Context of the Roman Canon

By Will Wright, (c) 2020

What is a Canon and Why it Matters?

The Catholic Church has a reputation as being a stickler for rules. “Do this.” “Do not do this.” “You can never do that.” “You can do this sometimes.” “You have to say this.” “You cannot possibly say that!” “Kneel now.” “No, it is time to stand up.” It can all be a bit overwhelming, especially if you do not know what is going on at Holy Mass. For two thousand years, the Church of Jesus Christ has had these rules. Why is that? Why is so much structure necessary? Can we not just gather together and worship God in freedom?

This is where the main problem rests. We believe that the rules impede our freedom. We believe that they are like ropes tied around our restless souls. In fact, these rules are what allow us the ability to be truly free. Instead of being rules, the structures and guides that the Church has placed in our lives are guardrails which protect us from error and misunderstandings. When it comes to the worship of God, the consequence is simple. With the guardrails, we worship God as He desires and we are formed to be more like Him. Without the guardrails, we descend into a form of self-worship where our tastes mean more than what God has established and continues to guide and guard.

In the context of the Roman Rite, there is nothing more important to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass than the Roman Canon. The Roman Canon is the beating heart of the Mass. In the Roman Canon, we have the powerful calling down of the Holy Spirit, the words of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, the coming present once more of the Holy Cross, the living once more of the Resurrection, and many prayers of intercession for the whole world.

Canon is a Greek word which means measuring rod. It is the universal standard by which to measure everything else. The Roman Canon is therefore the fixed standard to which all other Eucharistic Prayers in the Roman Rite must conform. Currently, in the Roman Rite, there are a handful of Eucharistic Prayers, but there is only one Roman Canon. As we continue to proceed through the Roman Canon, we will come to understand and appreciate the remarkable wisdom and beauty of this ancient prayer of the Roman Church.

The Church is our Mother and the Roman Canon is Her loving embrace and sweet words of consolation and intercession for our spiritual and physical good. The Roman Canon, handed down through the ages, safeguards what the Church teaches, what She believes, and what She Herself is. Our own adherence to this standard gives life, it does not impede our freedom. As obedient sons and daughters of the Church, may we never take for granted the gifts that we have been given.

Besides being a practical guide for any other adapted Eucharistic Prayers, the Roman Canon is a model for our own personal prayer life. There is an absolute treasure trove of truth contained in the Roman Canon which teaches us, convicts us, informs us, reminds us, and focuses us. Everything is about Jesus Christ. The Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is His prayer to the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit. By conforming ourselves to this standard, we become more conformed to Jesus Christ Himself, “the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2).”

Brief History of the Roman Canon

The Roman Canon is essentially one long prayer with various parts. There is disagreement among scholars as to what ought to be included in the Roman Canon and what is technically separate. Of course, it is all part of the greater unified prayer which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Historically speaking, we need to ask where the Roman Canon began?

The best place to begin is with our Blessed Mother Mary. Upon learning that she is to be the mother of Jesus, she responds to St. Gabriel saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word (Lk 1:38).” To whose word is she referring? Is it God’s word? Is it Gabriel’s word? Of course, it is the word of God given to Mary through the instrument of Gabriel. The Church, like Gabriel, is an instrument of the word of God. From the beginning of Church, the model of Gabriel and Mary have been active. Like Gabriel, the Church faithfully transmits what has been given to Her by God. Like Mary, those in the Church respond faithfully with a heart of service.

The Eucharistic Prayer has always been the heart of the Holy Mass. In it, the priest is the instrument of Jesus Christ, our one High Priest, transforming ordinary bread and wine into the Holy Eucharist. In the Eucharistic Prayer, the members of the Body of Christ worship God, faithfully serving His word, uniting their hearts and minds to Him and being transformed by Him. In the early Church, the canon of the Bible had not yet been determined. The early Church had many Sacred Scriptures to hear the word of God, but the early Church also had the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, the Mass, as a way to hear God’s revealed word.

At the outset, the Sacred Liturgy was celebrated universally in Greek. Latin first arose in the Sacred Liturgy in Africa in the early 3rd Century. Latin only became the only language in the Roman Church in the latter half of the 3rd Century. Even then, for centuries, the Apostles Creed (and then the Nicene Creed in the 4th Century) were said in Greek. Many of the Psalms were prayed in Greek. After the time of the Byzantine Empire, the Roman Church only retained the Kyrie Eleison in Greek and the Agios o Theos on Good Friday (also known as the Reproaches, which is done traditionally during the adoration of the Holy Cross).

In the Greek-speaking East, the Eucharistic Prayer was called the Anaphora. The ancient and modern anaphoras bear a striking resemblance to the Roman Canon. The constituent parts of the Roman Canon clearly developed from the earlier Greek anaphoras, elements of which can be traced back to St. Peter in Rome. We are talking about some very ancient prayers. In fact, when St. Polycarp of Smyrna came to Rome, Pope Anicetus allowed him to celebrate the liturgy with his own bishops in 155 A.D. So, the Roman Canon and the canons of the East must have been incredibly similar.

The various parts of the Roman Canon have moved around over the years, but they have not been heavily modified. The Roman Canon has remained largely unchanged since the papacy of Pope St. Gregory the Great in the late 6th Century. Two hundred years previously, Pope Damasus (366-384 A.D.) standardized the Roman Liturgy from the various Missals that were circulating at the time.

Authentic Development of Liturgy

The Holy Mass authentically develops and always has. This development does not mean “change.” The substance of the Holy Mass, of all the sacraments, and of the teachings of Christ, preserved and handed on, develop as we come to a deeper reflection of them. Rather, we should say that WE are changed, not the Mass, the sacraments, or the teachings of the Church. 

The Sacraments are not what we do for God, they are what God does for us. The Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the action of God Himself, the Holy Trinity. The Holy Mass is the prayer and self-offering of the Son to the Father in the Spirit. This is true in every time and in every place. From the founding of the Catholic Church by Jesus Christ until now, the Mass is first the action of God and then we enter into this action. Currently, there are 23 Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church and another handful of Western Rites, including the Roman Rite. There has never in the history of the Church been only one way to worship God. That being said, these individual Rites have their own “guardrails.”

Without a standardized way of doing things, unity can be broken or lost. A rite refers to means, ceremonies, prayers, and functions of a religious body. There can be different rites, of course. But too much variation within a rite would inevitably lead to confusion or the beginning of a separate and new rite. In the context of Christianity, a rite is the way in which God is worshiped and mankind is made holy. The various practices within a given rite are, therefore, of the utmost importance because they span the two most important things in our life: worship and holiness.

While there is a great deal of variation from rite to rite, there is unity on essential things. For example, water is always used for Baptism and some variation of “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” is utilized. In the celebration of the Eucharist, wheat bread and grape wine are offered. For the Eucharist, the Byzantine Rites use leavened bread to symbolize the Resurrection and in the Roman Rites only unleavened bread is used to show the link to the Jewish Passover. So, there can be legitimate diversity of practice, as long as certain essentials are retained.

The Catholic Church, comprised of all of these various rites in the East and the West, have unity in teaching, governance, and means of sanctification. The teachings of Christ have been given to the Apostles and have been passed on wherever they went. These Apostles and their successors the bishops, and their co-workers the priests and servants the deacons, have governed the Church wherever the Church has been established in the Name of Jesus Christ. Through their leading, guarding, and shepherding, the bishops, priests, and deacons have had the solemn duty and joy to make men and women holy, primarily through the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, the Sacraments.

As the Apostles did the work of evangelizing, of sharing the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, they discovered many different cultures, languages, customs, and people. These various locales and circumstances required different responses to the local needs. Organically, over the course of time, what God has revealed about Himself to man, worship of Him, and the practice of the Church has taken roots and borne fruit in these varied places. The substance of the Church remains unchanged because the Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is Divine, not human-made. The Church has the power, inspiration, and guardianship of Almighty God no matter how weak the human instruments may be. The Sacred Liturgy develops in various ways perennially, the world over. However, authentic diversity in practice between the various rites does not mean a diversity in truth or faith. The Catholic Church is the Church that Jesus Christ Himself founded and which is continually sustained by the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

What IS the Liturgy?

What is the liturgy? It is certainly a strange word to an English-speaker. Liturgy comes from two Greek words: leitos meaning public and ergo meaning to do. The Greek word for liturgy is leitourgos which is the same as the Latin word lictor, which both mean a public servant.

In ancient Athens, public service was done by wealthier citizens by using their own wealth. This public service could be the manager of a gymnasium, the chorus singers in a theatre, one who provides a banquet, or someone who funds and offer ships used for war to the state. In the Greek Old Testament, the term liturgy meant any kind of general service in the temple.

The author of Hebrews states, “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry (Greek: leitourgous) that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises (Heb. 8:6).” So, the meaning of liturgy in the New Testament is established as the actions of the priest after the order of the High Priest Jesus Christ.

In the Eastern Catholic Churches, the term liturgy is only used to describe the Divine Liturgy, that is, the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist. In the West, including the Latin Rite, the term liturgy is used for the Sacred Liturgy, which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But, liturgy is also used for all official services, all the various rite, ceremonies, prayers, and sacraments of the Church.

We could also ask what liturgy is not. Liturgy is not private devotions. Devotional practices are indispensable and beautiful expressions of the heart of man being offered in love to God. Liturgy, on the other hand, is primarily what God is doing for us, through the ministry of the Church, in which we enter in and take part. In the Liturgy, God is reaching in to our humanity, as He did when the Son became Flesh, and lifting us up to be more like Him.

St. Justin Martyr records around the year 164 A.D. what the Liturgy looked like in his day, early in the history of the Church. The full quotation can be found in paragraph 1345 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but I will summarize it.

First, the Lessons are read. The Lessons are the Old and New Testament Scripture readings. Then a sermon is given by the bishop. There are prayers over the people, both those present and those throughout the whole world. The Sign of Peace is exchanged. The offering of bread and wine and water are brought up by the deacons. There is a lengthy prayer of thanksgiving done by the bishop. The bread and wine are consecrated by the words of Christ spoken at the Last Supper and they become the Eucharist. The people then acclaim Amen. Then, Holy Communion is distributed to those present and then taken to those who cannot be in attendance.

Here we see that there is a structure to the Sacred Liturgy and there is human involvement and participation. But, as we will come to see, the Sacred Liturgy is about the work that God has done and is doing, in which we enter in and take part.

What is the One Sacrifice of Jesus Christ?

The Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the presenting once more of the One and only Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It is the coming present once again to our senses, through the mystery of God, of the entrance into Jerusalem of Christ, the Last Supper, His suffering, His death on the Cross, His Resurrection, and His Ascension into Heaven. The Holy Mass marks all of these things, and makes them present to us, here and now, outside of time.

The Holy Mass is a memorial of Jesus’ suffering and death. It is not a reenactment nor is it mere remembering. In the Mass, by the power of God, these saving actions become truly present under the sign and symbols that God uses to communicate with us. He knows that we are flesh and blood. He knows that we are body and soul. So, He communicates with us through tangible signs, audible words, ritual actions, postures, and gestures.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The Eucharist, the sacrament of our salvation accomplished by Christ on the cross, is also a sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving for the work of creation… The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice, in the liturgy of the Church which is his Body (CCC 1359, 1362.”

In Christ, all things are restored and made new. Primarily, we enter into this saving reality through our Baptism into Christ and His Body, the Church. In Baptism, we are a new creation. Baptism then orders us to communion with Him in receiving truly and substantially His Most Holy Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.

The Catechism goes on to teach that, “In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’… The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents(makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit (CCC 1365-6).”

How are the graces that Christ super-abundantly merited on the Holy Cross applied to us, almost two thousand years later? It is, first, through Baptism, but it is perpetuated in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This One Sacrifice of Jesus Christ is presented once more in an unbloodied manner so that we may receive the fruits of this great gift. Thus, the Holy Eucharist has the power to forgive sins, by the blood of Jesus Christ.

United as one Body, the Church offers this One Sacrifice until the end of time for the good of the Church and the good of the whole world. Each time Holy Mother Church celebrates the sacred mysteries, it is Christ who is the High Priest, the Saving Victim, the Place of Sacrifice, and our Mediator between God and man. Apart from Him, we can do nothing. So, the Mass is not what we do for God. It is the perfect prayer and sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ to the Father in the Spirit because it is the whole of the saving action of Christ transcending time and space.

As lacking as we are and as sinful as we are, we enter into this reality of the One Sacrifice. Our imperfect offerings and sacrifices are united with the One Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross and are made perfect. We cooperate with the One Sacrifice and we receive the saving fruits of the One Sacrifice. By the mediation of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit to the glorification of the Father, we are made holy and we are transformed to be like Jesus.

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