ROME, 5 MARCH 2010 (ZENIT)
In this article, Father Mauro
Gagliardi, a consultor of the Office for the Liturgical
Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, explains the importance of
the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass.
The article invites the faithful, and in particular priests, to
recognized in the Canon of the Mass the heart and culmination of
The heart and culmination
The Eucharistic Prayer, known in the Eastern tradition as
Anaphora ("offering"), is indeed the "heart" and "culmination"
of the celebration of the Mass, as is explained in the Catechism
of the Catholic Church. In the Roman tradition, the
Eucharistic prayer has been known as "Canon of the Mass" (Canon
Missae), a term that is found in the early Sacramentaries and
goes back at least to Pope Vigilius (537-555), who speaks of "prex
The Anaphora or Canon is one long prayer has the form of
thanksgiving (eucharistia), thus following the example of Christ
himself at the Last Supper, when he took bread and wine and
"gave thanks" (Matthew 26:27; Mark 14:23; Luke 22:19; 1
Corinthians 11:23). St. Cyprian of Carthage (died 258), one of
the most important witnesses to the Latin tradition, provided a
classical formulation of the inseparable bond between the
liturgical celebration and the institution event, when he
emphasised that the celebrant of the Eucharist must imitate
closely the acts and words of the Lord at the Last Supper, upon
which the validity of the sacrament depends.
Pope Benedict XVI expressed this essential truth of the faith in
a homily in Paris during his Apostolic Visit in 2008: "The bread
that we break is communion with the Body of Christ; the chalice
of thanksgiving that we bless is communion with the Blood of
Christ. Extraordinary revelation, which comes to us from Christ
and is transmitted to us by the Apostles and by the whole Church
for almost two thousand years: Christ instituted the sacrament
of the Eucharist on the evening of Holy Thursday. He wanted his
sacrifice to be presented again, in a bloodless way, every time
a priest repeats the words of the consecration on the bread and
on the wine. Millions of times for twenty centuries, in the most
humble of chapels as well as in the most grandiose basilicas or
cathedrals, the risen Lord has given himself to his people, thus
becoming, according to Saint Augustine's formula, 'more intimate
to us than we are to ourselves' (cf Confessions III, 6.11)."
The actual words of Christ's "thanksgiving," by which he
instituted the sacrifice of the New Covenant, have not been
handed down, and so there developed within the Apostolic
Tradition a variety of liturgical rites that are historically
associated with the most important primatial sees, which are
named by the sixth canon of the Council of Nicea (325), Rome,
Alexandria, Antioch, and, a little later, Byzantium.
The essential elements of the Eucharistic prayer are presented
succinctly in the Catechism:
In the Preface, "the Church gives thanks to the Father, through
Christ, in the Holy Spirit, for all his works: creation,
redemption, and sanctification. The whole community thus joins
in the unending praise that the Church in heaven, the angels and
all the saints, sing to the thrice-holy God."
In the Epiclesis, the Church "asks the Father to send his Holy
Spirit (or the power of his blessing) on the bread and wine, so
that by his power they may become the body and blood of Jesus
Christ and so that those who take part in the Eucharist may be
one body and one spirit (some liturgical traditions put the
epiclesis after the anamnesis)."
In the heart of the Eucharistic prayer, the Institution
Narrative, "the power of the words and the action of Christ, and
the power of the Holy Spirit, make sacramentally present under
the species of bread and wine Christ's body and blood, his
sacrifice offered on the cross once for all."
After the Institution Narrative, follows the Anamnesis, in which
"the Church calls to mind the Passion, resurrection, and
glorious return of Christ Jesus; she presents to the Father the
offering of his Son which reconciles us with him."
In the Intercessions, "the Church indicates that the Eucharist
is celebrated in communion with the whole Church in heaven and
on earth, the living and the dead, and in communion with the
pastors of the Church, the Pope, the diocesan bishop, his
presbyterium and his deacons, and all the bishops of the whole
world together with their Church."
Since late antiquity until the liturgical reform following the
Second Vatican Council, the Canon Missae was the only
Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman rite, and this is still the case
in its Extraordinary Form according to the Missale Romanum of
1962. In the 1970 editio typica of the Missal, the Roman Canon
has been retained with a few minor modifications (and a
reduction of rubrical gestures) as the first of four Eucharistic
Prayers. The new compositions contain elements both of the Latin
and of the Eastern traditions. Subsequently, further Eucharistic
Prayers have been added to the Missal.
The Canon Missae goes back to the second half of the fourth
century, the period in which the Latin liturgy at Rome began to
develop fully. In his De Sacramentis, a series of catecheses for
the newly baptised that was held around 390, St Ambrose quotes
extensively from the Eucharistic prayer employed at that time in
his city. The passages quoted are earlier forms of the
prayers "Quam oblationem," "Qui pridie," "Unde et memores,"
"Supra quae," and "Supplices te rogamus" of the Canon found in
the early Roman Sacramentaries.
In the oldest Roman tradition the Canon begins with what we now
call the "Preface," a solemn act of thanksgiving to God for his
innumerable benefits, especially for his works of salvation. The
Sanctus was introduced at a later stage and separated the
Preface from the subsequent prayers. It is a characteristic of
the Roman Rite that the text of the Preface varies according to
the liturgical season or feast. The earliest Mass collections
had many different Prefaces, which were greatly reduced already
in the early Middle Ages, so that the Missale Romanum of 1570
only retained 11 of them. Subsequently, a number of Prefaces
were added, and it was certainly one of the gains of the most
recent liturgical reform to enrich the corpus of Prefaces by
drawing on ancient sources.
As Pope John Paul II wrote in his Apostolic Letter "Dominicae
Cenae" in the early years of his pontificate, the Eucharist "is
the principal and central raison d'être of the sacrament of
priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of
the institution of the Eucharist." The Eucharistic Prayer is
indeed the priestly prayer par excellence, for, as the Second
Vatican Council teaches, the ordained priest, "acting in the
person of Christ, brings about the Eucharistic Sacrifice and
offers it to God in the name of all the people." The priest,
who through receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders has been
conformed to Christ the High Priest, acts and speaks as
representing Christ the Head. It is for this reason, writes John
Paul II in his last Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia that "the
Roman Missal prescribes that only the priest should recite the
Eucharistic Prayer, while the people participate in faith and in
In the consecration of the Eucharist, the ordained priest never
acts alone but always in and with Christ's Mystical Body, the
Church, whose members, through the infused virtues of faith and
charity, participate in the action of Christ the Head as
represented by the priest. Pope Pius XII states in his
encyclical Mediator Dei, that the faithful too "offer the divine
Victim, though in a different sense." This teaching is confirmed
by reference to the writings of Pope Innocent III and St. Robert
Bellarmine on the Mass. Pius XII also points to the fact that
the liturgical prayers of offering are generally used in the
first person plural, as in various parts of the Canon of the
Mass. The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy follows Mediator Dei when it proclaims that
"Christ's faithful, when present at this mystery of faith,"
which is the Holy Eucharist, "should give thanks to God [and],
by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of
the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer
themselves." As the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the
Church "Lumen Gentium" teaches, "the faithful join in the
offering of the Eucharist by virtue of their royal
priesthood." Through the indelible character they received
in baptism, the faithful participate in Christ’s priesthood and
hence also in his sacrificial offering of himself to the Father
in the Holy Spirit.
This teaching of the Church's Magisterium provides also the
foundations for a renewed and more profound understanding of the
"participatio actuosa" (active participation) of the faithful in
the liturgy, which is not merely external, but also, and more
importantly, internal. From this perspective one also
understands better why from the Carolingian period to the reform
of Vatican II, and also today in the extraordinary form of the
Roman rite, the celebrant priest prays the Canon in silence. As
the then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained, thus communion
before God is not denied: "It is not quite true that the
uninterrupted recitation in a loud voice of the Eucharistic
prayer is the condition for the participation of everyone in
this central act of the Eucharistic celebration. My proposal
then was: on one hand liturgical education must be such that the
faithful know the essential meaning and the fundamental tendency
of the Canon; on the other, the first words of the individual
prayers should be pronounced in a loud voice as an invitation to
the whole community, so that, then, the silent prayer of each
one makes its own the intonation and can bring the personal
dimension into that of the community, and that of the community
into the personal dimension. Whoever has experienced personally
the unity of the Church in the silence of the Eucharistic prayer
has experienced what truly full silence is, which represents at
the same time a deep and penetrating cry addressed to God, a
prayer full of spirit. Here we truly pray all together the
Canon, though in connection with the particular task of the
For priests, the celebration of the Eucharist is the most
important moment of every single day. All other activities,
indeed all aspects of their sacerdotal existence, must be
intimately connected to the offering of the Holy Sacrifice. Here
we find the heart of the priesthood and indeed of the whole
sacramental nature of the Church, as the theologian Joseph
Ratzinger put it so well: "In order that an event that occurred
in the past is made present, the words must therefore be
pronounced: This is my Body
This is my Blood. But in these words it is assumed that the I of
Jesus Christ speaks. Only He can say these things; they are His
words. No man can pretend to declare the I of Jesus Christ as
his own. No one can say here r many communities can transmit,
rather it can only be founded on the "sacramental" authorization
given to the whole Church by Jesus Christ himself. [...] And
this is exactly the 'Priestly Ordination' and the
 Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], No. 1352.
 Pope Vigilius, Ep. ad Profuturum, 5: PL 69,18
 Cyprian of Carthage, Ep. 63,16-17: CSEL 3,714-715.
 Benedict XVI, Homily during the Celebration of the Eucharist
at the Esplanade of Les Invalides, Paris (Sept. 13, 2008).
 Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, "Introduzione allo spirito della
liturgia," San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 2001, pp. 155-166.
 CCC, No. 1352.
 CCC, No. 1353
 CCC, No. 1354.
 Ambrose of Milan, De Sacramentis, IV, 5,21-22; 6,26-27:
CSEL 73,55 e 57.
 In his letter to the bishops of the world to present the
letter issued "motu proprio" on the use of the liturgy preceding
the reform of 1970 (July 7, 2007), Benedict XVI indicates that
the older missal could be enriched with the insertion of "new
saints and some of the new prefaces."
 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter "Dominicae Cenae" (Feb. 24,
1980), No. 2.
 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church
"Lumen Gentium," No. 10.
 John Paul II, Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (April 17,
2003), No. 28.
 Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei (Nov. 20, 1947), Nos.
 Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
"Sacrosanctum Concilium," No. 48.
 Second Vatican Council, "Lumen Gentium," No. 10.
 J. Ratzinger, "Introduzione allo spirito della liturgia,"
 J. Ratzinger, "Das Fest des Glaubens. Versuche zur
Theologie des Gottesdienstes" (Feast of Faith: Approaches to a
Theology of the Liturgy). Johannes, Einsiedeln, 1993 (III ed.),
pp. 84-85 (= J. Ratzinger, Theologie der Liturgie. Die
sakramentale Begründung christlicher Existenz, Gesammelte
Schriften 11, Friburgo, Herder 2008, p. 626).