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On the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ 2004, the pope announced a Year of the Eucharist. Eucharist: Jesus With Us examines the function of the prayers and actions of the Mass, provides a fresh look at the Eucharist and explores the ways Catholics understand and talk about this central mystery of the Catholic faith.

Eucharist: Jesus With Us

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Our Greatest and Best Prayer

by Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.

When you go to Mass, what do you do during the Eucharistic Prayer? How do you pray the prayer? (We are speaking of the part of the Mass between the Preparation of the Gifts and the Communion Rite. The Eucharistic Prayer begins with the dialogue “The Lord be with you….Lift up your hearts…” and concludes with the “Amen” to the doxology “Through him, with him, in him….”)

The Eucharistic Prayer is the very heart of the Mass. And, as the Eucharist is “the source and summit of Catholic life and mission” (John Paul II), what we do during this prayer is vitally important for our understanding of what it means to be a Catholic.

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New and old challenges

How do you pray the Eucharistic Prayer? In response to this question, “newer Catholics” (those formed in the faith after 1969) often tell me that they try to follow the words that the priest is saying, but, as the prayer is long, they often get distracted and think about other things. If you identify with this response, I hope that the description of the structure and function of the Eucharistic Prayer given in these pages will help you to better understand the prayer so that you can participate in it more intentionally and meaningfully.

“Older Catholics” (those who, like myself, were formed in the Catholic faith by the Latin Mass) have a bigger problem. Many of us have had to radically change what we do during the Eucharistic Prayer. To understand why we have had to change the way we pray the Eucharistic Prayer we will examine the answers to three fundamental questions about the prayer: 1) Whose prayer is it? 2) What is the prayer about? 3) What are we praying for?

Whose prayer is it?

The Eucharistic Prayer is our prayer; it is the prayer of the whole assembly. But this is not what I learned as a child. I was brought up thinking that it was the priest’s prayer. The Eucharistic Prayer was the time when the priest prayed to God—in Latin, a language which God, if not the priest, understood perfectly well—and offered Jesus to the Father just as Jesus had offered himself on the cross.

And while the priest was “offering Mass,” I was offering my own prayers— in English—praying to God about my life and my concerns. Sometimes I read prayers from my prayer book. Sometimes I said the rosary. Sometimes the whole congregation said the rosary out loud together. At a “High Mass” (which included singing) the choir sang the Sanctus (the Holy, Holy, Holy) while the priest said the Eucharistic Prayer silently at the altar.

Prayed in our name

Now that we hear the prayers of the Mass in our own language we realize that the Eucharistic Prayer is not merely the prayer of the priest; it is our prayer.

The priest always prays in the first-person plural: “We do well always and everywhere to give you thanks....We proclaim your glory….We bring you these gifts….We ask you to make them holy….We offer you in thanksgiving….” The prayer is said by the priest but he says it in our name. That is why the priest faces us at the altar and engages us with his voice and gestures to encourage us to make the prayer our own.

If the prayer belongs only to the priest, then only he needs to know the structure and function of the prayer. But if the Eucharistic Prayer is our prayer, it is important that we understand what the prayer is about.

What is the prayer about?

For us older Catholics the answer to that question is simple. It is the Prayer of Consecration, the prayer that changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

In the years before the Second Vatican Council, whether we were praying privately, saying the rosary together or singing the Sanctus, we stopped whatever we were doing when the server rang the little bell announcing the moment of Consecration. The priest would bend low over the host and cup and say the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “This is my body....This is my blood….” That was the important moment of the Mass. Today we see that the whole prayer is important.

An enduring structure

To understand the prayer as a whole, imagine for a moment a teenager talking to his father on a Saturday evening: “Dad, you are the best dad a guy could ever have. You work so hard for us all week to put food on the table and make sure we have all the things we need. I bet you’re tired and want to stay home tonight and watch television. Can I have the keys to the car?”

I sometimes use this rather secular example to illustrate the structure of the Eucharistic Prayer. If we carefully examine the texts of the Eucharistic Prayers that have been used in the Church through the centuries in various parts of the world, we find that they all have a similar three-part shape—that of a berakah (Hebrew: blessing prayer). First, we name and bless God; second, we gratefully remember the wonderful things God has done to save us; and third, we make our petition.

Grateful remembering

The Eucharistic Prayer starts with the dialogue “The Lord be with you....Lift up your hearts….” Here we begin our berakah. First, we name and bless God: “Father, all-powerful and everliving God….” Then we gratefully remember God’s saving works: “All things are of your making…” (Preface for Sundays V). As the wonders of God are told, we cannot hold back our joy and we sing aloud, “Wow, wow, wow! What a wonderful God we have!” In the ritual language of the Mass, this acclamation takes the form, “Holy, holy, holy.”

And we continue to remember God’s mighty deeds. We recall the Last Supper and the events of Holy Thursday. We remember how “on the day before he suffered he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples….” We recall the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday: Jesus’ passion, death and glorious resurrection.

But in remembering this paschal mystery we are not simply recalling events that happened once in the past. This liturgical remembering— called anamnesis (from the Greek: remembering, memorial)—causes us to become present in a mysterious way to these foundational events of our faith. And “in the anamnesis…the Church… presents to the Father the offering of his Son which reconciles us with him” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1354).

What are we praying for?

Now that we have remembered and become present to the great mysteries of salvation, we make our petition—epiclesis (from the Greek: invocation, petition). “In the epiclesis, the Church asks the Father to send his Holy Spirit…on the bread and wine, so that by his power they may become the body and blood of Jesus Christ and so that those who take part in the Eucharist may be one body and one spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1353).

This is what we are praying for: We ask God to send the Spirit to change the bread and wine and to change us so that we become the Body of Christ! “Grant that we, who are nourished by his Body and Blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one Body, one spirit in Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer III).

Two halves, one petition

In many liturgical traditions (for example, the Byzantine, Syrian and Coptic rites) both petitions of the epiclesis occur together, after the anamnesis. In our Roman prayers, the epiclesis is split. We pray the first half of the epiclesis, asking the Spirit to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, before the anamnesis of the Last Supper. We pray the second half of the epiclesis, asking the Spirit to change us into the Body of Christ, after the anamnesis.

But even when the epiclesis is split, as it is in our current Roman prayers, the two halves of the petition go together. The Eucharistic Prayer asks not only that the Holy Spirit change the bread and wine; it also asks that the Holy Spirit change the Church!

More petitions—and a toast

While we are in the petitioning frame of mind, we ask God to bless the pope, our local bishop and the whole Church. We ask God to remember those who have died and to bring them into his presence. Finally, we pray for ourselves. We pray that we may one day join Mary and all the saints at the heavenly banquet table. And there, we will give glory and praise to God through Jesus Christ.

As we look forward to that glorious day, we raise our voices as the priest raises the bread and wine and offers a toast, a prayer of glory (a doxology): “Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory (Greek: doxa) and honor is yours, almighty Father, forever and ever.” Our Amen to this prayer acclaims our assent and participation in the entire Eucharistic Prayer.

Experiencing the Prayer

Let’s return to the question with which we began this article: How do we pray the Eucharistic Prayer? I would suggest the following. As you hear the invitation to remember the wonderful deeds of God, use these memories to spark your own memories. How has God been active in your life? How has God blessed you? These memories will naturally lead to sentiments of gratitude and thanksgiving.

As you recall (anamnesis) the great events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, realize that you are present to those events. Picture yourself with the apostles reclining at table with Jesus at that Last Supper. Listen to the conversation. What would you tell Jesus? What would you feel standing at the foot of the cross? What would you say as you encounter the risen Christ?

When the priest invites you to “proclaim the mystery of faith,” respond with a spirit of wonder and awe in the presence of God—one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that you received at Confirmation.

As the prayer turns to petition (epiclesis) ask the Holy Spirit to come upon you and upon each person present so that the Spirit might change us into the Body of Christ. What stands in the way of this transformation? What would you have to leave behind to really follow Jesus? What keeps you from truly loving those around you?

As we offer these things to God we enter personally into Christ’s sacrifice. Ask for the grace of Communion (cum-union/union with)—the grace of unity with all of our brothers and sisters, with Christ, and indeed with the triune God, for this is the goal of the eucharistic sacrifice: joyful union with God.

Next, we turn our attention to the needs of the Body of Christ— the needs of the pope, the universal Church, the bishop and the local Church—peace, generosity, justice and compassion. We pray for those who have died. Finally, we wholeheartedly join our voices in the great Amen which concludes the prayer as the priest lifts high the Bread and Cup and toasts God: “All glory and honor is yours!”

I have found that this method of praying the prayer has greatly enriched my understanding of the Eucharist and drawn me more actively into the celebration of the Mass. I hope that it can do the same for you.

When we have prayed the Eucharistic Prayer, our greatest and best prayer, we arrive at the Communion Rite—the subject of our next newsletter.

Next: Communion With the Lord and the Church

    

Question Corner

• How do you pray the Eucharistic Prayer? How might your prayer change as a result of reading this article?

• The goal of the eucharistic sacrifice is joyful union with God. What would you have to leave behind to really follow Jesus? What keeps you from truly loving those around you?

• What difference does it make in your own life that we pray at each celebration of the Eucharist that the Spirit change us into the Body of Christ? What difference could it make?

 

 

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