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History Of Our Eucharistic Prayers

By Father Jim Sauer

Eucharistic Prayer I (formerly known as the Roman Canon) was the only Eucharistic Prayer used in the Roman Liturgy since Pope Gelasius I (496).  Pope Gelasius I made the last changes to this prayer until Pope John XXIII during Vatican Council II.    Eucharistic Prayer II is a revision of a prayer dating back to Pope St. Hippolytus (215 A.D.).  Eucharistic Prayer III was written following Vatican II to provide a richness in our prayer.  Eucharistic Prayer IV follows the tradition of the Eastern Church in its sweeping flow, exquisite poetry and biblical references to God’s actions throughout history.  Eucharistic Prayers I, II, and III were written to be used with various Prefaces (Introductions) for different feasts and ordinary time.  Eucharistic Prayer IV has its own Preface.


In 1974, two Eucharistic Prayers for reconciliation were permitted for use in the Roman Liturgy on days of reconciliation or during Lent.  These prayers are complete with their own Prefaces.  In that same year, three Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children were also written.  These may be used at Masses when a large number of children are present such as School Masses or on Christmas.


The Swiss-German Bishops’ Conference composed four Eucharistic Prayers for the German-speaking world, which have been translated into English and are now permitted for use in our Masses.  These four Eucharistic Prayers are “for use in Masses for Various Needs.” Each Eucharistic Prayer has its own unique Preface.  The first of these Eucharistic Prayers emphasizes “The Church on the path of unity.”  The second is titled “God guides his church along the way of Salvation.”  The focus of the third Eucharistic Prayer is “Jesus, the Way to the Father.”  And the fourth Eucharistic Prayer stresses “Jesus, who went about doing good.” 


The possibility of now using 10 different Eucharistic prayers is a marvelous divine gift to the Church.  The danger of hearing the same prayer repeatedly is that we can easily tune out what is being prayed.  The same is true of a gospel we have heard quite often – we know the end of the Gospel and so our minds wander off.  Since the Mass is now celebrated in English and with our good sound systems, it would be advantageous for the faith life of our people to use all the Eucharistic Prayers on various occasions.


Before Vatican II, we remember how the Eucharistic Prayer (Roman Canon) was prayed silently by the priest.  This often gave the impression that this Great Prayer of Thanksgiving was the priest’s prayer while the people prayed the rosary or followed along in their Sunday Missals since the Mass was in Latin.  Vatican II has changed this perspective of the Eucharistic Prayer as the domain of the priest.  According to Jesuit Father Joseph Jungmann, in his monumental work “The Mass of the Roman Rite,” this silent recitation was not the original practice of the Church – “the whole prayer was said in a loud voice.” The silent recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer came into vogue around 700 A.D., as he writes:  “…the canon…is a sanctuary into which the priest enters alone.  The sanctity of this inner chamber, must be kept closed to the people, is matched by the silence reigning in it.  The canon becomes a prayer spoken by the priest in so low a tone that even the bystanders cannot hear it… the canon…was a holy of holies which the priest alone could tread, was a concept that that was continually developed and consolidated.  Other reasons for silently reciting the canon pointed in the same direction; the sacred words must not be profaned lest we call down God’s punishment upon our heads.”