The Priest in the Communion Rites

Liturgy Prepares for Reception of the Eucharist

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By Paul Gunter, OSB

ROME, MARCH 19, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The priest approaching the Communion rites in the Mass is disposed by the Eucharistic prayer, which he has just completed, to know that "the power of the words and the action of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, make sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine Christ's Body and Blood, his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all."[1]

Moreover, as the moment approaches when priest and people receive the Holy Eucharist; that is, as they prepare to eat the Lord's Body and to drink his Blood, we might turn to Jesus' speech at Capernaum which presents the reception of the Blessed Eucharist as both a coming and an encounter.[2]

In the context of a coming, St. John's Gospel states: "For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world."[3] As an encounter, the Eucharist is no less placed as an expression of the relationship within the Blessed Trinity and witnessed in the filial relationship of Jesus and his heavenly Father. Jesus explains: "Not that any one has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, Truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life."[4] "As the living Father has sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me, he also shall live because of me."[5] Consequently, personal and public preparation for the Blessed Eucharist, which the Communion rites so vividly amplify in both the ordinary and extraordinary forms, do not prepare the priest and others to receive a "thing" but a person. As Romano Guardini summed it up, "Not it but He, the supreme Person praised in all eternity."[6]

In the ordinary form (or the missal of Paul VI), the people stand to begin the Communion rites, which are led by the priest. Symbolically, the image of the priest, centrally at the altar, with the people standing around, anticipates the Church standing with Christ in heaven at the end of time. The priest introduces the Pater Noster according one of a number of formulas before it is said or sung by all. Various authors comment on the words Jesus taught us to pray with confidence and which we use before approaching the Blessed Eucharist.

Our Father

Texts from the commentary by St. Cyprian on the words of the Lord's Prayer are designated to the Office of Readings for the eleventh week of ordinary time in the Liturgia Horarum to catechize us into a greater appreciation of their meaning.[7] They counsel the priest to remember that every recitation of the Pater Noster is an ecclesial act that has its bearing on the lives of others. St Cyprian wrote: "Before all else the teacher of peace and of unity would not have us pray on our own and in private in such a manner that each prays only for himself. We do not say: 'My Father, who art in heaven', or, 'Give me this day my bread.' […] Our prayer is public and for all, and when we pray, we pray not for a single person, but for the whole people, because we are all one."[8]

The Libera nos continues in a gentle way to expound the resonances of the Pater Noster and describes the human unworthiness and need for deliverance with which we approach the Eucharist. The priest, who prays on behalf of everyone, acknowledges, on the one hand, the compromises that mar our peace in lives blurred by sins and anxieties, and on the other, the joyful hope that the coming of the Lord brings. The people complete the prayer with a doxology that expresses expectancy that the Lord will fulfill his promise to be glorified in us. The prayer, Domine Iesu Christe, takes the focus from our sins and anxieties and places it on the faith of the Church that awaits the peace and unity of the kingdom in fulfillment of God's will. Then the priest extends his hands and exchanges the greeting with the assembly: Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum. Et cum spiritu tuo.

Sign of peace

The physical sharing of the pax is not an obligatory component of the liturgy. The deacon or the priest may invite everyone to offer a sign of peace.[9] Controversies about when the sign of peace might be deemed more appropriate in the liturgy remains a separate discussion from that which describes how it is done. The missal maintains ecclesiological distinctions. It is not a moment when formality gives way to informality but a moment when the human intimacy that is an intrinsic part of order reveals itself in just proportion. "It is a ritual exchange, not a practical greeting."[10] St. Thomas Aquinas expressed this relationship between intimacy and order in his beautiful hymn to the Blessed Sacrament "Pange Lingua" that is sung on Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi in the Roman liturgy.[11] Verse three illustrates: "On that night of the supper, reclining with the brethren, observing the fullness of the law."[12]

The priest gives the pax to the deacon or minister. It is not envisaged he leave the sanctuary to greet the faithful in the nave, though the faithful exchange the pax with those nearest to them. The rubric distinguishes these parallel demonstrations of the pax that avoids the ecclesiological confusion that might arise from a purely horizontal model. Clear punctuation marks affirm the distinctions intended. "Everyone, according to their local customs, gives expression to communion and charity, the one to the other; the priest gives the peace to the deacon or minister."

The fraction that follows is both a practical and a symbolic moment. Ritually, in many circumstances, the celebrant breaks the larger host that he alone consumes. However, this rite allows for a larger host to be broken into the pieces that will be distributed to the faithful, while a particle is placed into the chalice when the priest says secretly, "May the commingling of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it."

Agnus Dei

The Agnus Dei which accompanies this action asks for mercy and addresses Jesus as the Passover Lamb whose sacrificed body has poured out his blood for the forgiveness of sins. The image of Jesus as the Lamb is outstandingly portrayed by an altarpiece in the Ghent's Cathedral of St Bavo where a lamb who stands on the altar pours out his blood into a chalice.[13] The Agnus Dei is the same as that cited in the Book of the Apocalypse which proclaims the worthiness of the Lamb that was slain [14] and the blessedness of those invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.[15] The antiquity of the Agnus Dei in the Roman rite is such that many scholars accept that it was Pope Sergius I, 687-701, who introduced it in the Mass. The third invocation, Agnus Dei, asks for peace because the Blessed Eucharist is a Sacrament of Peace because it is the means whereby all who receive it are bound together in unity and peace.[16]

The priest says secretly one of two personal preparatory prayers before Holy Communion. In the first, through the Body and Blood of Christ, he asks to be liberated from his iniquities and from any other evil, for the grace to keep the Lord's commands and that nothing may permit any separation from him. In the second, the priest prays that his receiving of the Body and Blood of Christ may not bring him judgment and condemnation but a defense and a cure for his mind and body.[17] The priest's communion, which precedes that of the faithful, always, consists in both species to complete the liturgical action of the Mass. He prays that the Body and Blood of Christ bring him personally to eternal life. However, at the purification of the vessels, he asks on behalf of all who have communicated, including himself, that what they have received with their lips may be received with a pure heart and that from being a merely temporal gift it may become for them an everlasting remedy. The sum of these words and actions announce that a great mystery has been celebrated where, in the Eucharistic celebration, kairos, the favorable time of the Lord, has intercepted chronos which is the time otherwise restricted by the successive events described around us. Nevertheless, before God, silence is ultimately the only appropriate personal response from the innermost part of our beings to express faith, reverence and loving communion in him whom we have received.

The period of silence should be carefully protected. It should last minutes rather than seconds to provide a clearly defined space for prayer.[18] In the prayer after communion, which also envisages a period of silence after the call to prayer Oremus, especially if a period of silence was not observed previously, the priest leads the thanksgiving of the Church and prays that the gift of the Communion that has been shared may bear its fruit in us. The Amen with which the faithful answer this prayer made by the priest concludes the Communion rites that began with the priest's invitation to pray the Pater Noster.

Extraordinary form

The priest in the Communion Rites of the extraordinary form performs more complicated gestures that no less indicate priestly identity and function in preparing for Holy Communion. As in the ordinary form, it makes coherent sense to consider its parameters as the same, namely, from the introduction to the Pater Noster until the conclusion of the Post-Communion prayer. However, allowing for the different mentalities of the forms that unite to construct the Roman Rite, certain differences are noteworthy.

Since the Tridentine Missal envisages celebrations of distinct grades of solemnity, the assistants perform surrounding actions that a priest would fulfill himself at a Low Mass. The priest recites the Pater Noster alone and the server answers sed libera nos a malo. The Libera Quaesumus includes the intercession of all the saints in general but beyond mentioning Our Lady also includes St. Andrew presumably because of particular devotion to that apostle.

When the priest prays "for peace in his day,"[19] he makes the sign of the cross on himself with the paten and kisses the paten at its upper inside edge prior to slipping the paten under the host before preparing to carry out the fraction. In his explanation of the prayers and ceremonies of the Holy Mass, Guéranger provides a commentary to describe the purpose of the Haec Commixtio at the commingling which is at once engaging even in its tendency toward allegory:

"The priest then allows the particle which he had in his hand, to fall into the chalice, thus mingling the Body and Blood of the Lord, and saying at the same time: Haec commixtio et consecratio Corporis et Sanguinis Domini nostri Iesu Christi fiat accipientibus nobis in vitam aeternam. Amen. What is the meaning of this rite? What is signified by this mingling of the Particle with the Blood which is in the chalice? This rite is not one of the most ancient, although it is quite a thousand years old. Its object is to show, that at the moment of Our Lord's Resurrection, His Blood was reunited to his Body; by flowing again in his veins as before. It would not have sufficed if This soul alone had been reunited to His Body; His Blood must necessarily be so likewise, in order that the Lord might be whole and complete. Our Saviour, therefore, when rising, took back His Blood which was erstwhile spilled on Calvary, in the Praetorium, and in the Garden of Olives."[20]

Lord, I am not worthy

After the Agnus Dei, there are three prayers the priest says before Holy Communion with his eyes fixed on the Sacred Host and whose content is largely found in the Communion Rite of the ordinary form. Then holding the Host he says the Domine, non sum dignus three times when simultaneously striking his breast. As he purifies the paten into the chalice prior to consuming the Precious Blood he quotes from Psalm 115, "What return can I make to the Lord for all he has given to me. I will take the chalice of salvation and call on the name of the Lord" but adds "praising, I will call on the Lord for I will have been saved from my enemies."[21] During the purifying of the chalice, after the Quod ore sumpsimus, the priest prays that there remain in him no stain from his misdeeds and that the Body and Blood of Christ which he has received transform his entire being.

It can be seen that any emphasis placed on priestly character and on the priest's liturgical actions in the Communion rites are overwhelmingly encouraging. While they do not hide a priest's awareness of his unworthiness, they highlight his unique dignity and remind him of how he must strive to become pure and holy like Christ. Then they are inviting; that is, immediately inviting to the sacrificing priest to enter into a closer union with Jesus Christ The High Priest and Victim, and inviting to the faithful that they may recognize with joy the ministry of the priesthood whose mystery is essential for the Eucharist, the 'Source and Summit of the life and mission of the Church'.[22] In those different aspects of that invitation, the Church glimpses at the wonder of the love of God who humbled himself to share in our humanity, renewing his invitation each time his Covenant of Love is made present on the altar when Christ draws our human existence ever more deeply into his Risen Life. As the author of the Book of the Apocalypse testifies: "Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him."[23]

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[1] CCC 1353
[2] John 6

[3] John 6:33
[4] John 6:46-48

[5] John 6:57
[6] GUARDINI R., Meditations Before Mass, tr E.CASTENDYK, reprinted Sophia Institute Press, Manchester NH 1993, 174

[7] ST CYPRIAN., «De Oratione Dominica» 4-30, PL 3A, 91-113
[8] ST CYPRIAN., «De Oratione Dominica» 8

[9] #128, 'pro opportunitate', Missale Romanum, Editio Typica Tertia, Typis Vaticanis 2002
[10] J. DRISCOLL, What happens at Mass, Gracewing Publishing, Leominster 2005, 123.

[11] During the Solemn Transfer of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday and as the hymn at vespers on Corpus Christi.
[12] "In supremae nocte caenae recumbens cum fratribus, observata lege plene […]"

[13] J. VAN EYCK., The Adoration of the Lamb, detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432, St Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium
[14] Apocalypse 5:11-12

[15] Apocalypse 19:7,9. The priest introduces the Domine, non sum dignus based on Matthew 8:8 and Luke 7:6-7 with the image of the Feast of the Lamb.
[16] St. Augustine, 'O Sign of Unity, O Bond of Charity' In Jo. ev. 26,13:PL 35,1613; cf. SC 47.

[17] #131 Missale Romanum 2002
[18] #139 Missale Romanum 2002 refers to sacrum silentium and temporis spatium.

[19] da propitius pacem in diebus nostris
[20] P. GUÉRANGER, Explanation of the Prayers and Ceremonies of Holy Mass, tr. L. Shepherd, Stanbrook Abbey, Worcestershire 1885, 61.

[21] Laudans invocabo Dominum et ab inimicis meis salvus ero
[22] BENEDICT XVI., Sacramentum Caritatis, 3, AAS 98 (2006)
[23] Apocalypse 3:19-20

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Benedictine Father Paul Gunter is a professor of the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy Rome and Consulter to the Office of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.