Monday, September 10, 2018

For Whom and For What Are We Praying at the Beginning of the Roman Canon?

The great Canon of the Mass — the one and only Anaphora traditionally found in the Roman Rite from before the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) down to the revolutionary year of 1968 — has long fascinated Catholic authors, who have written many commentaries on it. There is much to take note of, much to wonder about and ponder.

I have often been struck by the opening of the Canon:
Te ígitur, clementíssime Pater, per Iesum Christum, Fílium tuum, Dóminum nostrum, súpplices rogámus ac pétimus: uti accépta hábeas, et benedícas hæc + dona, hæc + múnera, hæc sancta + sacrifícia illibáta: in primis quæ tibi offérimus pro Ecclésia tua sancta cathólica; quam pacificáre, custodíre, adunáre, et régere dignéris toto orbe terrárum… 
We humbly pray and beseech Thee, most merciful Father, through Jesus Christ Thy Son, Our Lord, to receive and to bless these gifts, these presents, these holy unspotted sacrifices, which we offer up to Thee, in the first place, for Thy holy Catholic Church, that it may please Thee to grant her peace, to guard, unite, and guide her, throughout the world…
In these first lines, we find a combination of profound humility and earnest pleading that the Father would receive this most solemn offering of the Church and would make it, by His almighty paternal command, the unspotted sacrifices of Christ. (One notes the plural “sacrifices,” a sign of this prayer’s great antiquity, for the early Christians when referring to the Mass spoke of “the mysteries,” “the sacrifices,” and “the sacraments,” whereas later authors tend to speak of the mystery, the sacrifice, and the sacrament.)

The Canon thus gives a certain priority to the fact that this offering of the Mystical Body is being offered for the Mystical Body, and not in a vague way, but with respect to its hierarchical structure — something lacking in the newly-fashioned anaphoras that hold off on the ecclesial purpose of the offering until after the consecration. Indeed, the pseudoscholarly critics of the Roman Canon in the middle of the twentieth century complained that it began with the Church and her structure, rather than starting with something “more theological” like the Trinity, or “grander” like the plan of salvation, or “historically germane,” like the Last Supper. These criticisms show scant regard for the centrality of the Church as the very Body that is offering and is offered, in union with her Head and Lord, Jesus Christ, who became man in order to pour forth the Church from His wounded side; scant regard for the Church as the locus in which the mystery of the Trinity is revealed and glorified; scant regard for the Church as the underlying principle of continuity in salvation history, as St. Augustine demonstrated in The City of God. 

The scholarly balderdash from the late phase of the Liturgical Movement found its custom-made expression in the Cartesian clarity and distinctness of Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV. But I’d like to get back to the really interesting anaphora, which is intricate, difficult, mysterious, beautiful, and powerful, as archaic works of art tend to be.

The Roman Canon calls the Church “Thy holy Catholic Church.” She is the one and only Bride of the Lord — and yet the priest pleads with the Father to unite her, to guard and guide her, and to grant her peace. One would have thought that such petitions would not be necessary. Is she not already indestructibly one? Is she not perpetually guarded from harm and guided safely by Divine Providence? Could He ever abandon her? These are serious questions to ask at a time like this, when the unity of the Church on earth appears more shattered than ever, when harm to the People of God is widespread and obvious, and when the captaining of Peter’s barque seems scarcely better than that of the Exxon Valdez, with similar catastrophic results impending.

The Canon transmits a sobering doctrine here. It is not to be “taken for granted” that the Church will be well-governed on earth; that she will follow peacefully in the right path; that she will remain safe from the evils of ignorance, error, and sin; even that she will remain in visible unity — as if saying that “the Church is indefectible” means that your soul, your local church, or your regional anything is indefectible. Your soul and mine can be lost forever; your local church and mine can be swallowed up by Moslems, militant atheists, homosexual activists, or crippling civil action; your episcopal conference can fall off the cliff into open heresy. All this is well within the realm of possibility, just as branches can be lopped off of trees without the tree itself dying. The Canon says to us that peace, protection, unity, and wise governance are goods to be impetrated, petitioned and obtained from the Lord in His mercy, and by means of the Cross — not only by the Sacrifice of the Cross objectively represented in the Mass, but also by taking this Cross upon ourselves in our prayer, penance, conversion, and fidelity.

All of these goods are gifts from God, who may, in His wisdom and justice, deprive the Church on earth of the enjoyment of these goods if the faithful or their rulers should be so unfortunate as to be lukewarm in performing the opus Dei, or worldly in their attitudes, or cowardly in their preaching. The Church will always have real existence in this world until the end of time, but she may disappear from my life or yours, in my country or yours, in my national hierarchy or yours. Think of the bishops under Henry VIII who fell like bowling pins before his threats. In a matter of years, the hierarchy had essentially vanished.

As with ancient Christianity in general, so here in this Anaphora, there is an utter absence of presumption. The members of the Church on earth do not presume that they are already the perfect, spotless Bride of Christ; rather, they beg to have those qualities. (The same sort of prayer recurs in the “Domine, Jesu Christe” after the Agnus Dei: “Look not upon my sins, but upon the faith of Thy Church, and vouchsafe to grant her peace and unity according to Thy will.”)

The next thing we learn from the Canon is that the Sacrifice is offered for Catholics who hold the true faith, and that they are its beneficiaries:
…una cum fámulo tuo Papa nostro N., et Antístite nostro N., et ómnibus orthodóxis, atque cathólicæ et apostólicæ fídei cultóribus.
…in union with Thy servant N., our Pope, and N., our Bishop, and with all orthodox men: indeed, with those who cultivate [foster, promote, support] the Catholic and apostolic faith. [1]
Continuing the same petition, the priest states that he is offering up the sacrifice for the hierarchs of the Church, and, indeed, for all orthodox Catholics — an implicit prayer that we may always be and remain such.

Noteworthy here is the emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy, which, for the ancient Christians who first prayed this prayer, was incomparably the first and most important thing you had to know about someone: Does he adhere to the true faith? Not: Is he a nice person, does he pay his bills and volunteer to coach football teams and recycle his garbage, but: Does he profess the universal faith that comes to us from the Apostles? Even the question of charity is secondary to this one, since true charity, the infused theological virtue, requires the infused virtue of faith as a foundation. Otherwise it is mere philanthropy, do-goodism, niceness, or pagan virtue, none of which inherits the kingdom of heaven. You cannot love what you do not know; you cannot love the only God that exists—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — if you do not believe in the Most Holy Trinity.

Hence the Roman Canon refreshingly places emphasis on orthodoxy as the basic condition of Church membership, instead of the diffuse semi-moral quasi-virtues that are substituted for it today. This part of the Canon teaches that the Holy Sacrifice is offered not vaguely for a universal brotherhood of mankind or an ecumenical smorgasbord, but for right-believing Catholics who profess the faith handed down to us. It challenges us to take dogmatic truth as seriously as all the saints have taken it, being willing to lay down our very lives rather than dissent from one jot or tittle of the depositum fidei. No sacrifice can be offered for our salvation, and we will not in fact be saved, if we are dissenters, heretics, schismatics, apostates, or infidels.

An archdeacon reading the diptych at Divine Liturgy
There is a further implication, one especially pertinent to our times. The Canon is not saying that the pope and the local bishop are orthodox, as if pronouncing these words of the Canon magically meant they could never fall away. Rather, it is praying for them as long as they are orthodox. That is, we offer the sacrifice “for all who are orthodox in belief and who profess the Catholic and apostolic faith.” If there were a bishop or even a pope who was not orthodox in belief and did not profess the Catholic and apostolic faith, this sacrifice would not be offered for him.

This is why, as we know, in the ancient Church it was common practice for bishops to strike off the names of other bishops who, in their judgment, had fallen away from the Faith into heresy. A bishop who had excommunicated another bishop would drop his name off of the diptychs, as if to say: We are not praying for you, and we will not pray for you until you repent and return to orthodoxy. This is the “tough love” practiced by the early Church, the heroic age of the martyrs, the greatest theologians, and the monks of the desert.

I am not sure exactly how bishops today could put into practice this supernatural common sense that regarded public prayer as offered only for the orthodox and not for heretics or schismatics, but it is certainly getting to be the case, more and more, that we can no longer assume that when we pray the Roman Canon, we are actually praying for the man who is occupying the chair of Peter or the man who is occupying the local see. We may dare to hope, but we may not assume.

Of course, until there is an ecclesiastical decision of some sort, such as the judgment of an ecumenical or even an imperfect council, God alone would know whether the Mass is able to be offered for the named figures, or whether they are outside of the Church that prays and is benefited by the prayers. The benefit of the doubt is always to be given to the recognized incumbent, until and unless he has been deposed or replaced.

The reader may be asking himself: What is the spiritual benefit of thinking about these things? The benefit is simply this. We must recognize, with full seriousness and sobriety, that the Church in her public prayer does not presume that she will be at peace, united, under good leadership, and heading in the right direction. She begs for it. And we must imitate her, we must internalize the same attitude. We are repeatedly and earnestly seeking these goods from the Lord in His mercy, and His answer partly depends on the faith and fervor with which we ask Him for them. We are warned by the Canon that without holding fast to the Catholic and orthodox faith, entire and inviolate, we cannot be saved, nor can our shepherds.


This morning during the chanting of the (traditional) Litany of Saints at the blessing of Mother Cecilia as the first abbess of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, I noticed these petitions, which confirm the interpretation offered above of the Roman Canon:

That thou wouldst deign to rule and preserve Thy holy Church, we beseech thee, hear us.
That thou wouldst deign to preserve the Pope and all the ecclesiastical orders in holy religion...
That thou wouldst deign to grant peace and unity to all Christian people..

The second of these petitions is especially interesting: we are asking God to preserve the Pope in the virtue of religion, or in keeping the Catholic faith. There would be no point in asking for this, if it were not the kind of thing that could be absent or lost due to men’s sins and God’s just judgment.


[1] As John Pepino pointed out to me, the atque is a strong conjunction that adds something (often a greater specificity) to what came before; it isn’t just a synonym for et. It’s as though the text says that we are in communion with all who hold the correct faith, and moreover, with those who actively promote the correct faith. This could well be an echo of the Arian crisis.

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