Question: What does “Ite, missa est” REALLY mean?

Jane and her husband were “just wondering about the literal translation of “Ite, missa est” because even my rudimentary high school Latin couldn’t figure out how to get “Go, you are sent” (the translation given) out of that.”

“Ite, Missa est” is the Latin concluding prayer of the Catholic Mass.  Non-Catholics listen up: the Mass is highest form of worship for Catholics.  It concludes with a brief dialogue between the priest and the congregation.  Here’s how it goes in Latin:

Priest: Dominus vobiscum [The Lord be with you]

People: Et cum spiritu tuo. [And with your spirit.]

Priest: Ite, missa est.

People: Deo gratias. [Thanks be to God]

Normally translated today as “Go, the Mass is ended,” “Ite, missa est” literally means “Go, it has been sent.”  From this phrase we get the word “Mass” as well as the word “missal,” which is the name for the book containing the prayers of the Mass.

As fascinating as this is, it does not answer the question of why perfectly sensible, very smart, and thoroughly-fluent-in-Latin people throughout the Church’s history insist on taking a phrase which clearly means “it is sent” and translating it as “the Mass is ended.”  It boggles the mind!

That means it’s time for some historical liturgical investigation.

We find quickly that the phrase “Ite, missa est” appears to be a Roman Mass practice.  Nowhere is it found in the liturgies of the Eastern Church, nor in non-Roman western rite liturgies.  The phrase does appear in many of the earlier Roman liturgies (some dating to soon after the collapse of the Roman Empire).  Such evidence ties the phrase with the Mass prayed by the popes at that time.  As was often the case in the early centuries of the Church, if you wanted to know how to do something liturgical, you turned to Rome, saw how the pope prayed, and then imitated him.  Such was the case with “Ite, missa est.”

The exact origin of this phrase puzzled even medieval liturgists.  Some argued that there is a word missing, which would explain the awkward sentence structure (perhaps “Hostia” or “ecclesia,” as John O’Brien suggests in A History of the Mass and its Ceremonies in the Eastern and Western Church [New York: The Catholic Publication Society, 1881], 388).  The Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

It has been thought that a word is omitted: Ite, missa est finita; or est is taken absolutely, as meaning “exists,” is now an accomplished fact.  The real explanation seems to lie rather in interpreting correctly the word missa.  Before it became the technical name of the holy Liturgy in the Roman Rite, it meant simply “dismissal”.  The form missa for missio is like that of collecta (for collectio), ascensa (ascensio), etc.  So Ite missa est should be translated “Go it is the dismissal.”  (See Florus the Deacon, “De expositione Missæ”, P.L., CIX, 72.)

This has allowed for a wide range of interpretations concerning this phrase.  St. Thomas Aquinas said it meant the offering of the Mass had been sent to God.

And from this the mass derives its name [missa]; because the priest sends [mittit] his prayers up to God through the angel, as the people do through the priest.  Or else because Christ is the victim sent [missa] to us: accordingly the deacon on festival days “dismisses” the people at the end of the mass, by saying: “Ite, missa est,” that is, the victim has been sent [missa est] to God through the angel, so that it may be accepted by God.  (Summa Theologica, III. Q. 83, a. 4, reply to Obj. 9)

In his beautiful reflection of the seven last words of Christ, which he connects to seven parts of the Mass, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen compares the “Ite, missa est” with Christ’s words, “It is finished.”

In his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI discussed the development of missa from meaning “dismissed” to meaning one’s “mission.”  “In antiquity,” the Holy Father writes, “missa simply meant ‘dismissal.’  However in Christian usage it gradually took on a deeper meaning.  The word ‘dismissal’ has come to imply a ‘mission.’  These few words succinctly express the missionary nature of the Church (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 51).

None of this really gets at the origin of the word.  I asked a former professor of mine at Christendom College, and he suggested it might refer to an ancient practice in Rome, where a deacon carried some of the Blessed Sacrament from the papal Mass to other parishes in Rome, to show unity between these other churches and the pope (See Fr. Grosch’s historical summary of this ritual.  The declaration “Ite, missa est” would be the sign for the congregation to leave, because the Eucharist had been sent forth from the Church, and thus so should the people.  However, I could not find a source independent of my professor to connect the “Ite” with the ancient custom.

I hope that answers your question, Jane.  If it didn’t, I hope it at least gave you some places to begin your search.

God Bless!

For further reading:

Adrian Fortescue, “Ite Missa Est” in The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. VIII  (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08253a.htm, accessed August 8, 2012.

Fulton J. Sheen, Calvary and the Mass, available online at http://www.sanctamissa.org/en/resources/books/calvary/, accessed August 8, 2012.

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2 thoughts on “Question: What does “Ite, missa est” REALLY mean?

  1. Marcy Rose says:

    Nice job, Matthew!

  2. […] dismiss. So a better translation of Ite missa est would Go it is sent. What does that mean? This blogger offers a detailed historical and theological investigation. Some of the answers he finds are quite […]

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