For around 1500 years, this is what Western Catholics heard at the conclusion of the Mass. You can still hear it today in some churches where Latin is employed in the Mass, at least from time to time. (You will also hear it if you attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the Mass as celebrated in 1962.)
The response is easy enough to understand: "Thanks be to God!" Despite what you might hear in jokes or how you might feel sometimes, we're not saying "Thanks be to God [that Mass is finally over]." But we do need to know why we're thanking God. So what does "Ite, missa est!" mean? It's especially important to know, since the word "Mass" comes from this Latin word missa.
The word missa is a form of the word missio, which means "dismissal" in its original context. It was said to the catechumens (those who are preparing for baptism) just before they were dismissed at the end of the first half of the liturgy (the "Mass of the Catechumens", now known as the "Liturgy of the Word"); it was also said to the faithful at the end of the second half of the liturgy (the "Mass of the Faithful", now known as the "Liturgy of the Eucharist").
However, the word missio also means "sending" or "mission". With missio as with many other Latin words ending in "-io" — congregatio, ascensio, religio — the English equivalent is produced simply by adding an "n" to the end — congregation, ascension, religion.
A completely literal translation of "ite, missa est" is "Go, it is the dismissal"; but the phrase means more than that. In the forthcoming translation of the Roman Missal (the book from which the priest prays the Mass), the translation is "Go forth, the Mass is ended". (The Concluding Rites, OM 144) Along with this dismissal, the Church is preparing three variants:
- "Ite ad Evangelium Domini annuntiandum" ("Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord")
- "Ite in pace, glorificando vita vestra Dominum" ("Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life")
- "Ite in pace" ("Go in peace")
So while pragmatically speaking the priest (or deacon) is letting the people know that the liturgy has ended and they are dismissed, there is a far deeper meaning to these words. Pope Benedict XVI spoke to this point in his 2007 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis:
These words help us to grasp the relationship between the Mass just celebrated and the mission of Christians in the world. In antiquity, 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. The People of God might be helped to understand more clearly this essential dimension of the Church's life, taking the dismissal as a starting-point. (n. 51)So what is the missionary nature of the Church? In order to understand the Church's mission, we must first understand Jesus' mission. And we'll cover that in the next installment.
May the Lord bless us +, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.