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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.”

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