Releasing the Power of the Eucharistic Prayer

(From Pastoral Music Notebook [publication of National Association of Pastoral Musicians], May, 1998)

Of all the artistic forms that shape a Eucharistic liturgy that genuinely gathers a collection of Christians and forms them into one worshiping body, only one is severely supervised and constrained by church authority.

It is certainly not the art of music, however, that is so constrained. In both composition and execution our Church has witnessed an incredible range of style and medium. Compositions range from the "chaste purity" of Gregorian chant through Masses composed by masters from Bach to Brubeck to the music composed for congregations and their leadership "ensembles" since the Second Vatican Council. Our repertoire ranges from the incredibly beautiful and the spiritually evocative to the frightfully banal, and it is performed and led by professionally trained musicians as well as by those who would embarrass any shower in which they attempt to sing. While all of it, arguably, is created for the praise of God, only the magnanimity of the Holy One makes any of it a pleasing sacrifice.

Like the art of music, the visual arts are not very constrained by church authority. Consider the variety of architectural configurations that house the church, from the smallest rural bandbox to the most magnificent (or bombastic) cathedral. Some are adorned with crucifixes that would hold the angels transfixed; others by statuary so vapid as to cause them to weep. There are St. Sebastians whose death agonies would fit better in Madame Tussaud's wax works and a Pietà so precious that it has to be shielded behind bulletproof Plexiglas. Glorious stained-glass windows created over the centuries by often anonymous artists have contemporary counterparts in the flashes of color found in the best contemporary fabrics, flags, and banners.

In the midst of all this rich freedom, it turns out, the most tightly controlled aspect of our worship is the centerpiece of the Mass, the eucharistic prayer. But the control is only exercised over the text, not over how that text is proclaimed. Let the presider change one word of that prayer, and the liturgical vigilantes will be in contact with the chancery before communion is over! Deviation in the text of this prayer must be stamped out at all costs!

Certainly, the attitude that drives such control is fear (but not that "fear of the Lord" listed among the fruits of the Holy Spirit). Those who want to limit our eucharistic praying to the approved texts, proclaimed verbatim from the book, are afraid of deviations in doctrine. They are concerned for the orthodoxy of what is being taught. Change the words, after all, and who knows what mischief might be sowed in the faith of the people?


A bit of reflection will reveal the false reductionism behind this view of the transmission of the faith and the subsequent overweening concern for the text of the eucharistic prayer.

The first assumption has to do with the focus on the particular words. Oral communication is certainly integral to the communication of faith which renews the life of the community and contributes to the incorporation of its youngest or newest members. But when fear of potential error dominates such communication to the point of focusing on atomized individual words, then these words have become, not a medium for communicating a message, but rather a magical fetish, indeed, an idol. Those who focus their attention on the issue of "oral correctness" have ceased to pray, using their energies to play the role of non-participating critics.

A second false assumption is the belief that only the words "teach," no matter how they are proclaimed. The ancient wisdom is that the lex orandi statuit legem credendi- --- how the church prays grounds how we believe. But if the orandi in that principle is reduced to the individual words of a formula, that interpretation badly distorts the nature of the liturgy as communication. In other words, it would also be correct to say that the lex cantandi (the way we sing) or the lex aspiciendi (what we look at) statuit legem credendi. In fact, what is seen and sung probably moves the human spirit more profoundly, for good or ill, than any changes in verbal formulae. The First Letter of John, after all, purports to proclaim about the word of life not only "what we have heard" but also "what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands" (I John 1:1).

For centuries, the arts incorporated into our church buildings and our worship have "taught" aspects of faith as lived by communities around the world. Plaster madonnas have conveyed to millions (and, sadly, still do) a Mary so insipid that she could hardly be the woman of Luke's Gospel, singing to the mighty that they are about to be cast down from their thrones and, to the greedy, that they will be sent away empty. Many hymns invoke a Jesus-and-me spirituality so individualistic that it borders on a denial of justice as a "constitutive element of the Gospel," as proclaimed by the 1971 Synod of Bishops. Whole generations were taught a eucharistic piety whose most powerful moment came at the end of eucharistic benediction, when the lights dimmed and the organist pumped up the soupy vibrato for "Goodnight, Sweet Jesus." One still finds artificial flowers and "liquid wax" candles adorning altars, despite calls for respect for natural elements and the "authenticity" or "integrity" of any element used in worship.

I am not using such examples to advocate increasing the size or vigilance of the "liturgy police force" --- there is more than enough of that already. I am, however, attempting to point out the naiveté of those who believe that they are keeping authentic teaching in line by micro-managing the formulaic words of the eucharistic prayer. Human communications don't work like that.


In fact, all sorts of messages are being conveyed by all sorts of media, and some of those messages are being taught more powerfully than what is presumably being taught by some "untouchable" phrase in the eucharistic prayer. Truth to tell, from the perspective of an accurate understanding of communications, it is the whole embodiment of the liturgy, the experience as a unified Gestalt, which communicates, transmitting and teaching either the joyous faith which renews the Christian community or a dead shell which may be "correct," but which in the end is incapable of transforming and enlivening.

Take the example of the eucharistic prayer in the context of the liturgical experience.* What is "taught" when the presider delivers a scripturally rich and challenging homily and then mumbles through the eucharistic prayer with such speed and incoherence that it's hard to grasp that the language is English, let alone whether or not any changes are being inserted in the text? (Would that such experiences were rare!) And let's not even raise the issue of chanting the text . . .

Certainly there is a need for presiders to learn about authentic proclamation of this central prayer and about its place at the heart of the Mass, and I'll get to that issue in due course. But first I want to examine whether authentic proclamation is helped or hindered by our limited repertoire of prayers. The Catholic Church in the United States currently approves ten eucharistic prayers for its English-language communities: the four "main" prayers, plus two for Masses of reconciliation, three for Masses with children, and the new one for "various needs and occasions." Can there be a greater variety of eucharistic prayers, each more closely attuned to the actual setting of the eucharist that is being celebrated? Of course there can; such variety has existed in other ages of the church, and it exists today, even among the (non-English-speaking) churches of the Roman Rite. Should there be such variety? If we really believed in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the diversity of local churches, then the task would be finding ways to keep the profusion of eucharistic prayers within workable limits. But in today's liturgical climate, the risk of Babel is much less than that of mind-numbing monotony.


When the liturgy of the Roman Rite was all in Latin (with a smattering of Hebrew and Greek), a language only vaguely familiar to large numbers of the congregation, the psychological and ritual demands on the presider were far fewer, at least from the perspective of his communication with the faithful, if not from the perspective of his personal spiritual attentiveness. Now that the text is in the language of the people, however, the oral expression of the prayer of the gathered community must be a meaningful and engaging act. Facing the people and, presumably, maintaining some personal contact with them during this act of public prayer makes the task far more complex. So how does a priest keep the proclamation of formulae that he has repeated regularly, perhaps thousands of times, from becoming so routine as to be merely a formulaic recitation?

While it may seem as if a repertoire of ten texts to choose among would be enough to avoid some of the routine, the fact is that for the community's major celebration --- the Sunday eucharist --- the choices are, theoretically, far more limited (though many presiders do not always abide by the legalities that limit use of the eucharistic prayers). The newest prayer, with its beautiful and beautifully adaptable text, is off limits for Sunday, and it is rare that a Sunday celebration would meet the conditions for using one of the eucharistic prayers for Masses with children. While the eucharistic prayers with reconciliation themes might be used from time to time, they, like the fourth eucharistic prayer, are legally excluded at any time when a proper preface must be used (and there are proper prefaces for all Sundays). In effect, then, for Sunday eucharist the presider is legally limited to a choice among just three of the "general" eucharistic prayers.

How, then, do you make the same sets of words new and fresh and, perhaps, even evocative of a newly transforming encounter with the Lord, at this moment and with this body of the faithful at this unique place on their journey as an embodied people? And then how do you do that again? And again? Psychologically this is no mean feat, even for someone with deep faith and conviction, to bring off Sunday after Sunday, let alone day after day.

Having examined the challenge from the presider's side, let's take a look at this from the side of those challenged to attend to this prayer and enter into its meaning so that they can affirm it by their "Amen." How much does the weekly repetition of the same set of eucharistic prayers, especially in their current structure, with limited congregational engagement through acclamation, contribute to the sheer boredom that so many people (not only the young) offer as their reason for declining participation in Sunday worship? I know all the rhetoric about the totally mistaken notion that people have that liturgy is supposed to entertain them, and the claims that television and the media in general offer overstimulation of the senses, but there is an important point here that the church's leadership should attend to. Perhaps such criticisms leveled at the congregation are simply the lazy response of an institutional leadership anxious to avoid the work involved in finding creative ways of evoking wonder at the sheer goodness of the Lord.

What would it be like, at Sunday Mass, if the presider were compelled by fresh wording in the text of the prayer itself to be personally present to a challenging prayer, wrestling with it even as he proclaims it in the name of the whole assembly? What would it be like if fresh texts compelled the members of the congregation really to listen and attend to the praying, unable (except in broad outline, perhaps) to anticipate what is going to be proclaimed, but knowing that their "Amen" will be expected, and that they are challenged to make that consent a serious commitment?


Any discussion of using set formulae and fixed words to address the Lord in prayer takes me back to something I head years ago, though I cannot retrieve the exact reference. Somewhere in the Talmud, I was once told, one of the rabbis said that it is a sacrilege to use any pre-formulated prayer to address the All-Holy One. I'm not sure that I would be prepared for all that might follow if we were to take that assertion as gospel, but, you might admit that such a challenge should not be dismissed out-of-hand. After all, if it would be an insult to use canned speeches to speak to a human companion or to express love for a beloved, shouldn't that assertion be even truer about addressing the awesome reality of an encounter with the transcendent One who is also closer to us than we are to ourselves?

[What follows was in the original text but eliminated by the editor]

* Even in the area of the oral word, just consider what is 'taught' when the presider delivers even a scripturally rich and challenging homily and then mumbles his way through the Eucharistic prayer with such speed and incoherence that itreallywouldn'tmakeany differencehowmanychangeshemakesmthetextbecauseit'sclearthatheisn'tthinkulgofwhathe

issaying in the first place. And would that that experience were only a rarity!

The ultimate barrenness of our present limited array of Eucharistic prayers is reached when the presider, after proclaiming the all but unutterable 'holy, holy, holy' of Isaiah, interrupts the event of prayer to say "today we'll use number two". . . . I know he's trying to help those who want to read the prayer rather than listen to it, but for the life of me, when I hear a presider do that I can't help imagining a lover saying to the beloved "tonight we'll use the third position." And if that comparison offends anyone, I plead only that I take quite seriously the belief that everything in the relationship of marriage in the Lord is sacramental, sex not excepted.