The Silent Prayers
Don Giuseppe Vallauri, FDP
In the Traditional Mass there are several silent prayers, or better, prayers said in silence, or at least “submissa voce”. The most important of these obviously is the Roman Canon. I do not consider the Canon a silent prayer, rather the opposite, and we all know why itis recited, “submissa voce”, of which Card. Ratzinger said in “The Spirit of the Liturgy”: “Anyone who has experienced a church united in the silent praying of the Canon will know what a really filled silence is. It is at once a loud and penetrating cry to God and a Spirit filled act of prayer. Here everyone does pray the Canon together, albeit in a bond with the special task of the priestly ministry”. I refer instead to the more humble, private prayers that the priest at Mass recites for himself, to accompany some of the actions that he is making.
The priest at Mass acts “in persona Christi capitis”, he embodies, he represents Christ and therefore, all his actions, even the most insignificant ones, like climbing the steps, have a meaning, a sacred meaning. These prayers are not as ancient as the Roman Canon, and it can easily be surmised that in the course of time the priest and or the Church felt the need to fill in the gaps, so to speak, and be reminded of his unique role, at every moment of the Mass.
At this point I would like to share a personal episode which highlights the difference between the two forms of the Mass and the attitude towards the silent prayers. I think it was in 2004, I made my Annual Retreat, together with some priest confreres of mine, at Douai Abbey, near Reading, in England. The Retreat master was Father Paul Gunter, O.S.B., a Benedictine monk of the Abbey, now a professor at Sant’Anselmo and consultant of the Office of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Holy Father. His theme was precisely the silent, private prayers of the Mass, in the Missal of Pope Paul VI. In this missal, of course, the few silent prayers are all private, in the real sense of the word. They are few and, generally, are a shorter version of those of the traditional missal. One of the priests present, a little older than I, a good and committed priest, on the second day, when Fr Paul was commenting on the two lines of psalm 26, which is all that remains in the new missal of the prayer that accompanies the lavabo, said quite candidly: I never even knew that these prayers existed!
On the few occasions when I assist at a Novus Ordo celebration, I can honestly affirm that. in the majority of cases, the celebrant practically omits the Munda cor meum: usually he or the concelebrant that is to read the gospel makes at most a cursory bow to the altar, if at all and goes straight to the ambo. Of course, he can recite the prayer while going, but even trying to be very optimistic, I doubt it very much. The prayer which is invariably left out is one of the two set before Communion, each one a shorter version of “Domine Jesu Christe” and “Perceptio corporis tui”. I have seen even devout and traditionally minded priests pass directly from the Agnus Dei to “This is the Lamb of God”, sometimes even failing to genuflect before hand, as it is prescribed in the new missal. This is one further proof, if ever one more was needed, that simplification does not mean improvement. A shorter prayer is not necessarily recited better than a longer one. The problem lies elsewhere. Most celebrants of the Novus Ordo see themselves as presidents of the assembly: now, a president or chairman at meeting cannot afford to whisper quietly to himself.
Let us return to our chosen subject. The first characteristic of these prayers is humility. It is a recurring idea throughout the Mass, from the prayers at the foot of the altar to the last, inaudible prayer, Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas.
I said above, that the priest at Mass, but not only at Mass of course, acts in “persona Christi” and precisely for this reason he feels unworthy. It is as if he constantly needed to remind himself of his unworthiness for such a sublime role. A similar attitude is expressed by the kissing of the altar, which he does several times. Not only at the beginning, before the Introit, and twice during the Canon, but also every time he turns towards the people, he kisses the altar beforehand. Each time, he wants to be united with Christ, represented by the altar, he needs to be empowered by Christ himself, so that he can really re-present Him.
The first silent prayer, after the prayers at the foot of the altar, which, in the solemn Mass at least, are said by the sacred ministers alone, is Aufer a nobis. This is one of the most beautiful moments. The priest approaches the altar, the place of sacrifice and, realizing he is unworthy of such a task, prays that he may be purified. Humility leads to the request for purification. The altar already is the Holy of Holies, having been consecrated, set aside for the offering of the sacrifice. Who could approach it without fear? He prays Aufer a nobis, using the plural, because he prays in the name of the sacred ministers. As Dom Gueranger says: “The closer we are to God, the more we feel that even the slightest blemish on the soul is an obstacle to be removed. Already he has prayed: Deus, tu conversus, vivificabis nos. But since he is getting near to God, he asks again that his sins may be removed. Once arrived at the altar, standing as it were between the people and God, he touches it with his hands joined and kisses it: he pays homage to Christ, the altar, and at the same time to the martyrs and saints whose relics are embedded in the altar, or altar stone. He says another prayer “Oramus te, Domine” which begins in the plural but then he asks for the remission of his sins “peccata mea”, in the singular. Dom Gueranger notes: he uses the plural meaning that all the people who assist at the Holy Sacrifice must accompany the priest with their prayers. The saints are holy in mind and body: their relics are extensions of the Body of Christ, members of his Mystical Body.
If the altar represents Christ, so does his Holy Gospel. Before reading or chanting it, the priest, or the deacon at a solemn Mass, bows profoundly before the altar: in itself already a gesture expressing humility and trust. The prayer he says, quietly, “Munda cor meum” asks God that his heart and his lips may be purified so that he may announce the holy Gospel in the proper manner. According to J.A. Jungmann (Missarum Solemnia, Vol I, p.365), the “Munda cor meum” at the Low Mass began to be used in the late 15th century. After the publication of Summorum Pontificum, I remember reading an article in which a liturgist (Manlio Sodi, Dean of Liturgy and Homiletics at the Pontifical Salesian University, Rome), a critic of the Holy Father’s decision, said that the Traditional Mass gave little space to the Scriptures. Admittedly he was referring to the Lectionary, but also to the texts of the Mass: he seemed to forget that in the Traditional Mass there are always two psalms, 42 and 26 (6 verses), and recurring references to biblical images, like the Holy of Holies and, here, in Munda cor meum, to the Book of Isaiah: Isaiah's lips were purified by live coals before announcing the word of God (Is 6, 5-7). At the solemn Mass, the Bishop or priest blesses the deacon; at low Mass the priest asks to be blessed “Dominus sit in corde meo et labiis meis”: that God may use his heart to believe and love the Gospel, and his lips, that they may be apt to announce it to the world.
All the Offertory prayers are silent prayers, but I do not consider them personal, in the way we have seen so far, for they pertain to the offering of the sacrifice, and can be regarded as public. Such is also the short prayer that the priest says when he drops a small part of the Sacred Host into the chalice: “Haec commixtio, et consecratio …”. This prayer which accompanied the “fermentum”, the joining of the Sacred Host sent to him by the Bishop with the one the priest had just consecrated, is interpreted by Dom Gueranger in a fascinating way. He says that “this ancient rite is meant to indicate that at the moment of the Resurrection of Our Lord, his Blood was reunited with his Body. It was not sufficient that his Soul had rejoined his Body, but so that the Lord be complete, even his Blood had to be running in his veins, the blood which he had shed in the garden of olives, in the passion and on the Cross”. The term “consecration” should not be interpreted as a sacramental consecration, but simply as the rejoining of sacred things.
After the prayer which, at High Mass precedes the Kiss of Peace, the priest prepares himself for Holy Communion by reciting two prayers, which appear in the IX and X centuries Like the Offertory prayers, they arrived at the Roman Missal from the usage of Frankish-gallican dioceses. The first, “Domine Jesu Christe, Fili Dei vivi” states that in the saving death of Our Lord, the Most Holy Trinity was acting, the Father by his will, the Holy Spirit by his cooperation and assisting the humanity of Christ in his self offering. Then the prayer says that through the Body and Blood of Christ, which the priest is about to receive, again he may be purified of his faults, and be freed of future faults by observing the commandments of God and being always united with Christ.
The second prayer, “Perceptio Corporis tui, Domine Jesu Christe” returns to the theme of unworthiness and humility, surely the most fitting attitude at this point. It makes an almost explicit reference to the teaching of Saint Paul – Scripture again! – in the first letter to the Corinthians (11, 29), about those who eat the Body of Christ unworthily: for them, Holy Communion is not a sacred, holy gesture, but a condemnation. Time does not allow me to dwell further on the “silent prayers”, but an observation by J.A. Jungmann casts further light on them. He says that the “silent prayers”, though they are generally spoken in the first person singular, “originally were also meant to accompany the meditation of the people at Mass”. (Cfr J.A. Jungmann, Missarum Solemnia, Vol 2, p. 260). And also that “This is not a particular phenomenon: even the eastern liturgies allow the celebrant to pray privately, especially in preparation to and thanksgiving after H. Communion”.
On 17th October 2001, Blessed John Paul II sent a Message to the participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which said, among other things:
The People of God need to see priests and deacons behave in a way that is full of reverence and dignity, in order to help them to penetrate invisible things without unnecessary words or explanations. In the Roman Missal of Saint Pius V, as in several Eastern liturgies, there are very beautiful prayers through which the priest expresses the most profound sense of humility and reverence before the Sacred Mysteries: they reveal the very substance of the Liturgy”. A statement which surprised many, as it appeared not only to praise but to recommend the use of the Traditional Missal, six years before Summorum Pontificum! [Quoted in part by the essay “The priest at the offertory of the Mass” issued by the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff - 2009.)
The silent prayers of the priest at Mass, open for him a true sense of awe and amazement as he performs his holy duty. “This amazement should always fill the Church assembled for the celebration of the Eucharist. But in a special way it should fill the minister of the Eucharist.” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 5).