Roman Canon 1: The Preface

What Does the Prayer Really Say?  The Roman Canon / 1st Eucharistic Prayer – 1: The Preface

ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2004

We move now to the Roman Canon, the “First Eucharistic Prayer” in the editions of the Novus Ordo, the Missale Romanum of 1970, of 1975, and the most recent third edition of 2002.  Again, our working tool will be very literal translations, recognizing that the translation will always be lacking, not trying to make translations to be used instead of the officially recognized texts, but prompting interest in, knowledge of and love for God, the Church, and Holy Mass as the source and summit of our Christian Catholic lives.  We must build awareness of the problems in the present official translations, not in a polemical way (though I might slip a bit here and there), but in a way that will inspire you to pray for those involved in preparing new translations and to write to them and tell them of your support.   In a recent conference in Rome held for the 40th anniversary of Second Vatican Council’s document on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, I spoke with His Eminence Francis Card. George of Chicago (head of the USCCB committee on liturgy and a member of the Vatican’s Vox Clara committee).  In my feedback for the week, His Eminence knew these WDTPRS articles, said he liked them though he didn’t get to read all of them, and that he appreciated the positive support of people who take time to write.   Friends, we must tell these people of our desires and expectations for new translations.  The next set of translations will influence the next generations of the faithful.

Let us put the Roman Canon into some historical and functional perspective.  Where did it come from and what does it do?    Entire sets of books could be written on either question, much less a series of articles, or, audaciously, a few paragraphs.  I cannot allow myself to be anything like exhaustive. 

First, what is a “canon”?   The awe-inspiring A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott and revised by Jones (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1940 – called also just Liddell and Scott or the LSJ – the intermediate version is called “Middle Liddell”) informs us that kanón means first, “straight rod, bar, especially to keep a thing straight”.   By extension it means, “a rule, a standard” and is also applied to a table or a list.   “Canon” thus means many things in English, including a secular or ecclesiastical law, rule, or code of law; an established principle as in ‘the canons of polite society’; a basis for judgment; and so forth.  In matters of the Church “canon” describes also a cleric attached to a chapter of a church or cathedral and, especially, the list of books in the “Bible” officially recognized as written with the inspiration of God.  Kanón in the Byzantine Rite is the arrangement of the nine odes according to the order in which they are to be sung.    The “Roman” Canon is the name for the First Eucharistic prayer in the Holy Mass in the Latin Rite.  In his letters Pope St. Gregory “the Great” (540-604) uses “canon” to describe the “Eucharistic Prayer”. The Gelasian Sacramentary has a heading before the prayer “Incipit Canon Actionis” before the Sursum corda (the so called “lift up your hearts”).  Since the 7th c. “canon” has been the title for this central, consecratory, part of Holy Mass.    I recommend that you read over the Catholic Encyclopedia article on “The Canon of the Mass” and also consult the great Joseph A. Jungmann’s two volume monument The Mass of the Roman Rite.   The less history I can do here, the more translation and commentary I can accomplish.

You will note in your older hand Missals, that the Canon was thought to begin after the Sanctus.  Later hand missals reflect better scholarship.  More accurately, the introductory dialogue before the Sanctus is considered to be part of the Canon, and so that is where we will begin our work this week.  The Eucharistic Prayer includes an introductory dialog between the priest (or bishop) celebrant and those present.  Ideally it is sung.

The Preface

S. Dominus vobiscum.
R. Et cum spiritu tuo.
S. Sursum corda.
R. Habemus ad Dominum.
S. Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro.
R. Dignum et iustum est.

Would a WDTPRS column be complete without citations from our illustrious Lewis & Short Latin Dictionary?   First, dominus means “one who has subdued or conquered; hence, a master, possessor, ruler, lord, proprietor, owner.”  Dominus came to be a form of a address, such as “Lord” or “Sir”.   The address of “My Lord, My Lady” is still common in the world.  In Romance languages we have (It.) Signore, (Fr.) Seigneur, (Sp. Señor).   Monsignor would be “my lord”.  It is always good to be polite to monsignors, by the way.  This is an honorary title that connects them, for whatever motive of their good service in the past, directly to the Pope’s household.   They remind us that we have a universal Church and union in the Bishop of Rome, who is the Vicar of Christ insofar as he is the Successor of Peter.  Being made a monsignor doesn’t make the priest more of a priest (a fact lost on some monsignors) and it is not a sacramental reality.   Some wags suggest that the matter and form of a “sacrament of monsignor” would be the conferring of the cassock with the purple or red trim with the words “In pace in idipsum” to which the newly made monsignor would respond “Dormiam et requiescam” (cf. the older, traditional rite for Christian burial).  Vobiscum is a combination of the preposition cum requiring an ablative, with a pronoun.   It is a general rule that cum follows personal pronouns.   This is an ancient greeting among Christians as we see in 2 Thess 3:16: Dominus sit cum omnibus vobis.

Sursum (a contraction of sub-vorsum, antonym deorsum) is an adverb meaning “from below, that is, up, upwards, on high” denoting either motion upwards or (rarely) simply location of something high up.    Dignum could give us cause to write volumes.  We can associate this word influenced by rhetorical categories and so forth, with aptum (that which is apt or suitable) and pulchrum (that which is beautiful).   Here it is with iustum.  Dignum et iustum est harkens to Jewish morning prayer forms and is rather like an “Amen”, a solemn approbation.   Iustum, from iustus, means not only what is “just, righteous; in accordance with law, right, equitable, just” but can also indicate in the plural (iusta) a religious ceremony properly carried out.        

St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) delivered sermons which were literally written down by stenographers as pronounced, and we have many of them.  He described the liturgy in his church in Hippo 1600 years ago.  Friends, consider how ancient what you do at Mass actually is!   This was old when Augustine said:

After the greeting, which you know, that is Dominus vobiscum, you heard Sursum cor… and when you heard it from the priest, Sursum cor, you responded Habemus ad Dominum…. And when you heard that your hearts were lifted upward unto the Lord, it follows that the priest says, Domino deo nostro gratias agamus (s. Denis 3,6, – cf. PL 46,835 – c. AD 405-11; cf. also s. 227 and de vera religione 3,25, et al.).

The so-called Apostolic Constitution in Greek of the 4th c. also witnesses to this same exchange.  There is some controversy in modern scholarship about the Apostolic Constitution so I won’t look at it too closely.  Augustine remarks (cf. s. 227 – PL 38, 1100 ff) that it is the response Habemus ad Dominum which presses the priest to move to the next step, bringing us to the core of why we are gathered: gratias agamus Domino … eucharistésomen toi kuríoi… let us give thanks to the Lord.

What do we have here?   In this dialog we have one of the most ancient of Christian prayers which has its roots in blessing prayers (berakha) of the Jews and of the ancient Church of the East as well.    It is dramatically different from the simple invitation to prayer used by the priest everywhere else: Oremus… Let us pray.   This is a dialog with a distinct scope and different stages, passages from one concept to the next in a movement toward the whole purpose of why people are gathered: thanksgiving to God (Greek: eucharistein). 

Cor (pl. corda) means much more than just “heart”.   Closely connected with nous “mind”, cor… kardia… is more our interior emotional landscape, that in us which loves and grieves and fears and suffers and plans.  Corda can be “hardened” (cf. 2 Cor 3:14) or “strengthened” (cf. 2 Cor 1:20-22).  This is a dimension of man given short shrift in a rationalistic approach to liturgy by which everything must be simplified and rendered easily “understandable” so as to promote a shallowly interpreted “active participation”.  We humans grasp things on more levels than just the intellect.   So, corda is very inclusive, pointing to the very center of who we are.  This is the dimension of us that must be “up!” before we can begin the consecratory part of the Mass.  The preposition ad can indicate either motion towards or proximity near or next to something.  Our hearts must be ad Dominum: going toward Him on high, next to Him in His presence.  Remember that in the Risen Jesus our human hearts (mind, desires, aspirations) are already seated at the right hand of the Father!   Will this affect the way you speak this dialog?  Ad can also mean “in conformity to which, from which, or for which, any thing is or is done”.   We are made ad imaginem Dei…according to the image of God (Gen 1:26ff – Vulgate).  Is the heart of who you are in conformity with God, in whose image you are made?   Are you striving to present it always upward to Him, rather than mire it in the world and its seductions?  Is it with Him now or has the life of grace been killed in your soul through mortal sin?  “Habemus ad Dominum”?

Saint Cyprian presents Sursum corda as the disposition that every Christian should have as he begins his prayer, that is, he should leave behind all carnal and mundane thoughts which might keep him from fixing his attention entirely on the Lord (cf. De dominica oratione 31, CSEL 3, 289).  St. Augustine connects this part with the words of St. Paul: quae sursum sunt quaerite… seek ye the things that are above (Col 3:1)!  I am very tempted to translate simply: “HEARTS UP!!”  I am not an advocate of boisterous liturgy, but sometimes when I hear these prayers, and I sense the depth and the breadth of them through countless generations bursting from well-springs of Christian experience nourished by the actual blood of those who first prayed them, and I hear responses at Mass which are anemic, pale, timid, feeble, thin, mumbled, I simply want to stop everything, take people by the collective hands and say: “Do you NOT GET THIS??!”  Like Leo the Great in his homily for Christmas I want to stop and shout “O Christian!  Be mindful of your dignity!”  We are not Christian and Catholic today by our own merits merely.  When we pray these prayers we transcend by the Holy Spirit working in us as we pray, space (connecting us to Catholics everywhere) and time (connecting us with generations before us) and even the veil of this world (connecting us to the heavenly host before the throne of God).  Our Mass is an echo of the past, a link with Catholics across the globe, and fore glimpse of the continuous liturgy in action before the throne of God.   


S. The Lord be with you!
R. And with your spirit!
S. Raise your hearts on high!
R. We now have them present to the Lord!
S. Let us then give thanks to the Lord our God!
R. This is worthy and just!

Could those be questions?  “Are your hearts with God, in conformity to Him?  Shall we then give thanks to the Lord our God?”  Truly, this is worthy and just!  Let our next translations also be dignum et iustum for what we are doing in Holy Mass.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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One Comment

  1. Maureen says:

    The way you translate it, it almost sounds like a military command. Which I suppose it might be, given that Mass ends with “DISmissed!”

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