Praying the Greatest Prayer: The Holy Mass
How the Church describes the priest’s role concerning the Last Supper ‘command’ and the celebration of the Eucharist
Catholics often say that the Mass is the greatest prayer that we can offer. This is true for many reasons, and especially so because it is Christ’s prayer, Christ’s saving sacrifice offered to the heavenly Father for his glory and for our salvation. At every Mass, Christ unites us to himself in the offering of this prayer, of this sacrifice. For the priest, though, his union with this offering is even more profound, more particular, more personal.
The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy summarizes the traditional faith of the Church about the Eucharist.
“At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 47; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1323).
At this same Last Supper, with the institution of the Eucharist, the Lord turned to the gathered apostles and said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (cf. Lk 22:14-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26). Thus Jesus commands his apostles, his priests, to celebrate the Eucharist until his return (cf. CCC, No. 1337). This same command of the Lord to his apostles directs them uniquely to repeat his words and actions from the supper “to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 47). In this way, the priest, as he keeps the command of the Lord in every age, on behalf of all the members of the Church, is intimately united with the very event of the Lord’s Sacrifice, the memorial of [Jesus’] death and resurrection.
One way to see and to encourage priests to have a new regard for praying the greatest prayer, the holy Mass, is to look at how the Church describes their role concerning the Last Supper command and the celebration of the Eucharist. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal succinctly identifies this role.
“A Priest, also, who possesses within the Church the sacred power of Orders to offer sacrifice in the person of Christ, presides by this fact over the faithful people gathered here and now, presides over its prayer, proclaims to it the message of salvation, associates the people with himself in the offering of sacrifice through Christ in the Holy Spirit to God the Father, and gives his brothers and sisters the Bread of eternal life and partakes of it with them. Therefore, when he celebrates the Eucharist, he must serve God and the people with dignity and humility, and by his bearing and by the way he pronounces the divine words he must convey to the faithful the living presence of Christ” (GIRM, No. 93).
This theologically and liturgically rich paragraph from the front matter of the Roman Missal provides four points for consideration for the priest to deepen his praying of the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist, the greatest prayer. As he prays holy Mass, he does so in the person of Christ, he presides over the faithful and proclaims the word of salvation, he associates the faithful with himself in the offering of Christ’s sacrifice and he carries out the rites with humility.
In the Person of Christ
The Second Vatican Council reiterated the perennial teaching of the Church that the priest, by virtue of his reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, offers the unique Sacrifice of the Cross with the Eucharist in the person of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, No. 28; Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 2). The shift from the first person plural to the first person singular for the institution narrative and Consecration of the Eucharistic prayer clearly and vividly underscores this theological reality (GIRM, No. 79d): “This is my Body. … This is the chalice of my Blood” (Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayers). This theological reality must be a personal reality for every priest as he celebrates Mass. In this way, he prays the Mass, every part of the Mass, in intentional union with Christ the Priest.
The ordained priest, again by virtue of his reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, also assumes the sacramental role of Christ as Head of his Body and liturgically acts in this manner, in persona Christi Capitis (cf. CCC, No. 1548). Thus, as an example, the priest celebrant carries out the introductory rites of Mass with the people at the chair signifying his headship in Christ in relationship to the liturgical assembly, the Body of Christ assembled (GIRM, No. 124). As he greets the faithful, he is a sign of the Lord to all. As the faithful respond to the priest, the mystery of Church — head and members — gathered is manifest (No. 50). “The Lord be with you” and the response “And with your spirit” throughout the Mass expresses this theological reality repeatedly. The priest presides over the people as Christ over his Body in the Eucharist.
In his sacramental role in the Eucharist of representing Christ as Head of the Body, the priest additionally acts on behalf of those assembled (cf. CCC, No. 1552). He does this not so much as a delegate of the faithful before the Father. Rather, “the prayer and offering of the Church are inseparable from the prayer and offering of Christ, her head; it is always the case that Christ worships in and through his Church” (No. 1553). Every part of the Mass then in some way reveals the Paschal Mystery of Christ carried out by Christ with the priest and people. When the priest prays on behalf of the people to the Father, especially with the Eucharistic prayer, the collect, the prayer over the offerings and the prayer after Communion, he does so in the person of Christ and in communion with Christ as his sacrificial offering takes place with the whole of the Mass (GIRM, No. 30).
The message of salvation is the divine event fully realized with the Eucharistic prayer, the death and resurrection of the Savior and redeemer. The fundamental proclamation of this message takes place at the altar when the priest, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, recalls and makes present this event in the body and blood of the Lord. This proclamation of the mystery of Christ in the Eucharistic prayer is likewise announced with the Liturgy of the Word, which the priest directs and explicates with the homily.
As he prays the Mass, the priest must be mindful that he is not simply a leader of prayer. Rather, because of his radical configuration to Christ the Priest, he prays with Christ the Head on behalf of all assembled and all people everywhere intimately united with Christ the Head of his Body. This union with Christ the Head assigns to the priest sacramental authority to preside over the faithful and their prayer, as well as proclaim to them the word of salvation.
Associates the Faithful with Himself
The ordained priesthood is oriented to the service and the perfection of the baptismal priesthood (cf. Roman Pontifical, Rite of Ordination of Several Priests/of One Priest and CCC, No. 1547). Singularly, this is illustrated when the ordained priest brings forward the baptismal priestly offerings of the faithful to be joined to the bread and wine that will become the sacrifice of Christ.
After the altar and the gifts have been prepared, the priest says to the faithful, “Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” The sacrifice of the ministerial priest is the bread and wine that will become the sacrifice of the Cross. The sacrifice of the faithful is all that they bring forward — all that fills their minds, their hearts, their very selves — likewise to be acceptable to almighty God. The response of the faithful confirms this: “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.” The sacrifice at the hands of the priest is the bread and wine and the offerings of the faithful.
Together, although in uniquely distinct ways, the priest and the faithful then offer the sacrifice of Christ with the Eucharistic prayer. This point is well expressed in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal as the Eucharistic prayer is described.
“Now the center and high point of the entire celebration begins, namely, the Eucharistic Prayer itself, that is, the prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification. The Priest calls upon the people to lift up their hearts towards the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving; he associates the people with himself in the Prayer that he addresses in the name of the entire community to God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, the meaning of this Prayer is that the whole congregation of the faithful joins with Christ in confessing the great deeds of God and in the offering of Sacrifice” (GIRM, No. 78).
As the center and high point of the Mass, the Eucharistic prayer belongs to all who are assembled. It takes both the priest and people to the right hand of the Father in heaven, where the perpetual sacrifice of Christ on the cross occurs for all eternity. “Lift up your hearts.” “We have lifted them up to the Lord.” At the same time, the Eucharistic prayer brings the eternal sacrifice of Christ in our midst on the altar.
St. Paul reminds the Corinthians in his teaching on the holy Eucharist not only of the manner in which the Lord gave his body and blood to all but also that eating and drinking this mystery proclaims the death of the Lord until he comes (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26). During the Communion rite of the Mass, the priest, with the consecrated Host raised above the paten or chalice, invites the faithful to holy Communion, invites them to the “supper of the Lamb.” For both the priest and the faithful, they now consume the event of the Eucharistic prayer, the sacrifice of Christ actually being celebrated (GIRM, No. 85). They eat and drink of the crucified and risen Lord in glory.
As the priest prays the Eucharistic prayer in every Mass, a conscious awe and reverence should fill him as with the Eucharist “we … pass over to the heavenly realities here foreshadowed” (Roman Missal, preface, Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ). Additionally, as he prays the Eucharistic prayer and receives as well as gives the body and blood of the Lord to the faithful, he enters into a great experience of adoration. He is united with the obedient Son of God who gives his life for us and for the glory of his Father. With holy Communion, the experience of adoration becomes quite personal for the priest and the faithful, when they take to themselves the very food of the saving event of the Cross.
In recent years there has been a growing appreciation for the ars celebrandi and the celebration of the sacred liturgy. The ars celebrandi, simply put, is “the fruit of faithful adherence to the liturgical norms in all their richness” (Sacramentum Caritatis, No. 38). When the priest and faithful enter into the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist with a confident observance of the descriptions and directives for the rites, then this art of proper celebration fosters the fullest form of actual participation (cf. No. 38).
For the priest, as he prays holy Mass, and especially over time, he must allow the rites to shape him, to shape his participation in the mystery of Christ. If he does so with a clear grasp of the liturgical norms, then he is destined to celebrate with dignity and humility. He becomes the servant of the sacred liturgy (cf. GIRM, No. 24) rather than taking to reordering the rites around him. His personal participation becomes a more profound conforming of himself to the mystery being celebrated, an offering of his life to God in the unity with the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of the whole world (Sacramentum Caritatis, No. 64). Thus, remarkably, as he prays holy Mass, he can indeed convey “the living presence of Christ.”
Throughout the Mass, there are a few instances when the priest prays in his own name, which helps him to be focused. These occur before the reading of the Gospel, at the preparation of the gifts, before and after holy Communion. The quiet prayers at these times deserve renewed consideration as the priest prays holy Mass. They direct his attention to the exercise of his unique role in the Mass and that he may conduct his ministry with greater attention and devotion (cf. GIRM, No. 33). Likewise, taking time for prayerful preparation and thanksgiving before and after Mass reminds the priest of the divine encounter that is the Eucharist and the service that he alone provides for the Church in all humility (cf. Roman Missal, Preparation for Mass and Thanksgiving after Mass).
Renewed in Faith
It is painfully true, for a number of reasons, that praying the greatest prayer can become routine and tedious for too many priests. Only when priests allow themselves to reflect regularly on the gift and mystery of their vocation, their role in the celebration of the Mass, are they renewed in faith and love for so great a prayer. This renewal is deepened when a priest recalls the words of the bishop on ordination day, when the new priest receives the paten and chalice: “Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s Cross” (see Roman Pontifical, Rite of Ordination of Several Priests/of One Priest).
There is an inexplicable connection between the offering of Christ on the cross, making this same offering in the celebration of Mass and living out this offering in the priestly life. When the priest consciously makes this connection, he prays the greatest prayer, the holy Mass, in the greatest possible way.
FATHER DENNIS GILL is rector and pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia and the director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Give strength to my hands, Lord, to wipe away all stain, so that I may be able to serve Thee in purity of mind and body.
Lord, set the helmet of salvation on my head to fend off all the assaults of the devil.
Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made white in the Blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward.
Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.
Maniple (Note: This particular vestment is not always used)
May I deserve, O Lord, to bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow in order that I may joyfully reap the reward of my labors.
Lord, restore the stole of immortality, which I lost through the collusion of our first parents, and, unworthy as I am to approach Thy sacred mysteries, may I yet gain eternal joy.
O Lord, who has said, “My yoke is sweet and My burden light,” grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace.
— Published by Aleteia, Sept. 26, 2018