Mass dismissal is an instruction, not a celebration of completion
Q. Why do we end Mass with the priest saying "the Mass is ended ..." and the people's response, "Thanks be to God"? To me it sounds like we're saying, "Thank God that Mass is over!"
In order to answer your query, I must first bare my soul: I wasn't always the saintly figure I am today (I can hear my parishioners laughing). When my saintly mother dragged my siblings and me to Mass each day during the summers of my grade school years, I have to admit that I didn't want to go. After all, it was summer vacation and that meant being off from school and all that went with it, daily Mass included.
When the priest wished the Lord to be with us, I could barely render the response, not particularly caring whether or not the Lord was with his spirit. The one response for which I could muster great enthusiasm, however, was the dismissal, when he told us that Mass was over and we could all go home. My "Thanks be to God!" was strong and sincere.
Deep down, though, I just knew that what the Church meant by that had to be light years apart from how I interpreted it. Sure enough, it is.
In the Latin (which is still the official form of all the prayers of Mass) the dismissal is: "Ite, missa est." Nobody knows for sure exactly what that means because it's apparently a peculiar form of ecclesiastical slang that developed in the Latin-speaking parts of the Church. But we do know this: ite means "go" and missa derives from mittere, which means "to send." Simply put, the command, "Go!" given by the deacon at the end of Mass, is supposed to conjure up recollections of the Lord's command to go and teach all nations.
Given first to the apostles, this mandate was intended for all believers. Just as the Latin word for sending gives us our word "missionary," so the Greek word for sending (apostellein) gives us the word "apostle" which, like missionary, simply means "one who has been sent."
The faithful, therefore, are sent forth at the end of each Mass, reminded that they, too, are part of the great missionary work of the Church. The apostles were glad that the Lord had chosen them for the work of evangelizing the world and were grateful even for the sufferings they incurred in accomplishing it. So, too, are we grateful for our choosing (and for all the other graces imparted to us at Mass) and we express it by proclaiming: "Thanks be to God!"
That response should, indeed, be strong and sincere, but for reasons radically different from the ones that impelled me when I was a kid.
Msgr. Mitas is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Union and dean of the Washington Deanery. Send questions for a priest to: St. Louis Review, 20 Archbishop May Drive, St. Louis, MO 63119 or to letters@stlouisre view.com.
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