The Eucharistic Prayer:
The heart of the Mass

By Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

December 11, 2002

This week, in our discussion of the Mass, we've come to the heart of the entire celebration: the Eucharistic Prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification.

The prayer begins with the preface; a dialogue between priest and people that prompts our hearts to soar ("Lift up your hearts," exhorts the celebrant) and unite with the prayer of Christ before God the Father. We begin by recalling the awesome deeds of God in his work of salvation. We should listen carefully as the words of the prayer place a particular feast within the history of salvation. In a mysterious way, the events of our redemption become present again to us in the timeless work of the Trinity, and offer us a foretaste of the eternal banquet of heaven.

 

The priest concludes the preface as he asks us to join with the song of the angels in heaven: "Holy, holy, holy. ..." Through the Liturgy of the Word, we've prepared for this moment, to be lifted up into the heavenly liturgy. Note that we do not call the moment into existence — rather, we are permitted to take part in a reality that is always present. Acknowledging that truth, the assembly now kneels.

The priest, who gives voice to Christ, continues the Eucharistic Prayer. As the most significant prayer in the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer has a number of versions from which the priest may choose. The most common are simply named I, II, III and IV.

We know Eucharistic Prayer I as the "Roman Canon" because for many centuries it was the only one the Roman rite used. But it's not the oldest. In fact, Eucharistic Prayer II has a history that seems to date to about the year 215. Prayers III and IV also have venerable histories.

The priest may also choose to pray one of the two Eucharistic Prayers of Reconciliation. Usually, we will hear these during Lent or Advent. Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with children may also be an option. But the celebrant may select these only when most members of the assembly are young children. Finally, we have four other Eucharistic Prayers for special occasions, such as when the sacrament of the sick is celebrated within Mass or for a Mass of Christian Unity.

While the priest alone prays the Eucharistic Prayer, his voice becoming the voice of Christ, the assembly is united with him as the body of Christ. Notice that the priest often prays by using the pronoun "we." That's because he prays in the name of the whole Christ. He asks for the Holy Spirit to come and transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. We call this the "epiclesis. "

When he arrives at the words of institution or consecration, however, the priest takes on the person of Christ in a very special way. Just as at the Last Supper, the Bridegroom Christ now gives himself as spiritual food and drink to his Bride in the same way. The sacrifice of Calvary mysteriously becomes present to us and is renewed before us as our Lord commanded. This is why we sing out in song, "the mystery of faith!"

In its reality as a sacred memorial, the Eucharistic Prayer then recalls the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord — all the events of the Paschal Mystery.

The Eucharistic Prayer unites the Church, especially those assembled for this particular Mass, with the spotless and perfect Victim and offers Him to the Father in the Holy Spirit for us all. We offer ourselves with Him, and pray that our union, already true because of baptism, deepens with each other and with the Lord.

We then hear a series of intercessions which remind us that no matter what celebration of the Mass we take part in, we're in communion with the entire Church —not just a local community, but all the living and the dead of the Church, the pope, all the clergy throughout the world and all the faithful "to the ends of the earth."

The Eucharistic Prayer began with words of thanksgiving and praise. Now it ends with the doxology: a prayer of praise and adoration to God. As the doxology is about to begin, the celebrant raises the chalice and host, and "amen" rings from the assembly as we express the worship which is due the Lord alone.

Next week: The Communion Rite begins.