The Roman Canon isn’t Simply One of Four Options

There are few elements of the Holy Mass more venerable than the Roman Canon, also known as Eucharistic Prayer I in the Ordinary Form.  Writing a few years back about this very topic, Fr. David Friel (Views from the Choir Loft) noted:

The Roman Canon, by virtue of its universal and nearly unaltered usage over nearly 1500 years, holds a unique and venerable place among the canons and, as such, is not just one among several equal options. It is the only Canon that liturgical directives say “may always be used” (GIRM 365a).

Fr. Friel, contrasting the Canon with the other options of Eucharistic Prayers II, III, & IV, writes:

Eucharistic Prayer IV has limitations for when it can be used, on account of its proper preface.  Eucharistic Prayer III is most apt for memorials of saints, and Eucharistic Prayer II is specifically not recommended for use on Sundays and other solemnities and feasts. These are not my personal categorizations of the four major canons, but rather the norms given in Chapter VII of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

This is a liturgical discussion which receives far too little consideration at times. The Canon is over fifteen centuries old. It dates back to the sixth century, was already in place by the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great, and has always been considered the pinnacle of the Mass itself.  

In his classic work, Explanation of the Prayers and Ceremonies of Holy Mass, the great French Benedictine liturgist Dom Prosper Gueranger instructs:

This Prayer has received the name of Canon Missae, that is to say, Rule of the Mass, because it is this portion which essentially constitutes the Mass: it may be well termed the Mass by excellence.

It’s important to revisit this topic.  The recovery of our Catholic identity and tradition, the restoration of the sacred, first and foremost is a liturgical discussion. 

While the Roman Canon is the only option in the Extraordinary Form Mass, it has largely disappeared from the Ordinary Form. Outside of Christmas and Easter, there are many parishes where Eucharistic Prayer I is seldom if ever used, despite what the GIRM instructs.  

The greater use of Eucharistic Prayer I can be argued for on the merit of its antiquity alone. Consider the following:

  • The Roman Canon, nearly identical to what it is today, dates back to the 400’s or 500’s AD.
  • Compare this with the Canon of Scripture, the Church’s authoritative declaration of which sacred books comprise the Old and New Testaments, which dates back to the councils of Hippo (393AD) and Carthage (397 & 419AD) respectively. 
  • About the same time the Church definitively declared the Virgin Mary to be the Mother of God (Theotokos/God bearer) at the Council of Ephesus in 431AD.  
  • Finally, the Rule of St. Benedict, that foundational document of western monasticism, was written sometime in the mid 500’s.  

    This then is the same time period from which we have received the Roman Canon in its present form. 

    Consider that for a moment.  

    When a priest offers the Holy Mass, and speaks the very words found in Eucharistic Prayer I, he is addressing God just as Holy Mother Church has done for well over a millennium and a half. How then do we not extend a similar deference to the Roman Canon as we do other developments and declarations of comparable age?

    A common argument made by some against the use of Eucharistic Prayer I is its length. At approximately 800 words EP I is more than double the length of the more commonly used EP II. However, as Fr. Friel’s previously referenced article notes, the additional words only extend Mass by two minutes. Two minutes.  That’s it.  

    If this is truly the argument made by some against using the venerable Canon…that an extra two minutes trumps fifteen centuries of tradition and continuity…then one begins to fully grasp the depth of this liturgical crisis we are currently experiencing.

    Thankfully we are beginning to see a naturally developing solution to this underway.  

    Many priests formed and influenced by the papacy of Benedict XVI are simply choosing to recite EP I at all of the Sunday masses they offer.  No need for conferences, appeals to Rome, or bulletin inserts.  They are simply opting for Eucharistic Prayer I.  

    As many of these priests have a greater familiarity with the Traditional Mass, there is a deeper appreciation for reestablishing this continuity between the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar liturgies.  

    Amid all of the “liturgical wars” fought within the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite: altar boys or altar girls, the greater use of Latin and Chant, and the liturgical direction of the priest (ad orientem or versus populum)…the celebrant’s decision to exclusively restore the timeless Roman Canon as part of the Mass is relatively free of controversy.

    Pray that we continue to see this return to tradition among our priests when offering the Holy Mass.  Pray that more of the faithful, clergy and laity alike, come to realize that the Roman Canon isnt simply one of four options, but is indeed “the Mass by excellence.”

    Posted on August 14, 2016, in liturgy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

    1. Beautifully stated. Thank you!.

    2. It is a beautiful prayer and needs to be used more frequently and reverently. He writes that it adds two minutes to Mass. Why not five? How can we be comfortable treating our prayer and God, to whom it is addressed, as a “time sensitive” action or a liturgical sound bite?

    3. An excellent post, as usual. However, just to add a bit of historical perspective, the need to get through Mass as quickly as possible is not a post-Vatican II phenomenon. Prior to the Council, priests were not taught the ‘ars celebrandi’. The emphasis was on properly executing the rubrics and the Mass was seen by many priests as a string of texts and motions to be gotten through in order to ‘confect’ the Eucharist. The Low Mass [without music] was the only form of Roman Rite Mass most Catholics knew. And THAT is a state that goes back to Medieval times and the abuse of the stipend system: unfortunately, one of the abuses that set off the Protestant Reformation.
      The hopeful sign mentioned at the end of your post is something I likewise have observed. As my pastor (a convert who formerly was an Episcopalian minister) has pointed out, we had to lose everything in order to regain it and resurrect the original goals of the late 19th-early 20th century Liturgical Movement. The Movement’s goal never was to REPLACE the Roman liturgy with a committee-fabricated rite. Rather, it was to educate the laity about their liturgical heritage, encourage the congregation to join in on the simple responses of the Traditional Latin Mass/TLM, restore the primacy of Gregorian Chant and make the SUNG liturgy normative. In other words, what you find in parishes like this:
      Or this:

    4. I use the Roman Canon over 90% of the time. I can finish a daily Mass with a homily and singing some parts in25 – 30 min. It is rare that a Mass needs to be shorter than that.

      On Sundays with a longer homily and more singing using a shorter EP would create a disproportion. We are Catholics, the homily should not be much longer than the EP. Our liturgy is the Holy Sacrifice not a sermon. EP II creates the opposite impression.

    5. I live in Dallas and have attended different parishes. I recently visited churches in Minnesota and New Jersey. I watch EWTN’s mass often. Out of all of these experiences only one priest on EWTN uses Eucharistic prayer 1 and even then he alternates its use.

      I’ve attended Mass with good orthodox priests but they don’t use eucharistic prayer 1. I don’t understand why eucharistic prayer number one is almost never used by priests these days. Could it be direction from the bishop not to use Eucharistic prayer number one? I don’t know for sure this is just speculation but I don’t even understand this. If I were a priest I would want to use Eucharistic prayer number one for all the reasons stated in the above article.

    6. So I was just told starting with the New Year, anyone not hearing the gospel, cannot receive communion..Now does that mean if not in time for gospel you have missed mass and must go to confession before receiving at the next mass ?

      • christopher schaefer

        Actually this is what we were taught when I was a child, back in the 1950s: if not there for the Gospel you’ve officially “missed Mass”. I should add that this was a time when a very “legalistic” mindset dominated everything–including the manner in which Mass was celebrated. Much of the liturgical abuse we’ve witness over the past 50 years was a reaction against such. Today many younger priests who did not live through such times are able to appreciate our authentic liturgical tradition as prayer and a gift preserved for us over the centuries: a gift which itself preserves the Faith.

    7. Thank you for this information. I wasn’t aware of it. This is truly important given the history and the depth of the meaning of this prayer.

    8. I use the Roman Canon 100% of the time, but I do receive a bit of pushback now and then, particularly over using it at school or psr masses “because know your audience.” It’s never the kids themselves who complain, though…

      • “It’s never the kids themselves who complain” – bingo. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

    9. Sadly many many priests on Sundays habitually use EP II, I suppose for it’s brevity.

    10. Objections to the overuse of this Canon of the Mass are NOT about the length but to the cultural relevance of using an prayer 1500 years old/and older I agree, that does not speak to the universal …i.e. non-European church and that callls out a bunch of unknown Saints of the region, and none from Northern Europe, Africa, North or South America, Asia, the Russian sphere, etc. None since the 5th century…none we can know or emulate.. This is NOT evangelization!!

      • JMoore, why does the Eucharistic Prayer have to be made ‘relevant’ to the people who are listening by including modern saints? All the saints are ‘relevant’ to us, and if they are from the earliest ages of the Church, they belong to us all. I think there’s something essentially flawed in your reasoning here; a kind of chronological snobbery. Someone lived and died for Christ… a long time ago. Thus he or she is utterly irrelevant now? If you don’t know the saints from the early era of the Church… ummm… who’s fault is that? If they died for their faith – suddenly we can’t emulate that, but we can emulate the same faith in someone who died for his faith in our era? Also, you seem to have a narrow viewpoint, not taking into account the cultural challenges of the universal Church, which in many places in the world are experiencing the same kind of growth and the same cultural challenges as the early Church, and thus can find saints of the first five centuries a great deal MORE approachable than… well, I don’t know which saints you canonize as knowable or capable of emulation based on the century in which they lived. Many of the early female martyrs died because they placed their Christianity above obedience to their father’s demands for an arranged marriage with a non-Christian. Arranged and even forced marriage of women still exists all over the world – including among Catholic women. When I speak to women from certain countries in Africa, and tell them about how the earliest Christian female martyrs claimed their sovereignty as free in Christ to choose their own spouse (or none at all), those women’s eyes sparkle and they hold their heads a little bit higher – nobody told them that they are not their father’s or husband’s possession to be disposed of as he sees fit (usually for a bride-price). The saints are saints because they lived (and died) for Christ. They don’t have to live in our century for us to know them or emulate them.
        The Church is universal not because in our time or in this or that country, but because it is made by God, and thus it is the only ‘-ism’ that can accommodate people of any time, place, culture or condition of life (unlike man-made ‘isms’ like communism or relativism, or feminism, etc.). It is the GOSPEL, life in Christ, the Sacraments, that are God-given for the life of human beings. And the entire patrimony of the Church belongs to all of us, from the beginning – yes, even from the first five centuries. It’s not a bad thing for people to be reminded of their ancient roots as the Family of God. (It’s a peculiarly American quirk not to remember one’s ancestors more than a couple of generations back, but in many parts of the world, people can invoke the names of their ancestors going back centuries – why shouldn’t the Church do the same? All cultures honor their founding ‘heroes’ – why shouldn’t the Church do the same?)
        Suggesting that one can or should only invoke modern saints or saints from particular countries kind of rules out invoking the saints in any mission territory: can’t invoke any ‘western’ saints in the east; can’t suggest as worthy of emulation any northern saints in the south; and can’t invoke or suggest for emulation any saints born before, let’s say, your grandparents. Well, if the entire culture is non-Christian, which saints are you going to mention, then?
        By your logic, we should never mention the 12 Apostles or the early Church Fathers, because, well… they died a long time ago, and besides, they didn’t come from around here.

      • JMoore, you might want to re-read the saints mentioned in the Roman Canon. (It is possible to look them up online, as I just have done, though many of them should be well-known to any Catholic who has been paying attention.) Calling them ‘European’ is stretching geography a bit in some cases. The Apostles mentioned were not ‘European,’ but of course Jews from the Middle East. Included are several popes – kind of useful, because they are the immediate successors of Peter, which helps us all to know that the papacy didn’t stop with Peter and there is a line of succession that was preserved. We have a bishop from Carthage – which the Tunisians would be surprised, I suppose, to find out (from you) is part of Europe. Chrysoganus was apparently a lay catechist (as a lay catechist myself, I can relate to him and hope to emulate him at least in being holy). Cosmas and Damian are revered in both the western and eastern Churches (that includes Russia, in case you don’t have a world map handy; there is a church under their patronage in Moscow, which is in Russia) as doctors who offered their services without taking money – of course, we don’t have doctors anymore, making them irrelevant as a model today. Ignatius is from Antioch (modern Turkey – not considered by Europeans to be Europe, by the way). There’s Alexander, from Egypt. Felicity was a pregnant slave-girl (maybe no unprotected, disadvantaged pregnant women in your area? But there are definitely slaves in the world today who might find her faith in the face of martyrdom worthy of emulation). We have Agatha, who, if you bothered to look her up, would reveal herself to be one often called upon by women with breast cancer; Lucy, invoked against eye-trouble, Cecilia, well-known to all church musicians… Then of course, there is ‘and all your Saints,’ which includes anybody you care to think about.

        I suggest that if you believe ‘we’ cannot ‘know’ or emulate these saints, it’s because your education has been lacking, not because they are unknown to modern people or irrelevant or because we cannot either emulate them or call on them for intercession.

        Further, perhaps if you attended a devotion with the litany of the saints, you would notice that not only does the Church recall her most ancient models of the faith, but that it’s also licit to include local saints. Where I live (not the US, deo gratias), perhaps half a dozen saints from the history of this country are added to the litany of the saints, as well as the prominent saints of religious orders when the litany of the saints is chanted in their churches or oratories.

        Anyway, who is supposed to be ‘evangelized’ during Mass by the Eucharistic prayer? Perhaps Catholics who know nothing about the saints or the early Church (or world geography?) or Catholic history, who might just ask themselves, ‘Who are all those people the priest mentioned?’ and go and look them up and learn something of their ancient faith?

    1. Pingback: The Roman Canon isn’t Simply One of Four Options – sanctusdominusdeus

    2. Pingback: How a recent article on the “gift” of the Liturgical Reform gets so much wrong | liturgy guy

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