Preparing for Mass with Thanksgiving

For priests, as well as the congregation, preparation and thanksgiving prior to Mass is key. The Church in her prayerbook for the Eucharist suggests it, and yet it is not typical of our practice - or at least mine and maybe yours.
by Gerald Dennis Gill | Source: Catholic.net
Three experiences come together as the incentive for this article. Each of these three separately spoke a similar message to me in different ways. Together they give powerful force to a practice that has been weak in my life and possibly in the lives of many other priests.

During the winter and spring of last year I had the opportunity to concelebrate the Holy Eucharist with our Holy Father in his chapel. I have heard about these celebrations over the years and have seen pictures of other priests gathered for these weekday morning Masses with the Pope.

However, no description or photo left me with the profound impression of what I witnessed before and after these two Masses with the Holy Father as priest-celebrant.

In all honesty, the actual celebration of the liturgy on both occasions was not as I would have liked it to be. There was a high degree of reverence and awe on the part of the participants. However, liturgically "things" were missing that could have easily been in place. For me as a student of the liturgy this is a constant distraction to overcome. The Pope today is so terribly labored in his movements that this too became another distraction. All of this quickly disappears as I recall the time before and after the Eucharist.

Both times when we arrived for the morning Mass, after taking a few moments to vest for the liturgy, the Holy Father was already in the chapel positioned at his kneeler in prayer. Yes, he was on his knees with a body that presently resists movement. This was not a hasty prayer before Mass. This was the routine of a well-formed habit of preparation for the Holy Eucharist. It was not long before this sense of prayerful preparation caught up with all those who were gathering in the chapel for Mass. It became an intense, focused, and communal experience of preparation.

In much the same way, when the Mass had ended the Holy Father, assisted with the removal of the Mass vestments, began another period of prayer. Those of us in the chapel joined him, and again by example and association, it was an intense, focused, and communal experience of thanksgiving. These periods of reflection before and after Mass were not at the expense of the significant moments of silence during the liturgy itself. The prescribed and appropriate times of silence during the celebration had taken place.

Who is the priest in the celebration of the Liturgy? He is a presence of Christ.

The second experience is much different. In the context of a recent course on the Liturgical Books of the Roman Rite, the students were asked to make a comparison of sections of the Missale Romanum of 1570 and 1970/75. A part of this assignment was to look at the prayers identified as "Prepa- ration for Mass" and "Thanksgiving after Mass" and present a sketch of what was contained in the former Missal and what is found in the present Missale Romanum. The project was interesting on many accounts, but in this case it drew my attention to these prayers. I was aware of them but really had never made use of them. In a casual survey among a few other priests, I discovered some were not even aware of them after many years of priesthood and regular use of the Sacramentary!

The third experience is one I am sure is shared by many. This past Christmas I was a concelebrant at the Midnight Mass for Christmas. The sacristy scene became typical of many a parish church. There were lots of people gathering in an already too small place - the sacristans, servers, leader of songs, readers, special ministers of Communion, the head celebrant and myself. The altar servers, and many others, were receiving last minute instructions for the solemn celebration to begin shortly. Who carries the Gospel Book? Is there an incensing of the altar at the beginning of Mass? Questions like these seemed to be addressed to everyone in the room.

The congregation, meanwhile, was quietly gathering into the dimly lit church and settling into pews to the sound of delightful organ music. The nativity scene was in view. The character of the Midnight Mass brings people together, ahead of Mass time, who are looking forward to this night hour Eucharist. The sacristy was "abuzz" and the nave was arrested by the charm of the environment, seeming to prepare for the celebration of the liturgy. This situation is not altogether removed from the Sunday morning sacristy.

Now, you are asking, what about these three experiences ties them together? They all say something about preparation and thanksgiving prayer surrounding the Eucharist. The experience of preparation and thanksgiving makes a difference. The Church in her prayerbook for the Eucharist suggests it, and yet it is not typical of our practice - or at least mine and maybe yours.

Today, it is popular to speak of the faithful´s need to prepare for the Eucharist. In fact, pastoral liturgists suggest that the gathering for the Sunday assembly should begin long before the Entrance Procession and Hymn. As people ready themselves and their families for the Sunday Eucharist in their homes, they should be preparing for Mass. This thought is in accord with the Church´s conviction that the Eucharist is the "source and summit" of all we do, and it deserves attentive preparation (cf. Lumen Gentium, 11). And yes, it is true that the priest-celebrant is part of the ecclesia, the gathered ones, for the Eucharist and much the same could be said about his preparation. However, this is not enough for the priest! This is not a question of any old distinctions about levels of holiness and is much more than a discussion of roles in the liturgy between the ordained and the faithful. It is the profound understanding in faith of who the priest is in the celebration of the liturgy. He is a presence of Christ!

The relationship of the priest to the faithful in the Eucharist is like Christ to the Church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes the teaching of several documents of the Second Vatican Council on this very point in "The Celebration of the Christian Mystery," Article 6, The Sacrament of Holy Orders. Number 1548 summarizes this point of the priest as a presence of Christ, with references to Saint Thomas and Pope Pius XII:
In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis:
It is the same priest, Christ Jesus, whose sacred person his minister truly represents. Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself (virtute ac persona ipsius Christi) (Pius XII, encyclical, Mediator Dei, n. 39, 1947).

Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a figure of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ (Saint Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 22, 4c).

Some priests today may not like to hear such talk. It may seem too distant from contemporary language about the Sunday Eucharistic assembly. This is the Faith and tradition of the Church, old and new, which must give shape to the celebrant´s relationship to the Eucharistic celebration.

The Second Vatican Council is not shy when it brings to the present context of the Church a presentation of the ministerial priesthood. Lumen Gentium (no. 28) says of priests:

By virtue of the sacrament of Orders, they are consecrated in the image of Christ, the supreme and eternal priest (see Heb 5:1-10; 7:24; 9:11-28), to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful as well as to celebrate divine worship as true priests of the New Testaments. On the level of their own ministry sharing in the unique office of Christ, the mediator (see 1 Tim 2:5), they announce to everyone the Word of God.

However, it is above all in the Eucharistic worship or assembly of the faithful that they exercise their sacred functions. Then, acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming his mystery, they unite the prayers of the faithful to the sacrifice of Christ their head, and in the sacrifice of the Mass they make present again and apply, until the coming of the Lord (see 1 Cor 11:26), the unique sacrifice of the New Testament, Christ offering himself once and for all as an unblemished victim to the Father (see Heb 9:11-28).

Thus, it is who the priest is in the celebration of the liturgy, especially the Sacramental Sacrifice, that the Church speaks of his unique and personal relationship to the celebration of the Eucharist. The relationship of the priest to the faithful in the Eucharist is like Christ to the Church. It is the Lord who calls us to offer thanksgiving to the Father through the priest. It is the Lord who gathers his people through the priest. It is the Lord who speaks and reveals his Word through the priest. It is the Lord who floods the gifts offered and the assembly with his Spirit to become both his Eucharistic Body and Blood, and his Body, the gathered Church, through the priest. It is the Lord who commissions us in the service of one another through the leadership of the priest.

The orientation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal that introduces the Missale Romanum 1970/75 provides a theological and pastoral understanding of the Eucharist as the celebration of the Church. This rereading of the tradition, authorized by the Second Vatican Council´s Sacrosanctum Concilium (no. 26) that the liturgy belongs to the whole body, the Church, is not prejudiced by the unique role of the priest-celebrant. In fact, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal articulates what the Council had already received and subsequently repeated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Pertinent articles from the General Instruction follow:

At Mass or the Lord´s Supper, the people of God are called together, with a priest presiding and acting in the person of Christ, to celebrate the memorial of the Lord or eucharistic sacrifice. For this reason Christ´s promises applies supremely to such a local gathering together of the Church: "Where two or three come together in my name, there am I in their midst" (Mt 18:20). For at the celebration of Mass, which perpetuates the sacrifice of the cross, Christ is really present to the assembly gathered in his name; he is present in the person of the minister, in his own word, and indeed substantially and permanently under the eucharistic elements (GIRM, no. 7).

Within the community of believers, the presbyter is another who possesses the power of orders to offer sacrifice in the person of Christ. He therefore presides over the assembly and leads its prayer, proclaims the message of salvation, joins the people to himself in offering the sacrifice to the Father through Christ in the Spirit, gives them the bread of eternal life, and shares in it with them. At the eucharist he should, then, serve God and the people with dignity and humility; by his bearing and by the way he recites the words of the liturgy he should communicate to the faithful a sense of the living presence of Christ (GIRM, no. 60).

The intercession of Mary is sought so she will bring about the praise of the Holy Trinity.

In a very interesting way - and as an aside -the inaudible prayers of the priest-celebrant during the Mass serve as reminders of his unique work in the celebration both as a presence of the Lord and acting in the person of the Lord. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal calls attention to these prayers for the priest so "that he may exercise his ministry with attention and devotion" (GIRM, no. 13).

Take for example the following prayers offered by the priest-celebrant at different moments during the Eucharistic celebration:
* The prayer offered as he prepares to proclaim the gospel and preach: "Almighty God, cleanse my heart and my lips that I may worthily proclaim your gospel."
* And as he washes his hands: "Lord, wash away my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin."
* And before he receives the body and blood of Christ: "May the body (blood) of Christ bring me to everlasting life."
* If he is the one to cleanse the vessels, he says: "Lord, may I receive these gifts in purity of heart. May they bring me healing and strength, now and forever"

These personal prayers of the priest-celebrant are not simply remnants of the former rite or part of a dated understanding of the ministerial priesthood. They assist the one presiding at the Eucharist to know his unique role in the celebration of the liturgy as priest. The priest-celebrant leads, teaches, and serves the assembly acting in the person of Christ as a presence of Christ! There is, of course, so much more that is said by the Church and could be said in this context to emphasize the distinctive character of the priest in the liturgy.

These inaudible prayers combined with the context of the larger theological picture illustrate why the priest-celebrant should continue or consider the practice of preparation and thanksgiving surrounding the celebration of the Eucharist. Such prayerful preparation and thanksgiving does not isolate his role in the liturgy; rather, it promotes a clearer comprehension of his unique and personal relationship to the Eucharist.

Let´s take another look at the prayers mentioned in the Sacramentary. First of all, where are they? They are in Appendix I in the present ICEL English language books. They are also part of the appendix in the Latin editio typica altera. The placement of these prayers in the reformed Missale Romanum says something about them. At least it is a suggestion of the practice of a prayerful preparation and thanksgiving surrounding the Holy Eucharist. The prayers, worthy in and of themselves, act also as models and expressions of what a preparation and thanksgiving on the part of the priest-celebrant might be like. It is not surprising when the place of the priest-celebrant is properly understood in the celebration of the liturgy that these prayers confirm in words of preparation and thanksgiving his personal disposition and participation in the Eucharist.

Some examples of these thoughts from the prayers for Preparation for Mass suggest older forms of piety, perhaps. Yet, they bring a wider tradition than the current moment to assist the faith and devotion of the priest-celebrant. There is no doubt - as in the "Prayer of Saint Ambrose" - that the need for God´s mercy as we do his work and the traditional association of the Eucharistic Sacrifice with our on-going redemption speaks to every Christian, every priest, in all times.

The Statement of Intention carries the aspirations found in the "Prayer of Saint Thomas Aquinas" and the "Prayer to the Virgin Mary." The Statement of Intention reads in part:

My purpose is to celebrate Mass and to make present the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the rite of the holy Roman Church to the praise of our all-powerful God and all his assembly in the glory of heaven, and for my good and the good of all his pilgrim Church on earth, and for all who have asked me to pray for them in general and particular, and for the good of the holy Roman Church.

This Statement recognizes the role of the priest-celebrant as servant of the liturgy itself, leading the worship of God for his praise and the benefit of the assembly, which is the constant work of the Church. The "Prayer of Saint Thomas" eloquently unfolds the faith of the Church in the real presence of the Sacrament that the priest-celebrant alone can bring about as he leads the assembly through the Eucharist and takes them into the Sacred Mysteries. The intercession of Mary is sought so that her prayer will bring the rightful praise of the Holy Trinity in the offering of the Eucharist.

Again after Mass the "Prayer of Saint Thomas" elaborates what is often found in the "Prayer after Communion." The priest at prayer petitions that Holy Communion will be his aid in so many of the demands of the Christian life and lead to even greater intimacy with the Lord. The brief "Prayer to our Redeemer," "Prayer of Self-Dedication to Jesus Christ" and "Prayer to Jesus Cruci- fied" dramatically demonstrate faith in the passion and death of the Savior and our invitation to share in it.

A continuing participation in the death of the Lord brings to the priest, to all Christians, both the power and the hope of the resurrection. Thus, "The Universal Prayer (Attributed to Pope Clement XI)" mentions a variety of moments when the priest-celebrant, caught in the wonder of the Paschal Mystery, surrenders in thanksgiving for the Lord´s generous grace and presence. Finally, the words of thanksgiving are joined to the voice of Mary whose intercession assists the Church through the action of the priest to worship the Blessed Trinity. This might be the moment to open the Sacramentary and examine more closely these prayers!

Taking time to consider prayer of preparation and thanksgiving surrounding the celebration of the Eucharist awakens a consideration of prayer itself in the priest´s life and ministry. This is a topic that is always fresh. Pope John Paul II, in his ad limina address to the bishops from Michigan and Ohio, spoke on the connection between the priest´s ministry and the spiritual life (L´Osservatore Romano, no. 21, May 27, 1998). The Holy Father gave the Second Vatican Council´s Lumen Gentium, specifically number 28, which we have previously cited, as the context for his remarks. This section of Lumen Gentium profiles the priest, who consecrated in the image of Christ and acting in the person of Christ, shares in the work of the bishop to sanctify the People of God and hand on the Faith.

Repeating the 1994 Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests (no. 6), John Paul II said that "the priest must be conscious that his life is a mystery totally grafted on to the mystery of Christ and of the Church in a new and specific way, and that this engages him totally in pastoral activity."

The mystery of Christ and of the Church is most excellently present in the celebration of the Eucharist. So, it seems all the more important that the priest-celebrant give himself the occasion to prepare and to give thanks in prayer for the celebration of the Mass. The Holy Father concludes his remarks to the bishops on priests, as men of prayer like Christ himself, with an important bit of advice - before hands go up with excuses:
Indeed, prayer for the needs of the Church and the individual faithful is so important that serious thought should be given to reorganizing priestly and parish life to ensure that priests have time to devote to this essential task, individually and in common. Liturgical and personal prayer, not the tasks of management, must define the rhythms of a priest´s life, even in the busiest of parishes (L´Osservatore Romano, no. 21, May 27, 1998).

This advice also brings the priest to review a consciousness of his central role in the life of the Church and of his own ministry. He is most fully and obviously a priest - acting in the person of Christ as a presence of Christ in the celebration of the liturgy in a most unique way in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Could the overall celebration of the sacred mysteries "improve" for everyone, priest and faithful, with greater attentiveness to the encounter with God that the liturgy celebrates by a new sense of preparation and thanksgiving? What would happen to the priest´s understanding of his unique place in the liturgy and the style and focus of the liturgy if he surrounded his own participation by some preparation and thanksgiving? What does such a value and practice as preparation and thanksgiving surrounding the Eucharist introduce to a greater realization for priest and people of the liturgy as "source and summit" of the Christian life?

Reprinted with permission from Sacerdos Magazine. All rights reserved.



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