowly than some do, in that I believe it entails a movement which challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic hierarchy beginning in the 1500s with Martin Luther and later John Calvin primarily. While it quickly became much broader in scope, the Reformation movement was not, at least in its original and purest form, meant to be a “breakaway” from Rome.  Both Lutheran and Calvinist churches even today use liturgies that parallel the Mass in many ways, sometimes using even the same Lectionary reading from Sacred Scripture, and at times you might not realize you were even in a Protestant church if you forgot to look at the sign when you entered the building.

I therefore do not include here those sects and more cultish movements which later came, denying such things as the historical Creeds and overall catholicity of the Church. And while they would suggest that the Church is invisible only and not an earthly organization, historical Protestants did not throw out all Catholic traditions en masse as others did later.  This is why you will still find crucifixes in many Lutheran congregations, as well as some of the same prayers, and, as mentioned, Creeds (such as the Apostle’s and Nicaean) as part of their claimed and common heritage with Roman Catholics. With all due respect to Mitt Romney he as a Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) does not believe in the same concept of Jesus Christ or the Trinity that historical Christians do. He is not an evangelical Christian.  Neither do some charismatic/Pentecostal groups who deny the Trinity altogether, or Jehovah’s Witnesses who teach that Jesus was the first-born creation of God the Father and is also somehow St. Michael the Archangel! Groups such as these have taken the Reformation, run the 100 yard dash with it, and “reformed” it all over again.  The mixture of historical Christianity and some of the beliefs these groups espouse bring them very close to a form of Christian neo-paganism.  And they are not “Christian” in the same sense that our Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us our separated brothers and sisters in Christ are.  Lumping all non-Catholic but “Christian sounding” groups together may indeed prove a point, but does not do justice to the fact that many if not most within the greater invisible “community of believers” are called and rightly so our brothers and sisters in Christ, even if united imperfectly so with us in the Faith. See CCC # 818: “However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.

So back to the Mass…There are 2 or maybe 3 huge elements which separate the Mass from “church” and which stand out to me immediately.  One is how our Liturgy moves, and where it moves to, which is the Holy Eucharist, or Holy Communion.  I always used to wonder, even during my strongly Protestant years, why we neglected Holy Communion most Sundays. Assemblies of God usually have it monthly, while some Presbyterians and others 4 times a year only. The one explanation I ever heard was that we would get “too used to it” if we had it more often, and it might then lose its meaning.  And that could indeed and does in fact happen unfortunately.  If you do not believe me watch the Communion lines sometime.  People receive our Lord in the Eucharist as if He was a ticket for freedom to high-tail to the car and turn on the big-screen TV after fulfilling a needed but tiresome obligation, something like doing the spiritual dishes.  Or they at times receive Him with the least amount of reverence they can possibly muster—some priests, sadly, have even chided people who choose to receive on their knees or who genuflect (one knee) before receiving because it slows down the line too much or for whatever reason they may think they have. Yet these are clearly our rights as Catholics, and our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has publicly said that receiving Holy Communion while kneeling is indeed his preference.  Francis Cardinal Arinze dealt with this issue a few years back, and it would pay to re-watch his words on the topic:

But the point of all of this is one thing—we as Catholic Christians believe that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of our faith,” and that the normal and best place to receive Jesus within this Sacrament is during Holy Mass.   In the Acts of the Apostles, the believers gathered As in Acts 2: 46-47:  46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

And in the letters of St Paul he deals with this sacred event in much detail in 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34: 17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

 27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

 33 So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— 34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—lest you come together to be condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

In light of the above passages of Sacred Scripture, as well as the words of the Vatican, we clearly do not over-emphasize the gift of Jesus in the sacred elements, but rather so many, Catholics sadly included, drastically under-emphasize it.

So that is element # 1.  It is always “Communion Sunday” in our circles, and for those who go to daily Mass, we can start every single day with this precious gift if we choose. As to it losing its “specialness” that danger only exists if we do not allow the flowing rubrics of the Sacred Liturgy to lead us to Him. They will if we follow.

Secondly, Mass begins with an opening prayer, or Collect, which brings us together as a unique gathering of God’s greater Church body.  We then confess our sins, something by the way commanded to do before receiving Holy Communion as the passage in 1 Corinthians has just shown us (verse 28 to be exact), and something incidentally I rather rarely saw done in the Protestant circles I was part of.  Then begins the Liturgy of the Word, where we hear the Sacred Scriptures from both the Old and New Testaments, with a Psalm of praise sandwiched in between. Eventually we come to the direct words of Jesus within the Gospels, and a short sermon or homily tying together a few “takeaways” for us from the readings just given. Next comes the specific confession of Faith through one of the historic Creeds earlier mentioned, as well as specific prayer intentions or requests, and the Offertory, where we present our gifts of time, talent, and treasure to our lord.  So far, although a bit more structured, the Mass could be seemingly any Protestant Christian gathering on any given Sunday in America. But at this juncture it becomes distinctive—the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  It is at this point we diverge from our Protestant sisters and brothers, and find ourselves beginning to crescendo towards a path of what really is a “personal relationship with Jesus” in His body, blood, soul and Divinity.

And finally it is here where so many, just as in John 6: 66, “walk with Him no more.” 66 After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Step into any Catholic Church and you will find a Tabernacle, a small locked box of sorts around the size of a home safe, where in fact is kept “safely” the consecrated bread-like Hosts left over from the Eucharistic meal. They are kept there for several reasons, one being convenience of storage for taking Holy Communion to the homebound, and another to be a central and exalted place to direct your worship. In fact one of the things Catholics do when entering a Church building is to bow on one knee (genuflect) before being seated, and if possible they do so in the direction of the Tabernacle (some parishes have ingeniously hidden these boxes so it may be hard to know where that is, but normally it is placed on or near the center, just behind the main Mass altar. We “genuflect” (and no, it is not called “Tebowing”) to honor the Blessed Sacrament who we as Catholics believe is in reality the resurrected body, blood, soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. We believe, during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the priest prays a special prayer of consecration over the ordinary bread and wine, that somehow in a mysterious/metaphysical and Sacramental manner they actually become Jesus our Lord—God of the Universe and beyond—and this belief is a central teaching of the Catholic Faith which separates us from Protestants. No, a chemical change does not take place, heaven does not thunder, nor the building shake, at least not normally speaking anyway, but the priest speaking “In Persona Christi” (in other words in the person or authority of Christ) repeats the words of the Last Supper, and by the charism of the Holy Spirit given to him as one who is directly connected to the succession of Apostles from the beginning, does what God Himself in Genesis did and “speaks it into being” if you will.  Not as hard to believe when we have the Benny Hinns. Joyce Meyers, and a few dozen other television evangelists who have rejected the Eucharist but who tell their followers to “claim their healing” even if they see no difference in their bodies, is it? Or the Oprah Winfreys of the world whose gurus tell us that we ourselves are actually God anyway and can do for ourselves what only He can?  People seem to have no problem following these folks but yet view Catholics are “superstitious bread worshippers” if we believe that Jesus can be present in His resurrected form without manifesting a change in the consecrated bread and wine.  Yet that is precisely what we accept as true, and we believe it occurs at each Mass when the priest pronounces it to be done. That is why the priesthood matters to us, why the Tabernacle is a sacred and exalted space in the Sanctuary, and why we can go into the Church building at any time, day or night, and adore Him who is physically there.  The Old Testament Tabernacle carried within it the “Bread of the Presence” as well as being a place the Jewish people absolutely revered, and God never accused them of idol worship when they carefully honored the Holy of Holies. In fact He told them to do so.  How much more true should and can this be today in the New Testament age? Many wonderful biblical scholars have already written masterpieces on this, so I will just refer you again to the “links” section below for a couple good, strong, and sane explanations of this concept.

But this is overall what distinguishes the “Mass” from “going to church.”  When we go to Mass, it is with the expectation of hearing from God, but furthered with the anticipation of meeting Him directly within us at Holy Communion, not only on a spiritual level (which each believer has at all times through the indwelling Holy Spirit) but specifically as the 2nd person of the Trinity who actually physically comes to spend time in the home we call our bodies. That is why before we receive, we with the centurion of old say “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof  (in this case, meaning me, or you) but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

This then is the essence of the Mass—worship, a reading and exposition of the written Word of God through the Holy Bible and preaching/homily, common prayers together for one another and our needs, and then finally a personal reception of Jesus the Lord of all in Holy Communion.  In the book of Acts as well as other New Testament passages already quoted it certainly appears that this was a normal part of each worship gathering, and early Church Fathers such as St Justin Martyr had this to say about Christian worship in the fledgling Church—and it might be noted that this famed Saint lived in AD 103-165, meaning he easily may have had contact with several of the original 12 Apostles or at least those who knew them. This is a quotation from his Apologia 1: 65-67.  It sounds amazingly similar to the Mass of today.

65. But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

66. And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

67. And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.

So when I go to Mass I am transformed in ways that do not normally happen in my daily Bible reading and prayer times. They of course are not to be set aside—in fact we as Catholic Christians should and must be the most Biblically oriented believers out there, something we have not always done so very well. But a spiritual “communion” with Christ, which in fact is the most basic foundation of our Faith and not to be ignored or set aside in any way, is not the same as the Incarnational connection we have with Him in the Eucharist. It is like the cake without the frosting if you will. And we are not “eating Jesus” in the sense of the cannibalism which those in John 6 accused Him of promoting and ran from Him when He announced this holy gift to the world. Rather we, our own selves, which too consist of body, blood, and soul, infused as well by our baptism with the Divinity of God through His Spirit, receive the same from Him, all melded together and joined in a holy embrace which prefigures the Marriage Supper yet to come. Only the Mass gives me that.  And that is why it is not just “church.”

ALL SCRIPTURE  QUOTATIONS IN THIS ARTICLE ARE CREDITED AS FOLLOWS: Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). (1997). The Holy Bible : Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authorities and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.


7 Replies to “Church or “Mass”—what is the difference and why does it matter???”

  1. Richard,

    I enjoyed the post and I appreciate the level of detail you intimated. I would also add:

    1. Some Protestant sects (Anglicans, Western Rite Orthodox Churches, and some Lutheran churches) use the term ‘mass’ – although it is uncommon in my experience.

    2. For our Protestant brothers and sisters who read this post, I hope they understand that the mass is not a series of rote, solemn prayers. It is a celebration!

    When I went through RCIA in 2000, we spent several classes going through all of the mass prayers and rites and we learned what each of them means in terms of the source of it in scripture and how it was passed through tradition to us today.

    The depth and beauty of it are truly wonderful. I think too often, many of us Catholics (who are obligated to attend mass every week) do not take enough time to reflect on the beauty and majesty of the mass.


    1. Thanks for sharing, cinhosa…I would hope my post did not somehow imply a bunch of rote prayers…it certainly was not meant to. I was actually attempting to show both similarities and differences between Protestant and Catholic church services and that was why I went through the Liturgy of the Word in such detail. In reality Protestant church services, whether formal or informal, tend to follow that same format, opening prayer, reading of the Word and expounding on it, and of course singing which we both do as well as prayer petitions. Hopefully most will get that. It was not meant to be an exhaustive study of the individual parts of the Mass, as I said at the beginning. I think I was fairly clear about it. I hope so anyway.

      Also you mention the Mass being a celebration and it surely is, but it is also literally the sacrifce of Calvary brought to us, and we to it. So in that sense I think it is meant to be far less frivolous than some Catholic parishes make it. I would say it is a celebration, but a solemn one, similar to a wedding–in fact that is exactly what it foreshadows–the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

      As to the Mass being the word used in other contexts, that is true, a Lutheran service is sometimes called a Mass when they have Holy Communion, and Anglicans can always be referred to as a Mass. I attended an Episcopal/Anglican parish briefly a few years back and you would not have been able to tell the difference really. What is distinctive though is our belief in transubstantiation (the bread and wine actually becoming Christ in body, blood, soul and Divinity). They left that teaching up to each person to decide. The only other group which firmly holds to that is Orthodox but since they are not post-Reformation or Protestant as such I did not mention them and perhaps should have done so–but for the record Eastern Orthodox are our “sister Church” in the Catholic sense, although they do not fully accept Papal authority.

      In any case thank you for your always thoughtful comments and clarifications. God bless!


    1. Michael that means so much coming from you…you are, and always have been, an inspiration to me in your zealousness and studious efforts. You may be young in the Faith but I think your potential is to great excellence in your gifts of writing and sharing. Keep going friend.


  2. Excellent! As a Protestant, I particularly appreciated hearing firsthand of the personal meaningfulness of the Mass to you, rather than merely reading about the philosophical differences in our theologies of the Eucharist. I am also grateful for your tone of fairness and civility, one which is unfortunately too infrequent in dialogue between Catholics and Protestants (both directions).


    1. Matt thank you so much for those words. We are one body in Christ, and I think somehow that point is lost within the important discussions on our differences as well as similarities. I appreciate your brotherhood. God bless.


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