F I SAID to the average Mass-goer, “Eucharistic Prayer,” would they likely know to what I was referring? Anyone who goes to Mass regularly is familiar with the Eucharistic Prayer, but I suspect that many Catholics don’t really know what that term means. That makes it difficult to explain what the Congregation for Divine Worship did a few weeks ago through its decree, Paternas vices.
Since 1970, there have been a variety of Eucharistic Prayers from which the priest can choose. There are four main Eucharistic Prayers and a handful of others, which most priests rarely use. Before 1970, things were a bit different. For a very long time before that—from the 7th century—there was only one Eucharistic Prayer. Known from time immemorial as the Roman Canon, it is now formally called Eucharistic Prayer I. This prayer, in its Latin form, was prayed with very few changes to its text for a millennium-and-a-half. That is astonishing! When the priest prays the Roman Canon, even today, he and the congregation are united to millions and millions of Catholics who have gone before us praying nearly the exact same words. That living continuity is something that should stir us as Catholics.
In 1962, Pope John XXIII made the first change to the Roman Canon since Pope Pius V. He added in the name of St. Joseph, who is the universal patron of the Church, so that his patronage would be requested in every celebration of the Mass. It might seem like a small thing to add a saint’s name, but when a prayer has been unchanged for so long, it’s a big deal. Now, just a couple of weeks ago, something similar happened. The Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome has decided that, from now on, the name of St. Joseph must be mentioned not only in the First Eucharistic Prayer, but in all of them. Right after the Blessed Mother is mentioned, the priest will now add in a reference to “Blessed Joseph, her spouse.”
This is an unusual event in the history of the liturgy, so it merits a moment’s reflection on the meaning and purpose of the Eucharistic Prayer. When I was a really little kid, I thought I knew the meaning and purpose of the Eucharistic Prayer. I thought it was specially designed to bore kids to death (!). Talking to my parents, I used to call the Eucharistic Prayer “the long kneel.” That was all it meant to me at the time. My understanding has evolved a bit since then. For many Catholics, though, I’m not sure their understanding is much deeper than that.
What is the meaning and purpose of the Eucharistic Prayer? It’s not just a long bunch of words we have to get through before everyone can receive Holy Communion. It is a very intimate prayer spoken by the priest directly to God the Father. This is clear from the first words of each of the four main Eucharistic Prayers:
I — “To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition”
II — “You are indeed Holy, O Lord, the fount of all holiness”
III — “You are indeed Holy, O Lord, and all you have created rightly gives you praise”
IV — “We give you praise, Father most holy”
Each of these prayers is oriented directly toward God the Father. This is essential to understanding what the Eucharistic Prayer is; it is a very intimate prayer spoken by the priest directly to God the Father. This is why eye contact is not important during the Canon of the Mass. The priest shouldn’t be looking at the people then, since he’s not speaking to them; he should be looking toward the Lord. Nor is it important that the priest shout the words of the Canon so as to be heard even back in the crying room. The most pressing need during the Canon of the Mass is not that the congregation should see or hear what is transpiring, but rather that the priest and people (musicians, included) might together enter the sacrifice by offering their humble, contrite hearts.
And what is it that the priest is saying to the Father? He is asking God to accept the people’s gift of bread and wine (which, strangely enough, was first God’s gift to us). Then the priest asks God to transform the sacrifice into the Body & Blood of His Son. Finally, the priest asks God to accept from his own human hands the gift of God’s own Son (Who, interestingly enough, was first God’s gift to us).
The Eucharistic Prayer is the Church’s way of offering Jesus to the Father. This is the essence of the Mass: the re-presentation of the one, eternal sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. What happens during the Eucharistic Prayer is no different than what happened on that dusty, bloodstained Cross on Calvary. What happens is exactly the same thing. What a privilege it is to be a priest—to stand in the Person of Christ as all of this happens!
I’m excited that the name of St. Joseph has been added to all the Eucharistic Prayers. I would be even more excited, though, if every person in the church joined in the Eucharistic Prayer. I do not mean, of course, that they should say anything. Rather, in silence, by focusing & praying along with the priest, the people can offer themselves to God the Father much like Jesus offers Himself. That is what actual (“active”) participation in the Mass really means.
Imagine that there are only two people sitting in the pews of a country church. One of them is sitting in the front pew. She sings every hymn and speaks aloud every response. Maybe she even reads one of the readings. During the Eucharistic Prayer, though, her mind wanders and she starts making a mental to-do list for when she gets home. The second person, on the other hand, sits all the way in the back pew. She doesn’t sing along and doesn’t say a word. But she listens intently to the readings, and, during the Eucharistic Prayer, she offers the joys and struggles of the past week to God and asks Him to make her more like Him in the week to come. Which of these two women has really participated in the Mass? Clearly, the second.
With the prayers of St. Joseph to help us, may we all follow her example!