An exploration of the prefaces at Mass

The prefaces are sure guides for the graces that God wants to pour out on us in each season

By Father Randy Stice

In previous columns, we looked in detail at the Eucharistic Prayer, “the center and high point” of the Mass. In the last two columns, we considered the liturgical calendar, the Proper of Time, and the Proper of Saints. This month I want to explore the preface, which draws together these two topics: it begins the Eucharistic Prayer, and it expresses in the language of prayer the Church’s theology of the liturgical year and the saints. The preface is a prayer that “glorifies God the Father and gives thanks to Him for the whole work of salvation or for some particular aspect of it, according to the varying day, festivity, or time of year.” 1

The first centuries of the Church saw a multiplication of prefaces, especially for martyrs. A manuscript from the sixth century had 267 prefaces, and we do not even have the complete manuscript. A text from the eighth century had reduced that number to 14 prefaces. By the beginning of the 11th century, the number of prefaces stabilized at 11, and this collection was confirmed by the Roman Missal of 1570, produced under Pius V following the Council of Trent. Our current Missal has about 100 prefaces.

The preface begins with a dialogue between the priest and people to lift up our hearts and give thanks to God, and it concludes with an invocation of the angels and heavenly host. This invocation varies in length, from “with all the Angels and Saints” to “the Angels praise your majesty, Dominions adore, and Powers tremble before. Heaven and the Virtues of heaven and the blessed Seraphim worship together with exultation.” These are based on biblical passages such as Colossians 1:16, which refers to thrones, dominions, principalities, and authorities, and Ephesians 1:21, which speaks of “rule and authority and power and dominion.” This invocation leads smoothly to the angelic song “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

The preface is an excellent example of the ancient saying that “the law of prayer is the law of faith” (lex orandi, lex credendi)—the Church expresses what she believes in her public, liturgical prayer. 2 Consider these examples from the prefaces for the Proper of Time. In Advent, we relive when Christ “assumed at His first coming the lowliness of human flesh” and anticipate that He will come “again in glory and majesty.” At Christmas, we rejoice that “a new light of your glory has shown upon the eyes of our mind” and “we, too, are made eternal.” Epiphany God “revealed the mystery of our salvation in Christ as a light for the nations.”

Lent is “God’s gracious gift,” “a sacred time for the renewing and purifying” of our hearts so that we might be “freed from disordered affections,” and that our Lenten disciples would “help us imitate you in your kindness.” As we approach Holy Week, we recall that “through the saving Passion of your Son the whole world has received a heart to confess the infinite power of your majesty.” Easter praises Christ, for “dying he has destroyed our death, and by rising, restored our life,” and “the halls of the heavenly Kingdom are thrown open to the faithful.” Christ, who “showed himself the Priest, the Altar, and the Lamb of Sacrifice” now continually “defends us and ever pleads our cause before you.”

The prefaces for Sundays in Ordinary Time praise God, who has “freed us from the yoke of sin and death,” “called us out of darkness into your own wonderful light,” and made us “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” In God “we live and move and have our being, and…experience daily the effects of your care.” He continually gathers His scattered children, formed “by the unity of the Trinity, made the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit…manifest as the Church.”

The prefaces for the Proper of Saints similarly instruct us. On feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary we thank God for giving us through her “the author of our salvation.” On feasts of the Apostles, we praise God that the Church stands “firm on apostolic foundations, to be lasting sign of your holiness on earth and offer all humanity your heavenly teaching.” We thank God for his work in the saints, for “by their way of life you offer us an example, by communion with them you give us companionship, by their intercession sure support.” We praise His wonders in the martyrs, for “in your mercy you give ardor to their faith, to their endurance you grant firm resolve, and in their struggle the victory is yours, through Christ our Lord.” The Church rejoices with a saint who was a pastor, for “you strengthen her by the example of his holy life, teach her by his words of preaching, and keep her safe in answer to his prayers.” Through holy virgins and religious “you call human nature back to its original holiness and bring it to experience on this earth the gifts you promise in the new world to come.”

Each Mass brings special graces, and it is the Holy Spirit who makes these present, for “in each celebration there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present.” 3 The prefaces are sure guides for the graces that God wants to pour out on us in each season, each feast, and each celebration, so that with the saints “we may run as victors in the race before us and win with them the imperishable crown of glory, through Christ our Lord.” 4

1 General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 79a.
2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1124.
3 CCC, 1104.
4 Preface I of Saints.


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

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