A catechesis on the Eucharistic Prayers

Their theological and spiritual riches are ‘the heart and summit of the celebration’ of Mass

By Father Randy Stice

The center and high point” of the Mass is the Eucharistic Prayer, “the prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification.” 1 Pope Benedict XVI describes it as action “in the highest sense of the word”—although proclaimed by the priest acting in the person of Christ the head, “God Himself acts and does what is essential.” 2 The Eucharistic Prayers in the current Missal, wrote Pope Benedict XVI, “have been handed down to us by the Church’s living tradition and are noteworthy for their inexhaustible theological and spiritual richness,” and so he urged that all Catholics “be enabled to appreciate that richness.” 3 In this column, I want to begin a catechesis on the Eucharistic Prayers.

We have sources on the Eucharistic Prayer from the earliest centuries of the Church. St. Justin Martyr (died 165) left us an account of the Eucharist from the mid-second century. After the readings, homily, and prayer of the faithful, bread and wine mixed with water are brought to the presider, who then “offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and for a considerable time he gives thanks that we have been judged worthy of these gifts,” and the people say, “Amen.” 4 Justin also says that Jesus’ words over the bread and the cup (the words of consecration) were said. Several decades later, we have a Eucharistic Prayer from Hippolytus (d. 235) that is the basis for Eucharistic Prayer II in the current Missal. And we know from the writing of St. Ambrose (d. 397) that much of the content and wording of the Roman Canon—Eucharistic Prayer I—was in existence in the fourth century.

In the current liturgy, there are 13 Eucharistic Prayers. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (no. 365) offers guidance on the use of each. Eucharistic Prayer I, the Roman Canon, “may always be used…it is especially suited for use on Sundays.” Eucharistic Prayer II “is more appropriately used on weekdays or in special circumstances.” Eucharistic Prayer III “should be preferred on Sundays and festive days.” Eucharistic Prayer IV includes its own preface, and so may only “be used when a Mass has no preface of its own and on Sundays in Ordinary Time.”

In addition to these four, there are two Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation. These “may be used in Masses in which the mystery of reconciliation is conveyed to the faithful in a special way…as well as in Masses during Lent.” There are four Eucharistic Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions to be “used in the various occasions of Christian life for the needs of the whole world or for the needs of the Church, whether universal or local.” These 10 Eucharistic Prayers are in the third edition of the Roman Missal. In a separate volume, there are also three Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children that are only to be used in Masses celebrated with children.

Every Eucharistic Prayer is addressed to God the Father and is composed of the same elements: thanksgiving, acclamation, epiclesis, institution narrative and consecration, anamnesis, offering, intercessions, and final doxology.

The thanksgiving refers primarily to the preface, which praises and thanks God the Father “for the whole work of salvation or for some particular aspect of it, according to the varying day, festivity, or time of year” (there are almost 100 in the current Missal). The acclamation is the “Holy, holy, holy,” which leads into one of the 13 Eucharistic Prayers described above. I will use Eucharistic Prayer II to illustrate the remaining elements.

The epiclesis asks the Father to send the Holy Spirit “like the dewfall” upon the bread and wine “so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Then begins the institution narrative when, before he “entered willing into his passion,” Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying the words of consecration, “this is my body,” and then “in a similar way” gave the chalice to his disciples saying, “this is the chalice of my blood…do this in memory of me.” Through the epiclesis and the words and actions of Jesus, the bread and wine are now Christ’s body and blood. The anamnesis proclaims that “we celebrate the memorial of his death and resurrection,” and in the oblation (offering) “we offer you, Lord, the Bread of Life and the chalice of salvation.”

Then comes a series of intercessions: for the Church, our pope, our bishop, and the clergy, “all who have died in your mercy,” and for “mercy on us all.” We invoke the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, blessed Joseph, and all the Saints that “we may merit to be coheirs to eternal life.” The doxology gives glory and honor to the Father through, with, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, and is “affirmed and concluded by the people’s acclamation, ‘Amen.’”

In the months ahead, we will continue to explore the theological and spiritual riches of the Eucharistic Prayer, “the heart and summit of the celebration.” 5

1 General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 78.
2 The Spirit of the Liturgy, 172-3.
3 The Sacrament of Charity, no. 48.
4 Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1345.
5 CCC, no. 1352.


Father Randy Stice is director of the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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