Eucharistic Prayers-Part II: From One to Four


There are presently 9 Eucharistic prayers now in use in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. Twas not always thus, however. For four hundred years prior to the Second Vatican Council, there was only one Eucharistic Prayer in general use in the Latin Church (others such as the Ambrosian Rite of Milan and the Dominican Rite are not for general use, but for particular settings).

Through a complicated maze of scholarship, popular demand, and political pressures, the 1960’s saw the multiplication of the Eucharistic prayers for general use from one to four, each called by its Roman numeral, I-IV . In the 1970’s five other particular use Eucharistic Prayers were added to the sacramentary namely the Eucharistic Prayers for Children I, II, III and for Reconciliation I and II.

Eucharistic Prayer I: The Roman Canon

The Roman Canon is the longest and perhaps the most ancient of the Eucharistic prayers. St. Ambrose had quoted portions of it in the mid 300’s. Among the ancient Eucharistic prayers of the various rites, East and West, it has a strikingly unique structure with a heavy emphasis on the sacrificial nature of the sacrament and the role of the priest in offering it.

Major features of 19th and early 20th century scholarship included literary criticism, archeology, and the study of ancient texts. All were brought to bear on the study of liturgy and provided a more detailed analysis of liturgical developments. The liturgical movement which sought a revival of participation in the liturgy was shaped by this scholarship. By the 1950’s there was increasing pressure in theological circles to translate the liturgy into the vernacular. It has been said that the Church behind the Iron Curtain was also calling for a vernacular liturgy as there were no other means available to evangelize the youth. Many liturgical theologians were calling for various re-workings of the Eucharistic Prayer known as the Roman Canon. The venerable ancient prayer, it seemed to some, did not flow well in the vernacular and was lacking some of the elements found in the Eastern liturgies.

To see a comparison of the four general Eucharistic prayers, visit here.

Criticisms of the Tridentine Canon:

  • The prayer seemed to jump around from one idea to another without a coherent flow. Translation to the vernacular would make it’s awkwardness quite visible.
  • Much repetition throughout particularly of references to offering sacrifice (even prior to the consecration)
  • Missing references to the action of the Holy Spirit, particularly the Epiclesis after the consecration emphasized in Eastern liturgies
  • The expression, “which shall be given up for you” is not found after “This is my body,” leaving the words of institution dangling oddly.
  • The words “mystery of faith” were included in the consecration of the chalice. Christ had not said these words.
  • The Roman Canon lacked an overall sense of salvation history found in some Eastern liturgies.
  • The Roman Canon was said virtually silently so that it could not be heard by the people.

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The Modified Roman Canon
The new form of the Roman Canon has addressed some of these issues in various ways while arguably retaining much of the spirit of the ancient prayer. To address others of these criticisms, new Eucharistic prayers were written. Here are some changes made to the Roman Canon:

  • Removal of repetitive phrasing
  • The offering of the host and chalice prayers completely rewritten, removing all references to the host, blood, sacrifice, offering, sin or salvation.
  • The prayer for the Lavabo is almost completely omitted.
  • To “For this is my body” is added “which will be given up for you.”

To see a comparison of the Tridentine and new forms of the Roman canon visit here.Today in most parishes in America the Roman Canon, once the only Eucharistic Prayer in the Church is now the least used. It is longer and has more rubrics than the other Eucharistic Prayers. It is the most solemn of the prayers and employs sublime images absent in the others such as this portion:

Almighty God, we pray
that your angel may take this sacrifice
to your altar in heaven,
then, as we receive from this altar
the sacred body and blood of your Son,
let us be filled with every grace and blessing.

Eucharistic Prayer II

  • Shortest of the 9 prayers in the present sacramentary
  • Long been considered to have come from Hippolytus, but some scholars have challenged that hypothesis, placing it perhaps as late as the mid 300’s.
  • This prayer is notable for its complete lack of reference to sacrifice.

The prayers following the Memorial Acclamation in all the other prayers use sacrificial language particularly victim and sacrifice.

Here is this section in EPII:

In memory of his death and resurrection,
we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread, this saving cup.
We thank you for counting us worthy
to stand in your presence and serve you.
May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ
be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit.

Compare with the following quotes from the same section in the other Eucharistic prayers:

…from the many gifts you have given us
we offer to you, God of glory and majesty,
this holy and perfect sacrifice:
the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation.

…we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.
Look with favor on your Church’s offering,
and see the Victim whose death
has reconciled us to yourself.

…looking forward to his coming in glory,
we offer you his body and blood,
the acceptable sacrifice
which brings salvation to the whole world.
Lord, look upon this sacrifice
which you have given to your Church;
and by your Holy Spirit,
gather all who share this one bread and one cup
into the one body of Christ,
a living sacrifice of praise.

Eucharistic Prayer III

  • Only one that is not based on an ancient source but is a new composition.
  • Does not have its own Preface and is therefore most used on Sundays and Feast days where there are over 80 prefaces for those occassions.
  • Beautiful phrasing, perhaps most notably, ” From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name,” in the opening of the prayer following the Sanctus.

Eucharistic Prayer IV

  • The longest of the three new prayers.
  • Recounts salvation history in answer to the criticism of the Roman Canon
  • Adaptated from several Eastern liturgical sources and considered the most ecumenical of the Eucharistic prayers.
  • Has its own proper preface, so it is best suited to Sundays and weekdays during Ordinary Time, (when the proper prefaces of Feast days and Sundays in Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter are not required)
  • Disliked by some for the great number of references to “man,” frowned upon in feminist circles

4 Responses to Eucharistic Prayers-Part II: From One to Four

  1. Joel says:

    I am particularly fond of Prayers I & III. One thing that stikes me every time I hear it in Eucharistic Prayer III is right in the beginning, “From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name.” It has always stood out to me as a plea for a reunification between the Eastern and Western Churches. That may or may not be how it was originally intended, but every time I hear, that is what it becomes.

    Whether or not Hyppolytus is the true bases for Eucharistic Prayer II, it is compelling evidence for the faith we practice and profess today. What is a hundred years when speaking about that kind of time, 6%, 7%? Very nicely written Fr J.

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