Eucharistic Prayer IV: The Unknown Eucharistic Prayer

Yesterday, my girlfriend went to daily Mass at Blessed Sacrament in Arlington, and came away a bit confused by the Liturgy — she explained to me that it sounded like the Mass, was clearly not being improvised by the priest, and yet was different at almost every point from what she was used to. Turns out, it was the pretty obscure Eucharistic Prayer IV.

If you’re not familiar, there are four Eucharistic Prayers which the priest may do in a normal Mass. You may not have noticed that there is more than one variation on the Eucharistic Prayer, but I bet if you’re Catholic, you’ll recognize at least two of the first three. The area most people notice is at the Institution (the part of the Mass where everyone kneels, leading to the Consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ), since everyone’s attention in on the altar, and what the priest is doing:

  • Eucharistic Prayer I is the 1600 year old Roman Canon, and begins the Institution by saying, “The day before He suffered, He took bread in His sacred hands, and looking up to heaven, to You, His Almighty Father, He gave You thanks and praise; He broke the Bread, gave it to His disciples, and said…;
  • Eucharistic Prayer II, based upon the Liturgy of St. Hippolytus of Rome, begins the Institution this way: “Before he was given up to death, a death he freely accepted, he took bread and gave you thanks, He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said…;
  • Eucharistic Prayer III, a modern reorganization of the Mass done primarily by Cipriano Vagaggini (who wanted things in a more structured order, and more explicit emphasis on the Holy Spirit), begins the Institution: “On the night He was betrayed, He took bread and gave You thanks and praise. He broke the Bread, gave it to His disciples, and said…
  • And finally, Eucharistic Prayer IV, based upon two liturgies from the East — the Apostolic Constitutions of Antioch and St. Basil’s Byzantine Liturgy — has the longest introduction to the Institution: “He always loved those who were His own in the world. When the time came for Him to be glorified by You, His Heavenly Father, He showed the depth of His love. While they were at supper, He took bread, said the blessing, broke the Bread, and gave it to His Disciples, saying…

…at which point all have identical words of Institution.

Eucharistic Prayer IV’s eastern tilt is obvious: the Roman Rite, historically, is succinct, while the Eastern half of the Church is known for its verbosity. Don’t get me wrong: the Roman Rite goes long, but it does it by adding more and more, like including lengthy litanies of the saints; but typically, if we pray something once in the Roman Canon, we usually don’t pray it again.* On the other hand, Eucharistic Prayer IV just keeps bringing up the glory and grandeur of God, and His work in the various covenants. Oh yeah, Eucharistic Prayer IV is also structured to allow the least adaptation and modification, which might be a good reason to encourage bringing it into fuller use.

Here’s an easy side-by-side comparison of the four different Eucharistic prayers. My personal preference is still for Eucharistic Prayer II for daily Masses, since it’s succinct without leaving much of anything out, and Eucharistic Prayer I for Sunday Masses, since it’s probably the best of the four (not to mention the only one to mention Melchizedek). But I do think that more liturgical “space” needs to be made for Eucharistic Prayers III and IV to have a little room to flourish, if we’re going to keep them as valid alternatives to the first two.

Ah yes: on a completely personal note, I have completed the bar exam, will find out my results on or about September 15th, and will now prepare for my next major test: the MPRE, the ethics exam for new lawyers. Thank you so much for all of your prayers – it was solely by the grace of God that things went as well as they did, whatever the outcome, and I have a real peace about everything.

*There are a few exceptions: both the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) and the Kyrie Eleison (“Lord, Have Mercy”) draw their beauty in part from repetition. The latter prayer is an ancient Greek prayer, and is probably the oldest part of the Mass.

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