“To you, therefore, most merciful Father” – (Somewhat) Theological Observations About the Canon of the Mass, Part 1

J.M.J.

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Until the current form of the Mass was officially promulgated in late 1969, Catholics of the Roman rite would have only known one Eucharistic Prayer. That prayer, now the first option among many (and commonly known as the Roman Canon), had sustained the Church almost entirely unchanged for over a millennium, and was, it might be argued, a hallmark of the Church’s liturgical faith against the ideas of people such as the founders of Protestantism.

The Council of Trent gave a glowing endorsement of this particular prayer with the following statement (read carefully, as it’s a bit of a mental tongue-twister): “And since it is becoming that holy things be administered in a holy manner, and since, of all things, this sacrifice is the most holy, the Catholic Church, to the end that it might be worthily and reverently offered and received, instituted many centuries ago the holy canon, which is so free from error that it contains nothing that does not in the highest degree savor of a certain holiness and piety, and raise up to God the minds of those who offer. For it consists partly of the very words of the Lord, partly of the traditions of the Apostles, and also of pious regulations of holy pontiffs” (Session XXII, Ch. IV).

Despite such high praise, despite the fact that the Church fostered it for centuries, and despite the generations of Catholics who were formed by it, it has been virtually thrown out of the ecclesial window and into the ecclesial trash heap since the end the of Second Vatican Council. Most often used in its place are Eucharistic Prayer II (a significantly shorter prayer with a much thinner level of substance) and Eucharistic Prayer III (a prayer which was written to be, in many ways, a reworking of the Canon so as to fix its perceived problems). Unless they have a priest who particularly likes it, Catholics today will generally hear the Roman Canon a few times a year (probably at Christmas, Easter, and All Saint’s Day—the last one due to the lists of individual saint names present in the prayer). But otherwise, several centuries of tradition have been discarded, with priests finding the Canon too long, the new prayers more streamlined, or the content of the new prayers more appealing (if a priest is reading this and has other reasons for not using the Canon, let me know; I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth). As for me, though, I’ve felt a strong affinity for the Roman Canon ever since the Mass was retranslated a few years ago, and I feel like some of my readers might appreciate reflections going into why I like it and why I wish it were once again prayed frequently.

NB: a) Before I go into my many thoughts on the matter, let it be said that I’m not an academic, and I’ve only studied this stuff at the level of personal interest, so I recognize that many solid objections could probably be brought up against the things I say. 

b) Where there is a portion of Latin in this post, it will be the case for the most part that the translation used is the one promulgated in 2011. If it’s my own translation, I’ll have written something like, “literally translated as…”

The Opening of the Prayer

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The beginning of the Canon in a missal from 1962 (the last edition promulgated of the previous liturgical form). Considering the sweeping changes which would take place in the years following Vatican II, it’s almost surprising that, at least as far as text is concerned, this prayer was virtually untouched (there is a difference in the immediate Consecration formulas, but that might be better discussed elsewhere).

The beginning of the prayer is already markedly different from most of the other options. Most of the other Eucharistic Prayers, making a direct connection with the Sanctus, the Holy, Holy, Holy, address God with the words, “You are indeed holy, O Lord.” Some perceive this as a definitive strength of the new prayers, since they have a greater connection to what has preceded them. That’s a topic for a different post, but at any rate, for those who aren’t used to the Roman Canon and have gotten used to hearing a correlation between the Holy and the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, the introduction of the Canon might seem strange: “To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition, through Jesus Christ, your Son, Our Lord.” This already establishes a different tone than the other prayers, most of which begin, not with an immediate statement of humility, but a statement of praise. Now, before somebody jumps on that, I’m not saying there’s something wrong with praise and that we should be always and everywhere approaching the Lord in sackloth, ashes, and lamentations. But to me, the tone of these words suggests the weight, the responsibility, the majesty of the action the priest and faithful are going to take part in, and, for me, it provides a deeper mental preparation going forward than the comparatively “joyful” characteristics of the newer prayers. The faithful in Mass are going to be present to God and to all the angels and saints of Heaven, yes, but they’re also going to be transported to the scene of the Cross, the scene of our Good Lord’s suffering and death, and this, I think, is aided by words that recognize, like the centurion, “Lord, I am not worthy” (Mt. 8:8).

The Prayers Before the Consecration

One of the things immediately noticeable about the Roman Canon is that, both in its Latin text and when translated literally (as opposed to the translation approved in the late 1960s), there is an almost poetic quality to it throughout. It uses strings of words that give it an arguably rhythmic tone. It begins, for example, asking God to accept and bless, in the Latin, “haec dona, haec munera, haec sancta sacrificia illibata”—as the current English translation renders it, “these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices.” As the priest offers them for the Church, the reader will notice there is yet another set of rhythmic phrases as the priest asks God to “be pleased to guard, unite, and govern her throughout the whole world” (“quam pacificare, custodire, adunare, et regere digneris toto orbe terrarum”).

Going on, it makes immediate mention of the Pope, the bishops, and the clergy, almost as a way of saying that prayers for the Vicar of Christ, whom Our Lord has made His spokesperson on Earth and the Rock of His Church, belong in a prominent place during the Sacred Action. The priest prayers also for all those who “cultivate” or “hand on” the Catholic and Apostolic faith (“et omnibus orthodoxis atque Catholicae et Apostolicae fidei cultoribus”). There is no sense of vagueness in this prayer. It is certainly declaring the Church headed by the Pope and bishops to be the universal faith, the same faith given from the Apostles themselves.

The next section, coupled with its counterpart later in the prayer (which some liturgists suggest were together in the Canon’s earlier development) shows an important truth about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as affirmed by the Council of Trent: that the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice, able to forgive our sins and able to be offered for the souls of Christians both living and dead.

Known as the Memento vivorum, the Remembrance of the Living, the section begins, “Remember, Lord, your servants, and all those gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you.” The next line is important, because it clearly enunciates a truth only able to be grasped in the other prayers by way of interpretation. This truth is that the Eucharist is offered, not just communally as a “we,” but separately as well. “I” offer it for my own needs, “you” for yours, and the ordained priest does so differently than the laity present.

And so the prayer says, “For them we offer you this sacrifice of praise, or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them”—and pointing to the propitiatory, or sin-forgiving, nature of the Offering, it goes on— “for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being.” Something to notice is that the word “health” here is a translation of the Latin word “salutis,” which could also be translated as “salvation.” However it’s translated, it’s difficult not to notice, again, that repetitious, almost rhythmic quality I mentioned: the Mass is offered for “redemption, health, and well-being,” things which can all be taken to mean similar things, but which add a poeticism to the prayer by their individual presence.

The next section, the Communicantes, is, like so much of this prayer, clearly Catholic through and through, beginning with a clear and direct affirmation of Mary’s divine maternity. “Communicantes et memoriam venerantes, in primis, gloriosae semper Virginis Mariae, Genetricis Dei et Domini nostri Jesu Christi“—literally, “Having communion with and venerating the memory, in the first place, of the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.” The mention of the many individual saints calls to mind the host of holy men and women who have made it to Heaven, and also helps those present at the Mass to remember that they have intercessors in Heaven constantly praying for their sake. There is a clearly Catholic air, too, as the prayer closes, with the priest asking that by the “merits and prayers” of the saints mentioned, and all the saints in Heaven, the Christian faithful might always experience God’s protection and aid.

In the prayer preceding the Consecration, one can’t help noticing, yet again, that rhythmic repetition which marks so much of the prayer, as the priest asks God to (literally translated) “make this oblation blessed, approved, ratified, reasonable, and acceptable,” that it might become the Body and Blood of His Beloved Son.

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More to come, my dear readers, in Part 2, which will take a look at the rest of the Canon from the Consecration onward. That, in fact, is when I’d say things get most striking.

God bless, and may you all have a holy Lent until next time!

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2 thoughts on ““To you, therefore, most merciful Father” – (Somewhat) Theological Observations About the Canon of the Mass, Part 1”

  1. This is my favorite Eucharistic Prayer! It is so rich in Scripture that Protestants will hear it and be amazed. When I first heard it, my assumptions about Catholics not following the Bible were blown away. The continuity and form of the Roman Canon is just amazing. You can really picture the priest interceding for the whole world in the person of Christ. It’s like a catechism of our entire faith, right there, in eloquent verse.

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    1. “This is my favorite Eucharistic Prayer!” – Then you’re in good company!

      “The continuity and form of the Roman Canon is just amazing.” – I agree, but funnily enough, many higher-ups in the 1960s thought it came across as a series of awkward accumulations that were in desperate need of re-organizing (you can read more about that in the linked article I included at the end of Part 2).

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