What is the Eucharistic Prayer?
ONE OF MY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES of going to Mass is of kneeling during the Liturgy of the Eucharist whispering the words in unison with the priest as he prayed Eucharistic Prayer III. I was an altar boy; I paid close attention to the prayers of the Mass, and I knew the words of this Eucharistic Prayer by heart. I may have thought I was simply saying them in my head, just to myself, but during the Sign of Peace the woman in the pew in front of me asked if she had heard me during the prayer, and how I would probably end up studying for the priesthood.
It was probably a typical sort of remark to make: a young boy shows interest in the prayers of the Mass, so he must (if only subconsciously) want to be a priest. And while it is true that I considered a vocation to the priesthood during my adolescent years, I have come to realize in my adult years that an interest in the Mass and a desire to understand its prayers, even those said only by the priest, is something that all Catholics can have, not only those who have their sights set on the seminary. I also eventually realized not to equate my memorization of a prayer with actual comprehension. Being able to recite the words of the Our Father does not necessarily mean you understand what a radical statement you are making to God: that He should forgive you only to the extent that you forgive others. Equipped with these two realizations – that any layman can have an interest in the prayers of the Mass, and that those prayers are meant not only to be prayed but understood as well – I eventually set out to write this three-volume series on the Mass, on the occasion of the new English translation.
This third volume addresses the Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite, which I included neither in the first volume (The Prayers of the People) nor in the second (The Prayers of the Priest). One reason why stands out to me above the others, that although the majority of the Eucharistic Prayer is said only by the priest, the prayer is our prayer. The priest prays the Eucharistic Prayer in the name of the whole Church and in the name of the local congregation. It uses the first person plural (“we” and “us”) throughout, verbal clues that the congregation is neither an intruder nor a spectator, but part of the whole priestly people of God offering to Him the sacrifice of redemption, the Body and Blood of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sadly, the Eucharistic Prayer is often a time when Catholics in the pews are the most tempted to let the priest do his thing and “check out” of the Mass. Perhaps bells are rung which briefly draw their attention to the Eucharist being made present on the altar, but soon after they go back to doing whatever it is they do while they let the priest pray. But the priest is not the only one who should be praying at this time, and the consecration is not the only time everyone else should be pay attention to the words of this prayer. There is so much action spoken of in the Eucharistic Prayer, but that action is mostly internal and spiritual, and so it can be easy to miss.
The Prayer of Christ, the Prayer of the Church
Long before the evangelists wrote down their Gospels, before St. Paul was writing to the Christians in Thessalonika, the Church was celebrating the Eucharist, the memorial sacrifice and banquet of Christ’s love for us. What exact words they prayed as they celebrated it is not known, but it is safe to assume that the Last Supper was the model: God was thanked, bread and wine were blessed, and the Body and Blood were distributed. The Didache, dating from the late first century or early second century, contains prayers of thanksgiving over the wine and the broken bread (in that order) unlike the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. St. Justin Martyr in his First Apology (from the middle of the second century) reported the way the Eucharist was celebrated in Rome at the time, repeating the words of Christ, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” and wroting that the bread and wine were “blessed by the prayer of his word.”
It was not long before Christians began elaborating the prayer over the Eucharist. Prayers for a fruitful reception of the Eucharist (grace and peace here and now, and beatitude in heaven) and intercessions for the Church throughout the world, for the local congregation and its leaders, for the sick or imprisoned, even for the dead, were added. In all this, the Church was still following the model of the Last Supper, for St. John records that Jesus prayed at length for His disciples and all throughout the world who would come to believe in Him, for the Holy Spirit to be active in them, and most especially for their unity. (cf. John 14-17)
Different regions developed their own traditions for these additions to the prayer’s primitive core, but certain elements eventually came to be common to virtually all of these variations: a dialogue between the priest and the people, a recapitulation of God’s saving work throughout history, the angelic song of “Holy, holy, holy!”, a prayer asking for the Holy Spirit to bring about a change not only in the bread and wine but also in those who receive these changed gifts, a liturgical repetition of the words of Christ over the bread and wine, an offering to the Father, intercessions, commemorations, and a concluding exclamation of praise. Not every prayer over the Eucharist – or anaphora (Greek for “offering up”) – had each element in the same form or the same order, or spent the same time on each element. Even the narrative of the Last Supper varied from one anaphora to the next, and none kept to a strict word-for-word repetition of one of the four scriptural accounts.
Despite these variations, there was a still a unity present to be found in the Church’s anaphoras. They all had the same purpose in mind: to do what Jesus told His disciples to do in His memory, to bring about Jesus’ sacramental presence offered for our sakes. Thus the prayer of Christ at the Last Supper became the prayer of the Church every day.