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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward an STL in sacred liturgy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“The authority of the Pope is not unlimited. It is at the service of Sacred Tradition. Still less is any kind of general ‘freedom’ of manufacture, degenerating into spontaneous improvisation, compatible with the essence of faith and liturgy. The greatness of the liturgy depends—we shall have to repeat this frequently—on its lack of spontaneity.”
— Josef Cardinal Ratzinger (2000)

Comparing Canons
published 26 January 2014 by Fr. David Friel

HERE CAN BE a tendency (especially among those of us in the Roman Rite) to obsess over the amount of time we spend in church. This syndrome is probably truer of priests than anyone else. Like many public speakers, they may not know how long they preach, but the majority of priests I believe are thoroughly conscious of how long they take to celebrate Mass.

When the fear of going too long arises and visions of a congested parking lot come to mind, what is the priest to do? For many, the first solution is to use Eucharistic Prayer II. While that is certainly a common tendency, is the canon of the Mass really the best place to “make up time”? Moreover, does that solution take into account the appropriate usage of the various approved canons? The entire liturgy of the Church moves in the direction of the Eucharist, and the consecratory prayers are the most important words of Holy Mass. Would it not make more sense to preach shorter and use the Roman Canon?

The Roman Canon, by virtue of its universal & nearly unaltered usage over nearly 1500 years, holds a unique & venerable place among the canons and, as such, is not just one among several equal options. It is the only canon that liturgical directives say “may always be used” (GIRM 365a). Eucharistic Prayer IV has limitations for when it can be used, on account of its proper preface. Eucharistic Prayer III is most apt for memorials of saints, and Eucharistic Prayer II is specifically not recommended for use on Sundays and other solemnities & feasts. These are not my personal categorizations of the four major canons, but rather the norms given in Chapter VII of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (available here).

In the celebration of the Mass, there ought to be a balance. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, recently made this point beautifully:

The homily . . . should be brief and avoid taking on the semblance of a speech or a lecture. A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour, but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith. If the homily goes on too long, it will affect two characteristic elements of the liturgical celebration: its balance and its rhythm. . . . The words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the centre of attention. (Evangelii Gaudium, 138)

This means, furthermore, that the lesser parts of the Mass ought never to dominate those which are greater. When we offer 14 prayers of intercession and spend only 10 seconds in silence after Communion, there is an imbalance; when we sing four hymns and recite all the dialogues and acclamations, there is an imbalance; when we preach for 25 minutes and offer Eucharistic Prayer II, there is an imbalance.

HE ARGUMENT AGAINST defaulting to Eucharistic Prayer II to “save time” is not only theoretical; it can also be based on practical evidence. The pagination of altar missals can make it seem as though the Roman Canon is inordinately longer than the other prayers, but I have often thought that a closer study would show the actual lengths to be not so wildly disparate. So I decided to undertake this closer study for myself by counting the words of the four major canons and comparing the length of time it takes to recite them.

Below are the results of the word counts, which unsurprisingly show that Eucharistic Prayer II is, in fact, the shortest canon. It is shorter than the Roman Canon by a margin of 453 words. Not included in these word counts are the Preface, the Sanctus, the Mysterium fidei, the Per ipsum, the special forms of the Communicantes & the Hanc igitur, and the special commemorations for Masses of the Dead.

Into what amount of speaking time does the disparity of the word counts translate? I considered timing myself while reading each text sitting at my desk, but I feared subconsciously rushing one or more of the texts so as to skew the data to suit my purposes.

Instead, I found here recordings of each prayer that were made by Fr. James Lyons of the Archdiocese of Wellington, New Zealand to assist priests in learning the new translations. Below is a graph showing the length of those four recordings. Interestingly, the longest prayer is not the Roman Canon, but Eucharistic Prayer IV; although the fourth prayer contains approximately 100 fewer words than the Roman Canon, its phrasing must demand more pauses. (Please note: the original lengths of the audio files are longer than the times presented here, because I have excised the introductions given by Fr. Lyons for more precise measurement.)

While recordings from just one priest admittedly constitute a small sample size, I suspect that the data I took from Fr. Lyons’ recordings are fairly representative of what would be the average of a larger study. Furthermore, what is at issue here is not so much the actual time it takes a particular priest to pray the anaphora, but rather the comparative length of the various prayers. And what do these data show? Just how much longer is the Roman Canon than Eucharistic Prayer II? Less than two minutes.

HE SUPPOSITION that using Eucharistic Prayer II saves time is deeply imbedded in many priests and Mass-goers. Yet, by both theoretical and practical considerations, it would appear that this supposition is founded upon two false assumptions: first, that the canon is the best (or easiest) place to “save time,” and, second, that offering Eucharistic Prayer II saves significant time. From my perspective, however, there are better parts of the Mass to shorten than the canon, and the time saved by Eucharistic Prayer II is rather negligible.

I am as guilty as any Catholic I know, but I still long for a world in which we weren’t so concerned about the length of Mass. While we wait for the arrival of that world, let’s at least keep things in perspective. The next time your priest offers Eucharistic Prayer II on Sunday, ask yourself if you could spare two extra minutes.