Have you ever wondered what’s going through the priest’s mind as he’s processing over to the ambo to proclaim the Gospel? Or what he’s thinking of as he’s purifying the vessels after Communion? Well—over the next couple of weeks, I want to share with you some of the lesser-known prayers of the Mass: the prayers that are prayed sotto voce (i.e. quietly—at least by most priests) by the priest and/or deacon as certain liturgical actions are being performed. It wasn’t really until I was well into my seminary formation that I realized these prayers existed!
Before the reforms of Vatican II, many of the prayers of Mass were offered sotto voce, including most of the Eucharistic Prayer. This was done, at least in part, to create reverent silence at the highest moment of the Mass. The priest would pray quietly on behalf of the people to God the Father, offering the one, unbloody sacrifice of Christ. Some of you also probably remember the priest facing the altar (with “his back to the people”); although theologically there are many reasons for this, one of them is because of precisely this notion—that the priest was offering sacrifice on behalf of the people, and thus all (priest and people alike) faced the same direction. Interestingly, the rubrics of the Mass are still written in such a way as to imply that the priest and people are facing the same direction during the Eucharistic Prayer, but that’s a story for another day…
Of course, with Vatican II’s emphasis on active participation in the Mass (which has at times been misunderstood to mean only more and more individuals taking part in the Mass through liturgical ministries, as opposed to everyone actively engaging in the one offering of the Mass…but again, I digress!), the Eucharistic Prayer came to be offered aloud, so that everyone might listen attentively and pray along with the priest. The liturgical documents of the Council never explicitly spoke of this change from the Eucharistic Prayer being offered sotto voce, as the idea was always that the people were praying along, even if all were silent. But it has nevertheless become our practice in the Church to pray the Eucharistic Prayer, and indeed most of the prayers of the Mass, out loud—except for a few. So what are these “silent prayers” of the Mass?
The first “silent” prayer of the Mass is offered just before the Gospel. If you have attended a Mass with a deacon, you have perhaps heard the small dialogue between the deacon and the priest: the deacon says, “Your blessing, Father,” followed in a low voice by the priest “May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips, that you may proclaim His gospel worthily and well, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” If, however, a deacon is not present, then the priest himself bows before the altar and prays quietly, “Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.”
These prayers give evidence to the fact that we as a Church have great reverence for the Gospel, as It contains in a privileged way the very Word of God. No one, not even the ordained clergy, must take for granted the importance of what is contained in these Holy Gospels; thus we pray in a special way to be cleansed in order to speak this Word “worthily and well.”
After the Gospel as well, as the priest or deacon reverences the Gospel with a kiss (a further sign of our reverence for the Gospel), another prayer is offered sotto voce: “Through the words of the Gospel, may our sins be wiped away.” This prayer is offered on behalf of the people who have just shared the Gospel. As we have just heard the life-giving words of Jesus’ life proclaimed among us, the believing community, we pray that the Good News of Christ’s Paschal Mystery (His Life, Passion, Death, and Resurrection) would be our salvation from sin and all that would keep us from everlasting life with our God.
Stay tuned for more!
Keep spreading joy!