Dominus Vobiscum

A protestant and a Catholic walk into Mass… No, it’s not a joke, this occurred in my parish and that Catholic was me.

I was directing the music but all seemed to go well. My friend picked up a missal, followed those around him and made it to the end of Mass without much trouble.

In conversation before lunch, I awaited the feedback, the theological critique but to my surprise, none came. It seemed that my friend didn’t interiorly move beyond their entry to the church and seemed to be consumed with indignation because there was no ‘welcome team!’ This gripe is based in the person’s experience in a protestant group which has gone down the route of inventing ‘welcome strategies’ in the hope that visitors will stay. How could it be that my parish has quintupled its Mass attendance in the last two years without name badges and enthusiastic embraces at the door?

This got me thinking about a fundamental difference in approach to worship which brings with it different expectations. My protestant friend’s emphasis is on worship as a social affair. Sadly, it is common to see this approach adopted in Catholic churches where the priest begins the Mass with a monologue about the football scores or worse. The Catholic view is that while the baptised are the mystical body of Christ and it is important to have strong relationships as a community, when we assist at the sacred liturgy we are entering into a moment, a mystery that is beyond ourselves; we step into the eternal present moment and are drawn into the worship of the angels and saints in heaven and are present at the foot of Calvary as the sacrifice of the cross is re-presented. It is we who enter and greet Our Lord with a genuflection. Our King is truly present in the tabernacle and we bow before Him.

To thee have I lifted up my eyes, who dwellest in heaven. Behold as the eyes of the servants are on the hands of their masters, As the eyes of the handmaid are on the hands of her mistress: so are our eyes unto the Lord our God, until he have mercy on us. Psalm 122

So where is salutation to be found in the Mass and who welcomes us? Once the preparatory prayers at the foot of the altar are completed we are greeted by Jesus himself, speaking through his instrument the priest – Dominus Vobiscum.

Let us look at the history and significance of this greeting in which Christ himself welcomes us.

In more ancient times, the greeting given by the priest was the same as that of the Bishop ‘Pax Vobis’, Peace be with you, since the Missa Cantata and Low Mass are scaled down versions of the Pontifical Mass. This goes back to the Old Testament where it was a common greeting among the Jews. See the lamentation in psalm 128 which says that the ungodly pass by without wishing the blessing of the Lord on those who the meet. We also see that, on many occasions, this is the greeting given by Our Lord in the Gospels.

According to the liturgy Scholar and abbot of Solesmes Dom Prosper Gueranger, the greeting’s use in the liturgy was also influenced by the ‘et in terra pax hominibus bone voluntatis’ of the Gloria. Due to this connection, it was substituted for Dominus Vobiscum in Masses which did not have the Gloria. Over time this the latter greeting was used by the priest and ‘Pax Vobis’ by the bishop.

Since the development of the Sacred Liturgy was brought to fruition in the hands and souls of the saints and under the inspiration of God the Holy Ghost, we must look beyond the historical perspective to the many spiritual layers of meaning behind the greeting.

A brief study of the Ordo Missae shows that Dominus Vobiscum is said nine times in total. If we follow Dom Gueranger’s analysis of the number nine in relation to the Kyrie, we may see in this three for each person of the Blessed Trinity. Excluding the instances outside of the Mass proper (the prayers at the foot of the altar and the last Gospel) we see that there are seven such greetings. In five of these, the priest turns around to the people signifying the five apparitions of Our Lord after the resurrection. The priest only offers the greeting in this way after kissing the altar, the altar representative of Christ. It is as if the priest receives the words from the Lord and conveys them to the congregation. It is then, truly Christ who greets us in the liturgy. We respond ‘Et cum spiritu tuo’ because we are not replying the the priest himself but to the Spirit of his priesthood, that is He who has greeted us, Jesus Christ. This meaning has been restored to the Mass of Paul VI since the 2010 translation of that missal was promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI.

Taking the seven instances, Fr James W Jackson FSSP in his book ‘Nothing Superfluous’ links each instance with a petition to God for the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost.

  1. After the Gloria- we ask for Wisdom so that we can draw from the beauty of the Collect and the teaching of the Epistle. We wish our prayers to be conformed to the perfect orations of the church and our lives to the doctrine of scripture.
  2. Before the Gospel- the gift of Understanding so that we may understand and apply the words of Christ on our lives.
  3. Before the Offertory- the gift of Counsel so that we will be able to judge the difficulties of our lives in a way in which we are able to unite them as our crosses to the offering of the oblation on the altar.
  4. The Preface- the gift of Fortitude so that we might be resolute in our perseverance in the Christian life and in the focus of our interior participation in the liturgy.
  5. Before the Agnus Dei- the gift of Knowledge so that we might have aright perception of the worth of worldly things as opposed to the gifts of God, particularly the Sacred Mysteries.
  6. After Holy Communion- the gift of Piety so that we might love God more and know Him as our Father.
  7. Before the Ite Missa Est- the gift of Fear of the Lord so that we may respect God and resolve to avoid offending Him as we go back into the world.

Perhaps we should note these in our hand missals, meditate on each one during Mass and recall the one who calls us to Himself through the mouth of the priest Dominus Vobiscum.