To better understand this ancient sense, we must delve into our liturgical heritage and our Church’s history. As we recover the logic behind some of the often– overlooked details of the Mass, we will not merely gain some trivial knowledge about bygone times; instead, we might rediscover some of the sublimity of Catholic worship as well as a more profound appreciation for God’s gift of the Diaconate, that first step in sacramental orders.
The ministry of deacons is fundamentally a ministry of service (the Greek διάκονία means “service”, and the διάκονος is therefore “servant”). This service takes a twofold expression: first, the deacon serves the community. As we read in the Acts of the Apostles and other ancient Christian texts, the deacon coordinates the collection and distribution of alms for the members of the community in most need. Second, the deacon serves his bishop by assisting him in the celebration of the sacred mysteries and by gathering from the community gifts of bread and wine to be offered to God. This twofold service is no less true today than when the Apostles ordained the first seven deacons in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.
For those of us who have attended Masses at which deacons assist the presiding priest or bishop, we notice that the deacons have specific roles in the Mass which are proper to them. The most obvious of these is the proclamation of the Gospel. Another task of the deacon is to give the dismissal at the end of Mass. The Latin formula for this dismissal is ite, missa est. Literally, this means, “go forth, the dismissal is made”; since a literal translation sounds awkward, we render this more smoothly as “The Mass is ended, go in peace”. (Nota bene: this Latin word missa is the source of the English word “Mass” and its many equivalents in European languages!) The response to the dismissal is, of course, “thanks be to God”, or Deo gratias.
In the Novus Ordo missal, the dismissal is given after the priest or bishop gives the final blessing: “May Almighty God bless you, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. This order (blessing first, dismissal second) stands in contrast to dismissal found in the Traditional Latin Mass. In these old rites, which grew gradually and organically out of the Eucharistic celebrations of the earliest centuries, we glimpse certain rituals with ancient roots going back to the times of the first Christians. For example, in the Traditional Latin Mass, the dismissal is given before the final blessing– a reversal of the arrangement in the modern missal.
This ancient order (dismissal first, blessing second) is one of those rituals which has its source in the early centuries of Christianity when our faith was violently persecuted under the Roman Empire. The Eucharist was celebrated in secret, and Christianity was an underground religion. In Rome, this “underground” character was quite literally expressed in the fact that the faithful gathered with the bishop (AKA, the Pope) to celebrate the Eucharist in the catacombs— at the subterranean tombs of the martyrs along the Via Appia. Roman soldiers would often patrol areas around the catacombs in order to arrest and kill Christians as they emerged from the underground liturgies. When the Eucharistic sacrifice was completed, somebody had to first check whether there were Roman soldiers lurking about before the bishop and people could safely leave; calling to mind his twofold service to the community and to his bishop, this task fell to the deacon. Carefully, he would go to the entrance of the catacombs to peek around for soldiers. Once the patrols had passed, the deacon could finally give the dismissal: Ite, missa est, to which the people gladly responded, Deo gratias because— thanks be to God— the people and the bishop could safely leave at last. As the final gesture, the bishop would then send the people back into the hostile world with the final blessing, not knowing who would be martyred before the next Mass: Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus. Amen.
Thus, the early Christians were also thankful to God that they could finally leave Mass! Of course, it is not for the same reasons that we modern people have; often we say “thanks be to God” that we can now watch a sporting event, attend a barbecue, go shopping, or otherwise enjoy the rest of our weekend that was interrupted by Mass. Our ancestors in faith thought differently. They said “thanks be to God” that they might go safely to their homes to pass on the faith to their children and to promote the increase of the Church by their acts of charity. May we rediscover the strength of faith and resolute courage of those who risked their very lives for the worship of Almighty God and the propagation of the faith which, Deo gratias, we profess today.