The Roman Canon: Some Share with the Apostles and Martyrs

Statues from St. Peter's Square, Vatican City
Statues from St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City

Have you ever thought about what you’d be the patron saint of?  Maybe patron saint of power naps?  The patron saint of drinking way too much coffee in the morning?  The patron saint of ace-ing Algebra II class?  Don’t laugh, because it’s an important question to consider!

Today’s topic from Eucharistic Prayer I has a lot to do with saints, namely the call for each of us to be saints.  We pray, “Graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy apostles and martyrs,” and then go on to mention a lengthy list of important saints.  The first few are pretty normal saints that we know from Sacred Scripture like John the Baptist and Stephen.  But as we move down the list, we hear about people like Ignatius, Alexander, and Marcellinus.

What the heck?  How did they get in there?  Well, these names may not seem that familiar – to us – but in the days of the early Church, when this prayer was first used, these saints and martyrs were people they might very well have been familiar with, maybe even part of their local community!  These were people they had sat listening to, people they had followed, people they had seen giving witness to their faith, even to their deaths in the arenas like Perpetua and Felicity.  These were individuals who had been personal examples of holiness that inspired their communities to grow closer to Christ.

So let’s go back to what we started with – are you trying to be a saint?  Are you trying to be an inspiring example of faith to others?  “Ha!  Yeah right, Father!  Being a saint is just for really holy people!”  Well, strange as it might seem, that’s our call.  Before being a husband or wife or priest or soccer mom or snake charmer or whatever, we are called to be saints.  Sure, you may not be officially recognized and canonized by the Church, or called “St. _______ of O’Fallon” (because St. _____ of St. Peters sounds a little redundant), but you are called to be holy, and to be an example for others.

Saints aren’t just those we remember once a year, or statues we put votive candles in front of when we need them.  There are living, breathing, aspiring saints among us now in our parish, our neighborhood, and even our households.  As Pope Francis mentioned recently, these are simple saints, good people who may not have visible heroism, but in whose “everyday goodness, we see the truth of faith.”

Be that example of holiness for your friends, relatives, parents, and children.  Don’t settle for mediocrity – embrace the call to heroic virtue!

The Roman Canon: Commemoration of the Dead

Did you ever notice that when I pray Eucharistic Prayer I, I pause in the middle of the prayer for a few seconds?  No, it’s not because I fell asleep, or because I forgot my line.  That particular moment in the Roman Canon is the Commemoration of the Dead.  Have you ever asked why we pray for the dead in the first place?

"Judas Maccabeaus Praying for the Dead" By Peter Paul Rubens
“Judas Maccabeaus Praying for the Dead”
By Peter Paul Rubens

There are lots of reasons throughout the Old and New Testaments and in the first practices of the early Church, but probably the most direct reference is in the 2nd book of Maccabees.  Some people may not know much about this book, but it’s a great story.  The Jewish people were being hard pressed by the Greeks to abandon the public practice of their faith, and the Books of Maccabees are about the series of successful rebellion campaigns led by Judas Maccabeus against Antiochus V around 163 BC.

After a few skirmishes, Judas returned to the battlefield to bury his soldiers, and he takes a few moments to pray for them and take up a sacrificial collection of silver on their behalf.  This is awesome, because it’s so similar to what we do today!  These were godly men, but they were still carrying around amulets to pagan gods, showing they were still sort of attached to lesser sins, despite the fact that they were good people.

The passage (2 Maccabees 12:39-46) points out that it would be useless to pray for them if we did not expect them to rise again.  He believes that the dead can and must be purified by the prayer and sacrifices of the living.  Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.” (2 Mac 12:46)

So fast-forward to today.  During Mass, we pray for the souls of the just who have gone before us in faith.  As many good memories as we have of them, I would wager that most of our deceased relatives and friends weren’t perfect – they might have still been attached to some bad habits or venial sins.  That doesn’t change our love for them, but Purgatory is about removing those obstacles and striving for perfection to see God face-to-face.

Sometimes people have the idea that Purgatory is a bad thing, and that God wouldn’t want someone to suffer.  But the “suffering” souls experience in Purgatory isn’t like the suffering that we’re used to.  Imagine waiting for a movie that you’ve been getting excited to see for a whole year, and when you get to the theater, you’re at the end of a long line.  Your suffering is that you want to get in and see the movie – you want the reward!  But the anticipation of the movie is making you anxious as you wait.  Maybe you have regret over not having prepared well enough to get to the theater earlier.  But the thing is, you know you’re going to get into the movie, and you know the movie will be fantastic – you just have to wait.

Purgatory is infinitely better than our lives on earth because here, we’re still making that choice between Heaven and Hell by the way we live our lives and how we strive to imitate Christ.  In Purgatory, that decision is made – that soul is going to Heaven to be face-to-face with God!

So don’t forget your loved ones.  Remember the names of your beloved dead, and pray for them, especially for those few moments during the Eucharistic Prayer.  And through our faith, prayer, and good works, let’s strive for Heaven as well!

The Roman Canon: By the Hands of Your Holy Angel

Angel sculpture from the Ponte Sant'Angelo, Rome. By Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Angel sculpture from the Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome.
By Gian Lorenzo Bernini

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but at this time of year, we’ve been hearing a lot from the Book of Revelations.  It’s one of my favorite books of the New Testament.  There is so much interesting and bizarre imagery and visions that it holds our attention pretty well!  There are things covered with eyes and horns, people holding trumpets, horsemen of the apocalypse – all things you probably wouldn’t want to run into as you’re leaving Mass on Sunday.  I remember when I was in grade school, we used to bring our Bibles to our penance services so we could read the weird stories when we were finished with confession, almost like a comic book.

The next part of the Eucharistic Prayer that I want to focus on sort of mimics that.  The priest bows and says:

In humble prayers we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy body and blood of your son may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.

As he finishes, he makes the Sign of the Cross.  Of all the parts of EPI, this probably stands out because of the behavior that accompanies it.  In some ways, it might make us think of a scene out of Revelation, with an angel standing before the golden altar in heaven, incensing and raising our prayers to God (Rev. 8:3-4).  But if we’re thinking of it like I used to in grade school, like a comic book, we can tend to simply observe what’s going on as if from a distance.

But the Mass, and especially this part of the Mass, isn’t about observing, it’s about participating, as the prayer mentions.  When I say participation, yes, I mean praying the words aloud (just pretend if you have to, for me!), and yes, I mean singing with the community, and yes, I mean trying to pay attention and not let our minds wander.  But in this passage, the participate referenced is more than that – it’s an offering.

The music and the homily and all the other things that we might normally consider participation are important, and hopefully they help us participate, but the most important part of participation is what we offer from our hearts.  The musicians and lectors do their part, but the hard work is up to us!  What are we bringing to place before the altar?  What are we entrusting into the hands of that holy angel to be offered to God?  Let’s do our best to offer a joyful and thankful heart, so that we “may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing!”

The Roman Canon: Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek

Hey, y’all!  It’s been a while, but we’re back from our little hiatus.  And before you ask, no, it wasn’t because I was to busy watching soccer to write.  Anyway, one of the most important things in our understanding of Sacred Scripture is typology, the theory that the people, places, and events of the Old Testament are prefigurements of the New.  It’s not that God can’t think of anything so he reuses old ideas, like I do with my homilies, but he uses things that we’re familiar with to help us better understand the things he reveals to us.

Eucharistic Prayer I uses three big examples of this with the Old Testament figures of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek.  Abel was the son of Adam and Eve and a shepherd, and he is known for offering the firstborn and best of his flock as a sacrifice to God, which was pleasing to God.  His brother Cain, however, was a farmer, and offered a part of his crops as a sacrifice, but because it wasn’t anything truly sacrificial, God wasn’t pleased with his sacrifice, and the jealous Cain murdered his brother Abel.

We all know Abraham’s story.  It had taken Abraham and Sarah a long time to conceive their own son Isaac, but it was then that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his first and beloved son as a sacrifice.  Abraham was saddened, but willing to offer anything to God, which was all that God wanted to see.

Melchizedek is the strange one here.  He’s a mysterious figure that only appears in Genesis 14 for three verses.  All we know is that he was a priest of God the Most High before Abram had done much of anything – even become “Abraham.”  Melchizedek approached Abram and his army and offered bread and wine, a gift usually offered alongside the first fruits of the earth in thanksgiving to God.

So what’s the point of all this?  All three of these figures are associated with sacrifice, and not just any old sacrifice, like giving up soda during Lent, but the first fruits, the best of the best.  All three are types of Jesus Christ, the ultimate sacrifice, and the first fruits of God himself.  That’s what we’re offering at Mass – the first fruits, the Body and Blood of Jesus himself.  It’s the same sacrifice that God used to save us from our sins – what greater gift can there be?

I think the invitation for us is to offer our own first fruits, the best we have.  Of course we offer that by supporting the mission of the Church through tithing and offering our gifts and talents, but at Mass, usually the biggest sacrifice we can offer is an hour of our time.  The question that arises from this part of EPI is, “How does God play into our priorities?  Do we make Mass a priority?  Is that time really our first fruits?”

It’s very clear to me that some people have trouble making Mass, or getting there on time, or that have to leave early for one reason or another.  Obviously, I’m not sitting up in the sanctuary, judging people – that’s definitely not my intention.  But I think it’s easy for all of us – myself included – to grow lukewarm in our practice, so it’s worth asking the question whether we can honestly say that the time we’re offering for Mass is our first fruits.  Whether it feels like it or not, that hour we spend at Mass receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is the best and most important hour of our day!  So let’s hang in there, and do our best to thank God for all he’s given us by offering him back the best that we have.

Eucharistic Prayer I: Holy and Venerable Hands

Have you ever thought about how you use your hands?  I’m so glad I’m a human being and not a turtle or a dinosaur or something else without hands.  Think of all we can do with hands – we can type, throw a baseball, feed ourselves, greet others by shaking hands, and gesturing (in good ways like waving someone to go ahead in traffic, and in not-so-good ways, if you know what I mean).  Hands are important!  In a sense, they are sort of one of our gateways to our relationships and interactions with others.  They are how we pass things on to those around us.

We’ve already talked about the consecration numerous times in other articles that I’ve written, but Eucharistic Prayer I makes a big deal about the “holy and venerable hands” of Jesus Christ.  When something is venerable, it is deserving of our respect and devotion.  If it’s true that our hands are the gateways of our relationships, then what better way to show the relationship between God and man than by Jesus’ hands?  It’s through these hands that he gives us the greatest gift we can imagine – Christ’s own Body and Blood.  And it’s through the hands of the priest that Jesus makes the Eucharist present, breaks it, and gives it to all of us.

At ordination, the priest’s hands are anointed with the oil of Sacred Chrism, the holiest of the three oils of the Church.  Through that anointing, his hands are consecrated and set apart, not to be just the priest’s hands, but to be Christ’s venerable hands – extended in blessing, pouring water and new life on the baptized, anointing the sick, giving absolution to sinners, distributing to the faithful his Body and Blood.

That’s some powerful stuff!  One of the traditions that I learned as some of my best friends were ordained a few years ahead of me was that after receiving the first personal blessing of the priest, it’s a pious practice to kiss his hands.  That seems like a strange thing to do, especially to your best friends, almost as though your were pledging your fealty to a king.  But as I thought about it, the kiss on the hands isn’t because they are the priest’s hands, but because they have become Christ’s hands through that anointing with the sacred oil.

Now, in this case, we were specifically talking about the hands of Christ in a sacramental and ministerial way, but in a more general way, all of us, by our baptism, are called to allow our hands to become Christ’s hands as well.  Maybe that’s something to think about this week.  Are your hands the hands of Christ?  Do they offer healing and forgiveness to those who wrong us?  Do they offer generosity to those in need?  Especially as we’re kicking off the season of Lent, make an effort to open yourselves to be Christ’s venerable hands this week!

Eucharistic Prayer I: Quam Oblationem

Sorry to miss a few weeks in the bulletin, but thank you for your prayers for our group travelling to Washington DC for the Pro-Life Trip a few weeks ago.  Now where were we…

The next part of Eucharistic Prayer I is the epiclesis, or as it’s called in EPI, the Quam Oblationem.  The epiclesis, as has been mentioned before, is the point in our prayer where we pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the gifts presented at the altar, that they might be transformed into the Eucharist.  At this point, the priest extends his hands over the offering, which is typically a symbol of transference, like the Holy Spirit descending on the gifts.  Incidentally, it is thought to be a similar gesture to when ancient Jewish priests would pray over the scapegoat for the Day of Atonement, as described in Leviticus 16.  See?  You learn something new every day!

The prayer reads, “Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.”  But what does it mean for the gifts to be “spiritual and acceptable”?

Basically, we’re praying at this point in the Mass that the gifts become more than what they are as they are brought forward to the altar, more than just common foods.  This makes sense from our end in that we want it to be a sincere spiritual offering of ourselves.  Like birthday gifts to your Aunt Elvira, we strive to give the gifts at the altar not because we have to, but because we want to!

More importantly, however, we pray that it become spiritual and acceptable from God’s end.  We all know that normal foods have effects on us.  Good foods make that next trip to the gym energizing.  Bad foods make it…less so.  When we ask God to make our offerings spiritual, we ask him to transform it so as to have effects in us – not common effects like carbohydrates or dietary fiber, but spiritual effects like the forgiveness of sins, the strengthening of our will to do God’s will, an increased love for God and our neighbor, and of course, eternal life.

We supply the offerings, but only God’s power given through the Holy Spirit can make these offerings have the effects we long for, and only God can make that offering something acceptable to himself!

Eucharistic Prayer I: Count Us Among the Flock

I don’t know if anyone else notices this, but the next part of Eucharistic Prayer I hits me like a bombshell.  Here we’re just moseying along through Mass, singing somewhat happy and uplifting music and surrounded by pretty candles and vestments, praying, “Graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family; order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered FROM ETERNAL DAMNATION!!!”  It’s somewhat unexpected, and pretty intense, isn’t it?  I find myself sometimes trying to run this line together with the next to lighten the blow to you, my unsuspecting parishioners!

Sometimes, we like to avoid the topic of heaven and hell because we want to avoid the topic of judgment.  The phrase that governs our whole approach to this reality is “Well, who am I to judge?”  And this is true, we certainly are called to love others and leave judgment to God, but that’s the thing, we almost want to avoid judgment from God as well!  We need to remember that as much as God is Love, God is our Judge as well – a just judge, and a loving and merciful judge, but a judge nonetheless.

How does God judge us?  Actually Matthew 25:31-46 gives us the basics.  Jesus speaks about sorting the sheep from the goats, thus our cries in the next line of EPI that we be “counted among the flock of those [He has] chosen.”  Jesus will judge us according to how we treat him in our neighbors: he was hungry and we gave him food, thirsty and we gave him drink, and all the other charities that we’re so familiar with in this passage.

Most of us, if we’re honest, know that we’re not as good at doing these acts of love for our neighbors as we should be.  And it’s in this realization that we find another realization: we are totally dependent on God’s mercy and love.  That truth gives purpose to our celebration of Mass: just as the ancient Jews offered sacrifices and oblations in the Temple to atone for their weaknesses, we offer this one sacrifice of Jesus as the true and final sacrifice for all of ours.  There is a prayer in the Divine Mercy Chaplet that I like to pray before Mass: “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins, and those of the whole world.”

It’s a fitting prayer before Mass and it pairs well with this section of the Eucharistic Prayer because we are reminded that Mass is about a sacrifice, an oblation offered for all of us.  When we approach Mass, let’s call on that mercy that we all need for our failures, and ask for the grace we need to become better followers of Christ.  Let’s pray that we can be the sheep, not the goats, and be called to the “flock of those He has chosen.”

Eucharistic Prayer I: The Treasury of the Church

1Over the Christmas season and the time leading up to it, the generous people of All Saints gave us priests a lot of gifts – especially in cookie form!  So many people would send each of us cookies, and so we would take what we had received and sort of combine it on the kitchen counter in a hulking mound of cookie tins and plates.  And each of us would draw on that mound throughout the Christmas season, until now, when we are all working on our New Year’s fitness resolutions.  For the record, I for one am always looking for excuses to eat cookies, so feel free to keep them coming (Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the Conversion of St. Paul, the feast day of St. Paul Miki and his Companions…I could go on…)!

Odd as it may seem, the same is true between us and the saints – not that they give us cookies, but that they generously store up God’s graces for us!  In the Catechism, we read that, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.  In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others.” (CCC 1475)

Basically, the good deeds that the saints did and all the graces they received are also passed down to us.  As you’ll become aware, Eucharistic Prayer I loves to mention lists of saints, but considering it’s ancient origins, the saints mentioned in the Canon very well might have been people that these congregations knew.  Even today, we pray that they might pass their merits on to us.

This is called the “Treasury of the Church.”  No, it’s not a huge chest in the lower levels of the Vatican where Dan Brown claims the pope hoards all our weekly contributions.  It’s a mystical treasury of infinite value, filled by the merits of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.  That’s worth more than anything we could possibly accomplish!  Really, it’s even through God’s grace that we are led to do things that we might consider to have merit.  Our merits are really God’s merits!

The merits of the saints are then passed down to us when we call upon them.  The Canon prays that “through their merits and prayers, in all things we may be defended by your protecting help.”  The saints are there to help us – to defend us and protect us.

I think it’s an important question whether we are calling upon this treasury.  Eucharistic Prayer I certainly encourages us to do so.  Many times, we might ask our friends or relatives to pray for us or to keep us in their thoughts, but do we ask the saints for the same favor?  This week, as you’re muddling through your ordinary business, don’t be afraid to unlock that treasury of grace that the saints, through the grace of God, have built up for us!

Eucharistic Prayer I: Commemoration of the Living

“Will you pray for me?”  “Will you pray for my aunt, who is having surgery today?”  “Will you pray for my dog, who lost his favorite bone the other day?”  Probably a lot of us hear these sort of things quite a bit, particularly when we’re hanging around church.  People ask us to pray for different things all the time – people who are sick, people who are suffering or struggling, a family member or friend who needs help, or some cause that we support by our prayers.  There are so many things to remember in prayer that All Saints actually created a prayer chain to pass along intentions!  It can be a lot of work!

But perhaps a follow-up question is whether we actually remember to do it.  Do we pray for those people that we promise to pray for?  It can be difficult to think of all these people when we sit down to pray, or to remember everyone we’ve been asked to pray for.  Well don’t worry, the Church understands!  And so she includes a particular time to remember these people in the Eucharistic Prayer called the “Commemoration of the Living.”

We hear that phrase in EPI, “They offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them.”  All right, time out.  Now’s probably a good time to go back and revisit what we said so many months ago (January 5, to be exact), about that “my sacrifice and yours” business.  When the priest invites us to pray about “my sacrifice and yours,” he is making that distinction in our roles at Mass.  The priest is offering that sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, which is sitting there on the altar.  But all of us offer our own sacrifices as well.

That’s what EPI is talking about!  When the priest says, “they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them,” he’s talking about our purpose in directing our prayers – for ourselves and for those people we promised to pray for.  What better place to remember all those folks than the greatest prayer we can offer, period – our prayer at the altar!

Then EPI talks about what we’re praying for with regard to those people – 1) “The redemption of their souls”, 2) “in hope of health and well-being”, and 3) “paying their homage” to God.  In other words, we pray for their immortal, spiritual welfare, along with the graces they need to follow Christ, our bodily welfare against things like sickness or injury, and (the primary purpose for our prayer,) out of praise, thanksgiving, and adoration of God, who gives us everything.  I think we pretty much covered our bases there.

Just as we said back in January, all of us are called to participate fully in the Mass, especially through offering our personal sacrifices and prayers, placing them next to the sacrifice on the altar, and part of that is through our prayers for others.  There are a lot of people out there who need our prayers, and a lot of people who have no one to pray for them.  Let’s take the time at Mass to pour out of ourselves, and lift our those around us to God in prayer.

Eucharistic Prayer I: Length

One of the fond memories I have from my time in the college seminary was our friendly rivalry between those of Irish descent, and the better ones of German descent (I’ll let you guess which one “Grosch” is…).  But we Germans would pride ourselves in our knack for German efficiency, the maximum output for the minimum input.  We would try to get things done as quickly and as sharply as possible.  I’ll just say, however, beware the combination of German efficiency with college procrastination!  It’s a deadly combination!

Sometimes we can adapt an attitude of efficiency to our celebration of the liturgy as well.  We can try to get things done as quickly and as cleanly as possible.  Eucharistic Prayer I is the longest of all our Eucharistic Prayers, so there are a lot of priests and people who don’t like to use it because they fear it takes too long.

Well, I didn’t want to settle for hearsay, so I took the missal to my secret lab to test the time elapsed from the Lamb of God to the Great Amen.  EPIII, the most commonly used prayer, finished with a lightning fast 3:42.9.  Turning to the Big Kahuna, EPI came in at a lackadaisical 4:58.2.  The difference is a whopping 1 minute, 15.3 seconds, even with all the optional parts thrown in.  So I guess sometimes people overreact – in the context of a Mass, 1 minute 15 seconds isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference.

I think the greater question is whether we should have this mindset in the first place.  In all fairness, on the one hand, we have to be sensitive to the obligations of our fellow parishioners.  That’s especially true for 6:30 Mass on weekdays, when people need to get to work.  But it’s also true that convoluted homilies or liturgy can sometimes cause us to focus too much on our frustrations than on the mysteries before us, and can even lead us to sin in our thoughts against others who are going at a “different pace.”

But at the same time, whether we realize it or not, that hour (give or take) for Mass is the most important hour of our day.  It’s a direct encounter with Christ – not in some metaphysical or philosophical way, but with his physical Body and Blood.  It’s a time to listen to what he has to say to us in the Gospel.  It’s a time to offer our prayers, cares, joys, and sufferings.  You see, what can sometimes happen is that we sacrifice sanctity in the name of efficiency.  This is true for all of us, priests probably more than most people.

Think about it honestly: when you sit down with a friend, and they start pouring themselves out to you, really sharing with you how much they care about you as a friend, what does it say to them if you pull out your phone to check texts or to see what time it is?  That’s what the Mass is, and specifically the Eucharistic Prayer is.  In some way, it is a conversation between Christ and us, where we pour out ourselves out of love for the other, ultimately culminating in Communion.

So remember that the next time you get a chance to go to Mass.  I promise that I’ll do my best to be appropriately efficient as my German descent cries out for me to do.  But I would also challenge you, that in as much as you can, strive to be a person who treasures that encounter with Christ, even just in that one hour, and make that hour the holiest that you can.