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Explains the elements of the Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist, including the preparation, the Eucharistic Prayer, and Holy Communion.

Catholic Update

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The Liturgy of
the Eucharist

By William H. Shannon

For the past 40 years, since Vatican II, Catholics have been learning that the Mass consists of two principal parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. These two form an inseparable unity. "The two parts which in some way go to make up the Mass, namely, the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist, are so closely bound up with each other that they amount to one single act of worship" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #56). The wondrous deeds of God on behalf of people which we read about in the Scriptures, we celebrate in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

In this Update, we—ll take a closer look at the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Our frequent participation in the Mass can easily blunt our appreciation of all that the Liturgy of the Eucharist involves. Taking time to reflect on it can enhance our active and conscious participation in the eucharistic celebration. For the purpose of discussion I want to speak of (1) the Preparation (of altar, gifts and people) (2) the Eucharistic Prayer and (3) the Communion.


Originally the preparation ceremony was very simple and informal. Gifts, bread and wine (as well as offerings for the poor), were brought to the priest-presider. He would say a prayer over them and then begin the Eucharistic Prayer. In the Middle Ages to this simple action were added private prayers said by the priest. These included the notion of "offering" and this service came to be called the "offertory." The term involved a misunderstanding, since the true offering of the Mass takes place in the Eucharistic Prayer.

This preparatory part of the eucharistic liturgy has been restored to its primitive simplicity. It begins with preparing the altar. Up to this point the altar should be bare. During the Liturgy of the Word our attention has been directed elsewhere: to the lectern for the Scripture readings in which we hear the Word of God and the homily that breaks open that Word.

The homily is followed by the intercessions and the creed. These having been completed, the book is brought to the altar by the server and the gifts (bread and wine and the offerings for the poor) are brought from the midst of the congregation and presented to the presider. Organ music or song may accompany the procession of the gifts, but should be appropriate to the season. Songs of praise and joy are always fitting, but songs suggesting this is the main offering are not. Having received the gifts, the presider says a prayer over them asking God to receive these gifts and to bless the people from whom they come.

This part of the Mass serves, first of all, a utilitarian purpose, i. e., to get the gifts to the altar; secondly, a spiritual purpose: to bring the assembled faithful to a vivid sense of anticipation of what is about to take place.

The Eucharistic Prayer: God—s Saving Love

Preface. The word preface has the usual meaning of "introduction" only in a secondary sense, namely, that it comes at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. Its fundamental meaning emerges from its Latin derivation. It is made up of the Latin verb fateor ("I speak") and the preposition prae ("out"). The very word preface, therefore, makes clear to the presiding priest that he must do more than recite the Eucharistic Prayer. He must proclaim it in a voice that is strong, persuasive and convincing.

Beginning with an introductory dialogue calling the community to join in praising and thanking God, the Preface sets forth, in the body of its content, a particular reason for praising God on this occasion. It is always some aspect of God—s goodness in creation and redemption. The missal is rich in prefaces: nearly 100 to choose from to fit the season or whatever the particular celebration may be. Here, as an example, is the first preface of Christmas: "In the wonder of the incarnation your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory. In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see."

Acclamation of Praise. Moved by the proclamation in the Preface, the presiding priest invites all to sing the acclamation of praise: the "Holy, Holy, Holy." The assembly joins with the whole creation, as with one voice the entire communion of saints gives glory to God: "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest."

Calling Upon God to Send the Spirit. God is asked to send the Holy Spirit to achieve a twofold conversion: changing the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and conforming all of us to the image of Christ. Listen to the third Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs and Occasions: "Great and merciful Father, we ask you to send down your Holy Spirit to sanctify these gifts of bread and wine, that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.— Almighty Father, by our sharing in this mystery enliven us with your Spirit and conform us to the image of your Son."

This calling upon the Holy Spirit reminds us of our need, as individuals and as community, to be open to the workings of the Spirit who comes to change our behavior (morality) and our consciousness (spirituality). We are called to experience ongoing conversion and to grow in faith in both our individual lives and our lives as the community of God—s people.

Institution Narrative. The priest narrates what Jesus did at the Last Supper, as he asks God—s Spirit to do for us now precisely what Jesus did at the supper. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of "the words of institution" rather than "the words of consecration" (#1362). The action of the Holy Spirit empowers the words of Christ, spoken by the priest, to effect the real presence, under the appearances of bread and wine, of the Body and Blood of Christ.

It—s interesting that in almost all of the Eucharistic Prayers the words still make clear that the Eucharist was originally celebrated in the midst of an actual meal. After the words are said over the bread, the priest says: "When supper was ended, He took the cup." This is especially surprising, since the meal context of the Eucharist disappeared very early—probably in the first century—and the Eucharist became a ritual rather than an actual meal.

Is this tenacious retaining of the memory of a meal perhaps intended to tell us that all the meals we share should remind us of the Eucharist and of the fact that Christ is never absent from us when we gather in his name? This realization could give new meaning especially to family meals we share together.

The priest is instructed at this point to show the host and the cup to the people. In the 13th century, when people rarely took Communion, they wanted to see what they were no longer receiving. Since by this time the priest—s back was to the people, he had to raise the host and cup high over his head to show them to the people. Today, with the priest facing the people, it is no longer necessary for the priest to elevate the host and cup in order to show them to the people. (The rubric, the priest—s instruction, simply states, "He shows the consecrated host to the people, places it on the paten, and genuflects in adoration"; and, "He shows the chalice to the people." The elevation, as a sign of offering, comes properly at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, during the Final Doxology. At that point, the rubric states, "He takes the chalice and the paten with the host, and, lifting them up, sings or says, 'Through him, with him—'" [italics added]).

Memorial Acclamation. Immediately following the Institution Narrative, the deacon or the priest extends the invitation: "Let us proclaim the mystery of faith." Several proclamations may be used, each proclaiming the paschal mystery, namely, the whole plan of God realized in Christ—s death and resurrection and to be brought to completion in his return in glory. Here is one of the acclamations that may be used: "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again."

Remembering. God—s saving and liberating actions, accomplished in Christ, are remembered, not as past events, but as events that continue to accomplish their effects here and now. Remembering is not just a recalling of the past. It is making the past present in our midst. This bringing of the past into the present is what Jesus meant when he said: "Do this in memory of me." The words of remembrance vary from one Eucharistic Prayer to another, but there is always a remembrance of the Lord—s death and resurrection. Sometimes the ascension is mentioned. At times there is even a projection into the future, when Christ will come again.

Offering. All Eucharistic Prayers include an offering that is closely linked with the remembering. This is very clear and in its simplest form in Eucharistic Prayer II, in which the priest says: "In memory of his death and resurrection we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread, this saving cup."

Intercessions. In the first Eucharistic Prayer (formerly the Roman canon), there are intercessions before and after the Institution Narrative. In the new Eucharistic Prayers, they are joined to the Invocation of the Holy Spirit said over the people. There is a general request to share in the blessings of the eucharistic action and then specific remembrances for the Church, its ministers and members, as well as for the dead.

Thus, in the Eucharistic Prayer all of God—s creation is brought together—from the angels (in the Holy, Holy, Holy) to the good things of the earth, to the entire communion of saints. Hear Eucharistic Prayer II: "We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you. May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit.

"Lord, remember your Church throughout the world. Make us grow in love, together with John Paul our Pope, our bishop and all the clergy. Remember our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again. Bring them and all the departed into the light of your presence.

"Have mercy on us all; make us worthy to share eternal life, with Mary the virgin mother of God,— with the apostles, and with all the saints who have done your will throughout the ages. May we praise you in union with them, and give you glory through your Son, Jesus Christ."

Final Doxology. The Eucharistic Prayer concludes with a stirring expression of praise that permeates the entire Eucharistic Prayer. This concluding prayer is called the "Lesser Doxology" to distinguish it from the "Greater Doxology," which is the Gloria of the Mass. The doxology (statement of praise) summarizes the Eucharistic Prayer, which concludes as it began: The Church offers praise and glory to God. Note the formula that is used: to the Father (Abba) through Christ, the unique High Priest present in the midst of the assembled community, in the Holy Spirit by whose—action the twofold change (of the bread and wine and of the assembled people) has been effected: "Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, forever and ever."

Final Acclamation. An enthusiastic Amen places the seal of the community—s approval on all that has been said and done in the Eucharistic Prayer. The three acclamations of the people (the Holy, Holy acclamation of praise, the Memorial Acclamation, the Great Amen or final acclamation) make abundantly clear that the Eucharistic Prayer, while proclaimed by the priest, is yet the prayer of the entire assembly or, better still, the prayer of Christ and his people.

During the doxology and the final acclamation, the host and the cup are raised on high as a gesture of offering. This offering is the principal offering in the Eucharist, not what we used to call the offertory (the preparation of the gifts ceremony).

The Communion Rite: Our Yes to Christ

Lord—s Prayer. The Communion Rite begins with the Lord—s Prayer, moves into the sign of peace and concludes with the actual receiving by priest and people of the Body and Blood of the Lord. The Lord—s Prayer is a prayer of unselfish petition, as we pray for the full coming of God—s reign and express our need for God and our realization of the important role of forgiveness in building the Kingdom of God. The embolism ("Deliver us, Lord...," the prayer expanding the final petition of the Lord—s Prayer) asks for peace, for deliverance from sin and for protection from the anxiety that seems so prevalent among so many in today—s society.

Peace Prayer. This beautiful prayer, recalling Jesus— promise of peace to the fledgling community of his followers, asks the Lord to turn his gaze away from our sins and look kindly on our faith: "Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles: I leave you peace, my peace I give you. Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church,— and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom, where you live for ever and ever."

This moving prayer makes an important distinction between the Church and the Kingdom. Perfection is found only in the Kingdom, not in the Church. Throughout history the Church has at times been all too ready to identify the Church with the Kingdom. At such times we have ignored the clear teaching of this prayer: that the Church is the place of sin and faith. It is only the Kingdom that is the place of lasting peace and perfect unity. We pray for a taste of that Kingdom here on earth.

Sign of Peace. All are invited to exchange a sign of peace. While this often becomes a joyous moment of greeting others, we need to remember that its primary meaning is to be an expression of our need for forgiveness and our desire to receive it and give it to our sisters and brothers.

Communion. Following the "Lamb of God" prayer asking for God—s mercy, we receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.— It is important to remember that it is the whole Christ (Christ and the members of his Body) that we receive. Communion, therefore, is not a solitary experience in which we shut out all others except Christ. Our "Amen" to the eucharistic ministers— "The Body of Christ" is our "yes" to Christ and to all who are joined to him.

St. Augustine expresses well the living tradition of the Church when he says: "It is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your sacrament that you receive....You hear the words, 'the Body of Christ,' and respond 'Amen.' Be then a member of the Body of Christ that your Amen may be true." Thus, in the Communion we affirm a unity that already exists. We become the community we really are, but don—t always realize because it exists at a level of perception we do not always achieve.

Concluding Rites. After a brief period of reflection on what we have experienced, the Eucharist concludes quickly with the priest-presider—s blessing and the challenge to go forth and live what we have celebrated. The community that has gathered for the Eucharist now becomes the scattered community, as people strive to live out the challenges of the gospel in the varied ways of life to which God has called them. They bring Christ to the world but they also discover him there.

St. Augustine once closed a liturgy with these words: "I am about to lay aside this book, and you are soon going away, each to your own business. It has been good for us to share the common light, good to have enjoyed ourselves, good to have been glad together. When we part from one another, let us not depart from him."

William H. Shannon, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, is professor emeritus of history at Nazareth College, Rochester, New York. His books include The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Orbis Books) and —Something of a Rebel—: Thomas Merton, His Life and Works—An Introduction (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

NEXT: Cohabitation Before Marriage (by Joseph M. Champlin)

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