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  • Sharing Our Humanity:The Psychological Power of the Catholic Mass
  • William Shuter

The Mass is the central act of Catholic worship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997) describes it as "the sum and summary of our faith" (1327) and "the source and summit of the Christian life" (1324). It is also central to the sense of Catholic identity. A "practicing" Catholic is in effect a Mass-going Catholic. Why does the Mass mean so much to so many? Instructed Catholics who continue to understand the Mass as the Church has taught them to understand it can no doubt answer the question in terms that would satisfy a catechist, but their actual experience of Mass is more varied and more complex than any statement of formal doctrine recognizes. Children of various ages experience the Mass differently from each other and from adults, while adults themselves discern very different meanings in the impressive rite with which they have been familiar since childhood. When "cradle" Catholics (those raised as Catholics) attend Mass, however, they at some level of consciousness experience it as the same Mass they first knew as children and are therefore reminded of the relation between their earlier and their later selves. Neither theology nor psychology alone can adequately explain this power of the Mass to engage the imagination of the child and to retain or even strengthen its hold on the mind of the adult. Since the Church claims to speak with authority of the divine nature, while psychology speaks from its observation and experience of our human nature, a dialogue on the meaning of the Mass should prove instructive, although the question will inevitably be construed somewhat differently by the participants on either side. For the purposes of a specifically psychoanalytic reading, the question will take the form, "What does the Mass mean at the more archaic as well as at the more recent levels of our mental life?" [End Page 7]


The first principal part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, is introduced by the Penitential Rite, a communal confession of sin concluding with the priest's absolution. The second principal part, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, begins with the preparation and consecration of the gifts of bread and wine. The consecrated gifts are then offered to God the Father, as the priest recalls Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension. Then follows the communion of the faithful, the last of the principal actions of the Mass.

A detailed account of the Mass as a reenactment of the sacrificial death and the resurrection of Christ has been given by Jung (1942). Jung's chief interest, however, lay in mythological motifs and parallels from the literature of alchemy. He wrote, moreover, before the reformation of the liturgy in the 1960s. Because he neglected the Penitential Rite and the Liturgy of the Word, and because of his entire theoretical framework, his account of the psychological sequence represented in the Mass differs substantially from that which I am presenting here.

The Mass begins with a collective admission of guilt. In the Penitential Rite, those present acknowledge that they have sinned in thought, in word, and in what they have done as well as what they have failed to do, and they pray for forgiveness. Thus, the Mass begins by reminding worshipers of the reality of sin and of guilt. What is the origin of sin and guilt? According to the Catechism (1997), they are virtually coeval with the origin of the human race. The first man and woman wished to "be like God" but "not in accordance with God" (398), and the guilt of their act of disobedience was "transmitted by propagation to all mankind" (404). Baptism remits the guilt of this original sin, but the inclination to sin ("concupiscence") remains (405). Personal sins, those actually committed by an individual, are absolved in the sacrament of penance, but children are not admitted either to this sacrament or to the sacrament of the Eucharist until they reach the "age of discretion," which is taken to be seven years.

Psychoanalysis has much less to say about sin than about guilt, but about guilt it has a good deal to say...


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