The Priest and the Canon of the Mass

Author: Father Mauro Gagliardi


The Priest and the Canon of the Mass

Father Gagliardi Explains the Eucharistic Prayers


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 Christian life.


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.[1] 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 canonica."[2]

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.[3]

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)."[4]

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.[5]

Essential elements

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."[6]

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)."[7]

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."[8]

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."[9]

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."[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

Priestly prayer

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."[13] 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."[14] 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 silence."[15]

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.[16] 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."[17] 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."[18] 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 priestly service."[19]

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 'Priesthood.'"[20]


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], No. 1352.

[2] Pope Vigilius, Ep. ad Profuturum, 5: PL 69,18

[3] Cyprian of Carthage, Ep. 63,16-17: CSEL 3,714-715.

[4] Benedict XVI, Homily during the Celebration of the Eucharist at the Esplanade of Les Invalides, Paris (Sept. 13, 2008).

[5] Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, "Introduzione allo spirito della liturgia," San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 2001, pp. 155-166.

[6] CCC, No. 1352.

[7] CCC, No. 1353

[8] Ibid.

[9] CCC, No. 1354.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ambrose of Milan, De Sacramentis, IV, 5,21-22; 6,26-27: CSEL 73,55 e 57.

[12] 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."

[13] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter "Dominicae Cenae" (Feb. 24, 1980), No. 2.

[14] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church "Lumen Gentium," No. 10.

[15] John Paul II, Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (April 17, 2003), No. 28.

[16] Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei (Nov. 20, 1947), Nos. 85-87.

[17] Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy "Sacrosanctum Concilium," No. 48.

[18] Second Vatican Council, "Lumen Gentium," No. 10.

[19] J. Ratzinger, "Introduzione allo spirito della liturgia," p. 211.

[20] 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).  


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