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Eucharistic Prayer for the Celebrant(s) Alone?

Why has the Eucharistic Prayer always been reserved to the celebrant/concelebrants? It is worded in first person plural, and so it might seem appropriate for everyone to join in, as in the Credo?
by Father Edward McNamara, LC | Source:

Q: In an earlier reply you mentioned that only the priest should say or sing the final doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer. This leads to a further question -- one perhaps not so much of liturgy in the narrow sense as of theology of the sacraments: Why has the Eucharistic Prayer always been reserved to the celebrant/concelebrants? It is worded in first person plural, and so it might seem appropriate for everyone to join in, as in the Credo? -- G.G., Emmitsburg, Maryland

A: From the historical perspective, the fact that this prayer has always been reserved to the priest is confirmed by solid evidence and so it appears to be a constant tradition of the Church.

There is some fragmentary evidence form earliest times but the clearest witness to this practice is St. Justin Martyr who around the year 150 wrote a description of the Mass in which the "president of the assembly" is described as making a lengthy prayer of thanksgiving ("Eucharist" in Greek) over the gifts of bread and wine.

Although the prayer is not yet a fixed text it is clear that only the "president" says it while the people say "Amen" at the end.

To attempt to explain the motives for this reservation I will begin by using another ancient text: the Anaphora of St. Hippolytus of Rome, composed around 220.

This is the earliest known written text for a Eucharistic Prayer and forms the basis for the present Roman Missal's Second Eucharistic Prayer.

The final doxology of this prayer has a variation, not incorporated in the modern text, but which can enlighten us. It says: "Through ... Jesus Christ, through whom be to you (the Father) glory and honor, with the Holy Spirit in the holy Church both now and forever and ever. Amen."

The incision which interests us is the expression "in the holy Church." This expression shows that the honor and glory offered to God through Christ and with the Holy Spirit can only be fully achieved in the Church.

This ecclesial dimension helps us grasp the reason why the Eucharistic Prayer is reserved to the priest.

The celebrant, in saying the Eucharistic Prayer, is acting at the same time in the person of the Church and in the person of Christ.

In acting in the person of the Church he does not simply represent the actual assembly, but the entire Church.

In acting in the person of Christ the priest makes it possible for the present assembly to exercise the common priesthood of the faithful and thus to unite themselves in heart and mind to Christ, as he offers his perfect sacrifice to the Father and who allows us to share in this sacrifice.

This common priesthood of the faithful is a true priesthood, and no mere metaphor. This is why the priest says "Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice (literally, "my sacrifice and yours" -- "meum ac vestrum") be acceptable to God ..."

Yet this priesthood cannot be genuinely exercised except in communion with the ministerial priesthood acting in the person of Christ and the Church. And indeed, one of the primary purposes of the ministerial priesthood is to facilitate the exercise of the common priesthood.

Without this communion the liturgy ceases, in a way, to be an act of the Church, for the concrete assembly is a manifestation of the Church, but is not the Church itself.

Thus the priest, in saying the Eucharistic Prayer alone, but in always using the first person plural, expresses this double aspect of acting in the person of Christ and of the Church. Through the priest's acting in the person of Christ, in a way Christ himself acts in the person of the Church in saying the Eucharistic Prayer.

In other words, Christ himself, as head of his body, the Church, says the Eucharistic Prayer, and says it in first person plural because while, on the one hand, only he can offer the Eucharist, he associates his whole body -- all the faithful -- with him in doing so.

Another consequence of this communion in the whole Church is that we are all engaged in every Mass said anywhere.

This can be seen in some elements of the prayer itself. For example, the intercessions of the first two Eucharistic Prayers contain the expression "una cum" -- "together with N. our Pope and N. our Bishop" (although the same Latin expression is translated differently in the two prayers).

This "together with" is not just a praying-for but a praying-with by which we are united through the celebrating priest to the bishop and through him to the Pope and the universal Church.

From these theological reflections, we can see that if the particular assembly were to join in saying the Eucharistic Prayer it would obscure the beauty of the Eucharistic mystery.

In the first place, it would obscure the reality of ecclesial communion by reducing the prayer to an act of those who happen to be present and not an act of the whole Church. The Church not only extends beyond all political frontiers but breaks the bonds of space and time so as to enter into the realm of the communion of saints.

Second, it would cast a shadow over the reality that Christ himself is drawing us into his prayer of self-offering to the Father. This allows us to exercise the baptismal priesthood that is itself his gift to us and through which we receive the capacity to share in the mystery of his passion, death and resurrection.

Finally, the common recitation might also bring us to forget that since both the common priesthood and its exercise is a gift of grace. We are not equal partners with Christ but beneficiaries of his love.

These are not the only reasons, and the theme merits more than one treatises. My only hope is that I have not committed a sin of presumption in trying to do justice to such a mystery, not only by treating it so briefly, but in trying to explain it in the first place.

* * *

Follow-up: Should Lectors Sit in the Pews?

In line with our June 22 column, several readers asked for other clarifications regarding lectors.

One reader asked about the use of non-Catholic or even non-Christian lectors. We dealt with this point in an earlier reply (Dec. 2).

Others asked if it is appropriate for children, or for those who have not received confirmation, to act as readers.

In weekday Masses specifically celebrated for young children using the special lectionary and missal prepared for this purpose, children may be assigned the task of reader (see Nos. 24 and 47 of the Directory for Masses with Children).

In other Masses, however, especially on a Sunday, the introduction to the lectionary (No. 52) says that when there are no instituted lectors, "Proper measures must therefore be taken to ensure that there are certain suitable laypeople who have been trained to carry out this ministry. Whenever there is more than one reading, it is better to assign the readings to different readers, if available."

This would imply that in general these other lay readers should be adults, although an articulate adolescent could probably also be assigned.

It is important to choose the readers well, out of respect for the God's Word and the dignity of the celebration, but also out of respect for the assembly so that the clarity of diction assists them in understanding and embracing the divine message.

Confirmation is not strictly demanded in order to serve as a supplementary reader. But it is required for an instituted lector.

Still, it is good to choose readers from those who have completed Christian initiation through the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.

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