ROME, APRIL 30, 2010 ( In this article, Father Mauro Gagliardi, a consultor of the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff and professor of theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum of Rome, explains the role of the priest in the concluding rites of the Mass.

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1. The Rites of Conclusion in the Two Forms of the Mass of Roman Rite

1.1 The Rites of Conclusion of the Holy Mass take place, in both forms of the Roman rite -- the ordinary and extraordinary -- once the prayer is ended after Communion. For the ordinary form (or of Paul VI), the "Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani" (IGMR) in No. 90 is expressed in these terms: "The concluding rites consist of 1) Brief announcements, if they are necessary; 2) The priest's greeting and blessing, which on certain days and occasions is enriched and expressed in the prayer over the People or another more solemn formula; 3) The dismissal of the people by the deacon or the priest, so that each may go out to do good works, praising and blessing God; 4) The kissing of the altar by the priest and the deacon, followed by a profound bow to the altar by the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers."[1]

Hence, the role of the priests consists in giving brief notices to the faithful, in greeting them with the liturgical formula "Dominus vobiscum" and in blessing them with a simple or solemn formula. If there is no deacon, the priest also pronounces the formula of dismissal "Ite, missa est."[2] The Rites end with the kissing of the altar and with a profound bow before it, as at the beginning of the Mass.

1.2 We can compare this structure with that established by the norms of the Missal of the extraordinary form (or of St. Pius V, in the revision made by Blessed John XXIII). The fundamental elements are common to the two forms of the rite, but differences are also observed. Here the greeting "Ite, Missa est" is placed before the blessing.[3] The response "Deo gratias" having been received, the priest goes again to the altar and, bowing profoundly, with his hands joined and leaning on it, says the prayer "Placeat," which St. Pius V had added in his missal (1570). It is a beautiful prayer with which the ordained minister asks the Trinity to accept the Eucharistic sacrifice in his favor and of all those for whom the priest has offered it. 

This is the text: "Placeat tibi, sancta Trinitas, obsequium servitutis meae: et praesta, ut sacrificium quod oculis tuae maiestatis indignus obtuli, tibi sit acceptabile; mihique et omnibus pro quibus illud obtuli, sit, te miserante, propitiabile. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen."[4]

Having recited this prayer with devotion, the priest kisses the altar, raises his eyes to heaven while opening and closing his arms raising them and returning them to his chest, bows his head toward the cross and says: "Benedicat vos omnipotents Deus." Then he turns to the people and blesses them with the simple sign of the cross in the name of the Trinity (the same gesture made in the ordinary form).[5]

The Rites of Conclusion of the extraordinary form even provide a biblical reading: After blessing the people the priest, in fact, turns again to the altar, to the side of the Gospel, and proclaims the Prologue of John's Gospel, introducing the reading with the same formulas and the same gestures that are used for the proclamation of the Gospel within the Liturgy of the Word. On reading "Et Verbum caro factum est," he kneels. The last Gospel is always John 1:1-14, which is omitted in some celebrations.[6] The Prologue of John's Gospel was already appreciated since the 13th century as a formula of blessing, in particular to obtain good weather, for which it was inserted by St. Pius V in his missal.[7] This reading, therefore, must be understood as part of the blessing.

1.3 Let us note that the continuity of the Rites of Conclusion between the extraordinary form and the ordinary form of the Roman Rite is found in these elements: the blessing of the people, the formula of dismissal, the kissing and veneration of the altar. The differences between the two forms are observed in the suppression in the passage from the "Vetus" to the Novus Ordo and in an addition made to the latter. The Novus Ordo has changed the structure of development of the Rites of Conclusion, whether inverting the order between dismissal and blessing, or eliminating the prayer "Placeat" and the last Gospel. The addition that the latter makes consists instead in the indication of the IGMR, No. 90a, which foresees the possibility of giving brief notices at the beginning of the Rites of Conclusion.[8] Another addition (taken from the old practice) is the possibility of using more solemn formulas of blessing.

2. The Two Columns That Sustain the Rites of Conclusion: Blessing and Dismissal 

2.1 Of what has been said, it turns out that the two columns that sustain the Rites of Conclusion of the Mass are the blessing and the dismissal. In sacred Scripture [9], the word "to bless/blessing" has a very ample meaning. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the root "brk" indicates the fortune of those men for whom everything turns out well, but it also indicates the fruitfulness, abundance, richness and also the humidity of the clouds (true and genuine richness and blessing in the desert!). In addition to these meanings, "brk" is used in the literal sense of "doing homage," "praising," "glorifying," "expressing gratitude" and also "to speak well of someone." Finally, just as in Israel any greeting was a wish of blessing, "brk" also means simply "to greet." The closest meaning to our way of understanding "blessing," is expressed in the texts that treat wishes of blessing of parents to children, or of priests to the participants in the worship, or also in regard to the promises made by God in favor of men. Fixed liturgical formulas are also found, for example Numbers 6:23-26.

In the Old Testament, the blessing, like the curse, has a force that does what the words express. For example, "blessing" is a force that is transmitted to someone through the imposition of hands (cf.Genesis 48:14.17) or pronouncing a word over someone (cf. Genesis 27:27-29; 49:1-28). Once received through blessing, the force cannot be taken away from a man (cf. Genesis 27:33.35; Numbers 22:6). Even when God is not explicitly mentioned, it is always understood that the force of the blessing comes from him. In addition to blessing on the Chosen People and on individuals, the Old Testament mentions a divine blessing also on objects (cf. Exodus 23:25; Deuteronomy 7:13; 28:4-5; Jeremiah 31:23; Proverbs 3:33), even if a corresponding liturgical rite is not presented.

Among the different personages who bless in the Old Testament are also the priests that bless the persons who go to the Temple (cf. 1 Samuel 2:20), the pilgrims (cf. Psalm 118:26) in addition to the gathered people (cf. Leviticus 9:22). What is more, it is said that, strictly speaking, JHWH has designated only the priests and Levites to bless in his name (cf. Deuteronomy 21:5; 10:8).

In the Temple of Jerusalem in Jesus' time, the priest, in carrying out the morning liturgy, pronounced "Aaron's blessing," namely, the already quoted Numbers 6:23-26. The New Testament makes its own the uses and conceptions of the Old Testament and the Jewish blessing.[10] The Letter to the Hebrews recalls Melchizedek's blessing to Abraham and Isaac's to Jacob (cf. Hebrews 7:1; 11:20). According to St. Paul, the divine blessing to Abraham also reaches those who are not of his descent carnally: But faith is necessary (cf. Galatians 3:8-09). 

Another annotation in Hebrews is also interesting that, beginning with Melchizedek's blessing, observes that "[i]t is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior" (Hebrews 7:7): Therefore, the one who blesses has been constituted by God in a superior position vis-à-vis the one being blessed (xi). Jesus himself blessed the children through the im position of hands (cf. Mark 10:16) and  the disciples (cf. Luke 24:50). Rereading the life of Jesus after the Resurrection, Saint Peter would say that God sent his Son to bless us (cf. Acts 3:26) and St. Paul specified that it is an "eulogia pneumatike" -- a spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3). The Christian is called to imitate Christ and to bless always: "bless those who curse you" (Luke 6:28; cf. Romans 12:14).

2.2 From these biblical elements stems the Christian liturgical use of blessing, which has the meaning of "asking God for his gifts on his creatures, and of thanking him for the gifts already received." [12] Prosper Guéranger held that the blessing must go back in some way to the liturgical institutions dictated by the Apostles themselves.[13] At the ritual level, this is carried out with the imposition of hands on persons or also on assemblies, extending the arms and directing the palms of the hands to those present. The Christian sign of blessing par excellence is, however, the sign of the cross, and because of it, in fact, the Roman Rite has the Eucharist begin and end with this sign. "'You will be a blessing," God said to Abraham at the beginning of the history of salvation (Genesis 12:2). In Christ, son of Abraham, this word is fully realized. He is blessing for the whole of creation and for all men. The cross, which is his sign in heaven and on earth, should become, therefore, Christians' true gesture of blessing."[14]

At the end of the Mass, the blessing can be carried out in different ways: as a simple blessing, as a triple solemn blessing, or as a prayer of blessing on the people.[15]

The celebrant priest must have present the role of the mediator that he carries out also on imparting the final blessing of the Mass, which not only is a due act, or a way as any other to conclude the celebration. In the final blessing (as in every Mass) two dynamics intersect: One from below, by which man thanks God, "speaks well" of God for the gifts already received, and another from on High, by which God himself sheds his goods on the faithful. The priest is precisely at the center of this flow of prayer and grace.

2.3 From the theological nature of the conclusive blessing derives also the very character of the greeting. Here, also, it is not simply a greeting of courtesy to those present, but an explanation of a mystery of grace. Benedict XVI reminds us that in the greeting "Ite, missa est": "We are not allowed to understand the relation between the celebrated Mass and the Christian mission in the world. In ancient times 'missa' simply meant 'dismissal.' Still, it has found in Christian use an ever more profound meaning. In reality, the expression 'dismissal' is transformed into 'mission.' This greeting expresses in summary the missionary nature of the Church. Hence, it is good to help the People of God to deepen this constitutive dimension of ecclesial life, beginning from the liturgy."[16]

The greeting by the priest constitutes, therefore, a last admonition to live what has been celebrated. It is about protecting the grace received in the sacrament, so that it will bear fruits in the Christian life of every day. Because of this, related with the theme of the greeting is also the great theme of the relation between liturgy and ethics, understanding the latter in the widest possible sense (moral life in charity, witness, proclamation, mission, martyrdom). The fact that the greeting is not alone, but is united to and stems from the blessing, tells us that we are not alone in this commitment: the Lord accompanies us and "works with us" (cf. Mark 16:20) and because of this our life can be the "logical worship" agreeable to God (cf. Romans 12:1-2; 1 Peter 2:5). "The greeting, presidential act, declares the assembly dissolved. Just as it gathers by divine convocation (Romans 8:30), so the president, who acts in persona Christi, sends the faithful to the daily actions of life, to carry them out in a new way, transforming them into matter of salvation; because of this, the assembly responds: 'Let us give thanks to God.'"[17]

In a pamphlet in which he meditates on the meaning of the Holy Mass in the rite of St. Pius V, Catholic historian Henri Daniel-Rops summarizes the meaning of the final blessing and the greeting thus: "Precisely when the Mass is about to end, and we go to take up the work of every day between toil and dangers, the Church reminds us that we must live under God's hand and that under his hand we will be guided and protected. In this way the whole essence of the Mass will be, in a certain sense, incorporated with our being and continued in our life of each day. [...] 

"The 'Ite, Missa est,' of the formula of dismissal, can be explained as a solemn announcement of the conclusion of the function, but it also warns us that our personal service to God has only just begun. With the 'Placeat' [...] we are led to contemplate the omnipotence of God One and Triune, in whose name is invoked on us the final blessing. With a most beautiful liturgical gesture, the celebrant raises his hands on high almost as to obtain from heaven the grace that will accompany us to protect and guide us."[18]

On the Orthodox side, it is echoed by hieromonk Gregory of Mount Athos, who in a book in which he comments the divine liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, he interprets the greeting thus: "The divine liturgy is a journey. A journey whose objective, whose end is the encounter with God, man's union with him. This goal has already been reached. We have arrived at the end of our journey. We have seen the true light. We have seen the Lord transfigured on Tabor. We have approached his holy body and his immaculate blood. 

"And, while we dare to stammer to our illustrious visitor: 'It is well to be here' (Matthew 17:4), Mother Church reminds us that the end of our liturgical journey must become the start of our journey of witness: Let us go in peace! We must leave the Mount of the Transfiguration to return to the world and follow the way of martyrdom in our life. This way becomes the believer's witness with regard to the Way and Life that he receives in himself. In the Divine Liturgy we have received Christ in ourselves. Now we are called to take him to the world. To become the witnesses of his life in the world: the witnesses of the new life. [...] After having approached the Eucharist we must go out into the world as 'cristoforos' (Christ-bearers) and 'pneumatoforos' (Spirit bearers). Then we must struggle so that the light received is not extinguished."[19]

3. Conclusions and Perspectives

3.1 In the Rites of Conclusion of the Holy Mass the priest is still carrying out a priestly task, namely, of mediation between God and the faithful people. It is not only a question of greeting one another and agreeing to meet the next time, remembering the commitment perhaps during the week. The priest here invokes on the people the divine blessing, while in the name of the people he thanks God for the gifts already received by his kindness. Here also he acts "in persona Christi." Because of this, he does not say in the plural "may the omnipotent God bless us," or "the Mass is ended, let us go in peace." He speaks in the name of the Person of Christ and as minister of the Church, because of this he imparts the blessing, while invoking it, and he sends the faithful to the daily mission of life: "may God bless you" and "Go in peace." Through him, Christ and the Church charge the baptized with giving this daily witness of the Gospel.

3.2 The revision of the Rites of Conclusion carried out in the Missal of Paul VI marks some elements of progress: a) The different modalities of blessing express more completely the message of Scripture and of the liturgical Tradition; b) The suppression of the last Gospel does not represent a grave harm, given the character of blessing that it had in the "Vetus Ordo"; c) The inversion of the greeting and the blessing manifests that only with the grace of God can we be faithful to the Lord each day.

On these points, we must not lament the ch anges made. One could reflect on the opportunity to reintroduce the "Placeat." However, one must recognize the theological and celebratory impoverishment due to the insertion, in the Novus Ordo, of the notices to the faithful as proper part, officially normalized, of the Rites of Conclusion. Although the most recent one underlines that these notices must be brief and that they must be given only if they are necessary, this does not take away from the fact that an element has been introduced officially that is foreign in itself to the liturgy, which later, in fact, has often become a real central element of the Rites of Conclusion of the Mass. 

Therefore, while it is suggested to priests to reduce to the minimum, what is more, in so far as possible that this practice be eliminated all together, it must be hoped that in a future reform of the IGMR the present concession will be removed. There is not doubt that the practice of notices has preceded the normative; however it does not seem appropriate to recognize de iure what before was done de facto, in order not to favor so much the custom, but rather the extension of its practice. It is clear that a Christian community, above all the parish community, needs forms of internal communication, but particularly in our days these are not lacking, which is a reason why it does not seem necessary to insert them into the liturgy.

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[1] We quote the The English translation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Third Typical Edition) 2002, International Committee on English in the Liturgy.

[2] Some alternative formulas have been inserted In the last edition of the Missal of ordinary form: "Ite, ad Evangelium Domini annuntiandum"; "Ite in pace, glorificando vits vestra Dominum"; "Ite in pace" (cf. Missale Romanum, Third Typical Edition, 2008, No. 144, p. 605).

[3] In the Mass of the Lord's Supper and in every Mass followed by a procession, the "Ite" is replaced by the formula "Benedicamus Domino"; replaced in the Masses for the dead is the "Ite con Requiescant in pace." Finally, as also in the ordinary form, during the Easter Octave, to the ordinary formula "Ite, missa est," as also to the response "Deo gratias," the Alleluia is added twice.

[4] May the gift of my service be pleasing to you, O Holy Trinity: and know that the sacrifice that I -- though unworthy in the eyes of your divine Majesty -- have offered, be accepted by you; and, by your mercy, be propitious for me and for all those for whom I have offered it. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

[5] One blesses also in this way in solemn Masses. In the Masses in which the "Ite, missa est" is replaced with other formulas (cf. supra, note 3), the blessing is not given. If "Requiescant in pace" has been said, one passes directly from the "Placeat" prayer to the reading of the last Gospel. If "Benedicamus Domino" has been said, the last Gospel is also omitted.

[6] The last Gospel is omitted: a) in the Masses in which the "Ite" is replaced by the "Benedicamus Domino"; b) in the third Mass of Christmas; c) in the Palm Sunday Mass; d) in the Mass of the Easter Vigil; e) in the Masses of the dead followed by the absolution to the coffin, to the burial mound or to the funeral cloth; f) in some Masses celebrated on the occasion of consecrations or blessings. The Palm Sunday Mass omits the last Gospel if the blessing of the branches and palms has been carried out. Otherwise, the last Gospel is read, but John's Gospel is replaced by Matthew 21:1-9.

[7] Cf. M. Kunzler, "La Liturgia della Chiesa," Jaca Book, Milan, 2003, p. 347.

[8] Cf. also IGMR (2008), No. 166. The IFMR (1969-1970) and the IGMR (1975) do not speak of the possibility of giving notices in No. 57 (corresponding to No. 90 of the present Third Typical Edition), but they speak of it in No. 123 (corresponding to the present No. 166).

[9] For what follows, cf. H. Guillet, Benediction, in X. Leon-Dufour (ed.), Vocabulaire de Theologie Biblique, Cerf, Paris, 1962, col. 91-98; J. Scharbert, Benedizione, in J. Bauer (ed.), Dizionario di Teologia Biblica, Morcelliana, Brescia, 2969, pp. 178-189.

[10] It can be recalled that in Qumran also the blessing had an important function, for example at the moment of being admitted in the community (cf. 1QS II, 1-4).

[11] It is obvious that this applies to the blessing that God sheds on a man through another man, chosen and raised by God to a superior condition. It is not applied to cases in which the biblical man "blesses God," where the term "bless" is used in the sense of "speaking well," praising, honoring, thanking, etc.

[12] R. Berger, "Kleines liturgisches Lexikon," Herder, Freiburg im Br. 1987: Here in the Italian edition Liturgia, Piemme, Casale Monferrato (AL) 19973, p. 25.

[13] "The Liturgy established by the Apostles must have necessarily contained all that was essential to the celebration of the Christian sacrifice, to the administration of the Sacraments (whether from the point of view of the essential forms, or from the rites required for the dignity of the mysteries), to the exercise of the power of Sanctification and of Blessing that the Church obtains from Christ through the Apostles themselves ...": P. Guéranger, "Institutions liturgiques," Societe Generale de Librairie Catholique, Paris, 18782, I, 38 (our translation).

[14] J. Ratzinger, "Introduzione allo spirito della liturgia," San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo (MI), 2001, p. 180.

[15] This triple opportunity is more clearly manifested in the new Missal, although the "Vetus Ordo" already provided the triple blessing for Pontifical Masses and, at least in Lent, presented a prayer on the people introduced with the formula "humiliate capita vestra Deo."

[16] Benedict XVI, "Sacramentum Caritatis," Feb. 22, 2007, No. 51. A. Nocent in the past criticized the semantic sliding of "missa" of "dismissal" to "mission" and because of this lamented the bad translations in national language of the "Ite, missa est": cf. his "Storia della celebrazione dell'Eucaristia," in S. Marsili (ed.), Anamnesis, 3/2; "La Liturgia, eucaristia: teologia e storia della celebrazione," Marietti, Casale Monferrato (AL), 1983, pp. 190-190; 269-270.

[17] A. Sorrentino, "L'Eucaristia: Rito e Vita," Dottrinari, Pellezzano (SA), 2008, p. 138.

[18] H. Daniel-Rops, "Questa e la Messa: Riflessioni e meditazioni sulla Messa di san Pio V," Casa Mariana Editrice, Frigento (AV), 2009, pp. 150-151.

[19] G. Chatziemmanouil, "La Divina Liturgia: Ecco, io sono con voi ... sino alla fine del mondo" (A. Ranzolin, ed., LEV, Vatican City, 2002, pp. 247-248).

[Translation by ZENIT]