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The priest's "secret" prayers at mass

The priest's "secret" prayers at mass

The School of Theology would like to welcome all the newly ordained priests this Petertide. For this occasion, Fr Simon Cuff writes for us about the “secret” prayers at mass.

Like all good catchphrases, ‘laborare est orare’ [‘to work is to pray’] is a mis-rendering. Just as S. Francis probably didn’t use the words, ‘preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary’, so ‘laborare est orare’ is a popular mis-rendering of the Benedictine, ‘ora et labora’ [‘prayer and work’]. 

However, just as S. Francis’ non-quote remains popular because it rings true to what S. Francis lived and taught. Likewise, ‘laborare est orare’ remains popular because it rings true. We all understand the wisdom of offering our work to the Lord in a spirit of prayer. Undoubtedly, there are also those of us who might be tempted to take solace in ‘laborare est orare’ because we find work considerably easier than the more difficult business of praying. 

No other set of people within the Body of Christ find such solace an occupational hazard than the clergy. Even the Eucharist, the ‘source and summit of the Christian life’, can all too easily become another activity or task to be done. Clergy are especially prone to fall into the habit of letting the Mass become a work to be worked, rather than a prayer to be prayed. This is not just a danger for clergy, but for every Christian. We attend Church. We worship. We tick the box. We get on with our lives, which may remain more or less unchanged. Our prayer life once on fire with an awareness of the presence of God gets stale over time.

Within the Mass, certain prayers have developed during the course of the liturgy, which offer an antidote to the ever-present danger of the Mass becoming another ‘thing’ to do in the Christian life. These prayers are said quietly by the priest at certain points during the celebration of the Eucharist. For this reason they are sometimes known as ‘secret’ prayers or, perhaps more accurately, the ‘personal’ prayers of the priest celebrating the Mass. 

These prayers are private insofar as they are said quietly and not addressed to the congregation as a whole. However, they are not intended to be secret. Wider knowledge of them can help every Christian engage more prayerfully with the Mass. These prayers help us pray as we do the work of the liturgy as the body of Christ.

These prayers also demonstrate the truth of another prayerful catchphrase, ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’ [‘what is prayed is what is believed’ or ‘the rule of praying is the rule of belief’]. They help us to understand theologically some of what is happening in the prayers which make up the liturgy of the Eucharist. They help us better to understand theologically what we believe to be happening to us as worshipping community in the course of the liturgy, as well as keeping our focus, especially the focus of the priest, on that worship throughout. 

These prayers help us keep our focus not only on worshipping rather than working, but they also sharpen our focus on the object of our worship: God himself. They help us to focus on what he has done, that which we celebrate in every eucharist; what he is doing even now in the course of this eucharist; and what we pray he might do in the future for all of those present and for whom we pray.

The prayers which are said quietly by the celebrant occur at key moments in the liturgy: at the proclamation of the Gospel; the preparation of the gifts of bread and wine; after the consecration; at the point of receiving Communion; and during the ablutions as the vessels used during the Eucharist are cleansed. 

Proclaiming the Gospel

The Saint John’s Bible.  Donald Jackson.

The Saint John’s Bible. Donald Jackson.

The first such prayer is a prayer of preparation before proclaiming the Gospel. If a deacon is present, the celebrant blesses her or him with the prayer:

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 there is no deacon, the priest says quietly:

Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel

The blessing of the deacon is a prayer that the deacon might read the Gospel in a manner befitting the content of the Gospel he or she is about to proclaim. Likewise, the priest prays that he or she might worthily proclaim the Gospel. 

It’s easy to mistake this prayer for professionalism—that the reader might do a good job. However, the words used are more profound. This is prayer for personal transformation that enables the priest or deacon to witness to the Lord more clearly, not only by reading the Gospel but showing forth that Gospel by a conversion of the heart. “May the Lord be in your heart”, “may my heart be cleansed”. 

We see here how these prayers help snap us out of presiding at Mass in a perfunctory or professional way. This isn’t just a prayer to do a job well. This is a prayer for complete personal transformation that means our celebration of the liturgy will overflow from the transformation of our lives.

The Scriptural resonances here are rich. The prayer combines imagery from the psalms and elsewhere in Scripture which call on God to cleanse the heart and lips of the speaker. For example, the cry of the psalmist in Psalm 51 that their iniquity might be washed away, and their lips opened to declare the Lord’s praise. We are reminded too of the cleansing of the prophet Isaiah’s lips before being sent to proclaim God’s message.

Our second prayer comes at the end of the Gospel. Once the Gospel has been proclaimed, he or she kisses the Gospel book and says quietly

through the words of the Gospel may our sins be wiped away

This prayer enters the liturgy around the year 1000. The kiss which precedes it stresses our intimacy with and devotion toward the Gospel as we proclaim it. This kiss unites those lips which have just proclaimed the Gospel message to the words of the Gospel on the page. As we were reminded of the extent of personal transformation called for in our first prayer, so too in this act. We unite the whole of ourselves to the Gospel and pray that the whole of ourselves might be transformed through the Gospel we proclaim.

The prayer associated with the kissing of the Gospel book itself might initially strike us as odd. How do these words atone for sin? How does proclaiming the Gospel wipe away our sin? It is not the particular words themselves that effect the forgiveness of sin, but the forgiveness of sin which is at the heart of the message of the Gospel we proclaim. It is not the words themselves, but the Gospel of redemption to which they attest that wipes away our sin. We are reminded that the Gospel we proclaim is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whom we encounter as we proclaim the Gospel in the liturgy, who has put away our sin.

Preparation of the Gifts

Our next prayer occurs as the bread and the wine are prepared. Preparation is an important part of every Mass. We know that in the Sacrament, under the veil bread and wine of bread and wine, we will encounter the Lord. Just as we prepare ourselves carefully before and in the course of the liturgy for this encounter, by meditated on God’s word, by confessing our sins. So too are the bread and wine prepared, the ‘elements’ of this sacramental encounter.

As the deacon or priest prepares the wine to be consecrated, they add a small amount of water to the wine whilst saying quietly:

by the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity 

The use of the word ‘mystery’ here points forward to the ‘sacrament’ which is about to take place. The Latin sacramentum was used in the Latin vulgate translation of the New Testament to render the Greek mysterion. This reminds us of the element of mystery in each sacramental encounter with God. We do not completely understand the transformation of bread and wine about to take place, nor the transformation they will effect in us. 

As the prayer continues, just as there is an element of ‘mystery’ in each and every Sacrament, we are reminded that of the mysterious uniting of humanity and divinity in Christ. The prayer recalls the mystery of the Incarnation, and the purpose of that mystery. 

In the second century, S. Irenaeus famously noted the effect of the unity of human and divine in Christ for our salvation in his Against Heresies: 'our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself’. 

Later, in the fourth century, S. Athanasius reflects in his On the Incarnation on the consequences of the Incarnation for our salvation: ‘For He was made man that we might be made God’ (54.3). Such theologies refer to our ‘divinisation’ or ‘theosis’ in Christ. They find their basis in the hope described at 2 Peter 1.4 that we ‘may become participants in the divine nature’. 

This association with the preparation of the chalice is both a reminder of the unity with God we experience as we participate in this Sacrament, that our communion is not only with each other but with him who calls us to celebrate this Sacrament. We are reminded of the unity with Christ which we enjoy as we share in his Body.

The prayer itself is found as an early Christmas collect, reflecting its focus on the Incarnation, in the Leonine Sacramentary—an early liturgical source from the 6th century. It first enters the liturgy in association with the preparation of the chalice at the end of the first millennium. 

This is not the only prayer that has been associated with the mixing of water and wine at this point. Other prayers have stressed the symbolism of water and wine as representative of the blood and water that flows from Christ’s side as he is pierced on the cross (John 19.34; cf 1 John 5.6). Whilst no explicit reference remains in the prayer as we have it today, the mixing of water and wine points forward to that blood and water and to the Cross from which they flow. 

In this single prayer and its associated action, the themes of Incarnation and salvation are united. The words of the prayer call to mind the incarnation, the mixing of water and wine symbolise the crucifixion, all in preparation for the sacrament we about to celebrate. We are reminded that these are all united in our eucharist. We celebrate his birth as one of us in every Eucharist. We call to mind the Lord’s death at every Eucharist. In every Eucharist we are united to both as we are united to him.

The next personal prayer of the celebrant is a prayer said on behalf of all those about to share in the celebration of the Eucharist. The celebrant bows whilst saying quietly:

With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God

This prayer enters the liturgy in the 9th century and is based on the longer form of Daniel 3 not found in every manuscript, from the Apocryphal ‘Song of the Three Children’ who are placed in the fiery furnace: ‘with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received… let our sacrifice be in your presence today and find favour before you’ (3.39-40). 

Much ink has been spilled about how exactly the Eucharist is a sacrifice. At a basic level, the bread and wine are sacrificed in that they are ‘set apart’. They are sanctified by being set apart as the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. The sacrifice which at the heart of every eucharist is the sacrifice which has been alluded to already in the mixing of water and wine, Christ’s 'full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the world’. 

Christ’s sacrifice is perfect, in contrast to our own meagre attempts to set apart bread and wine within creation to fulfil his command to ‘do this’ in memory of him and meet him in the Sacrament of his body and blood. Pope Benedict points out that elsewhere in the liturgy we pray that our Eucharist might ‘be acceptable’. We do not pray that our worship might be perfect as Christ’s offering is perfect, but acceptable. Likewise in this personal prayer, we pray that God might ‘accept’ our worship. When presiding at the eucharist, we pray that the people might encounter God not because of us, but despite us.

The humility and contrition of which this prayer is both a reminder that of the virtues which we are to cultivate at all times and a reflection on the limits of our own earthly capabilities. Once again, these prayers are pointing us toward an entire transformation of our lives, to become those humble and contrite servants who preach the Gospel in our words and deeds. We are reminded that humility and contrition are needed in the face of the flaws of our earthly lives and worships. We pray that God might make the best of our poor attempts to point toward him in worship, even as he transforms those very same poor attempts into places of divine encounter. 

By now, it should be obvious that these prayers remind us that preparation for each eucharist begins long before that day’s celebration. They reminds us to prepare constantly by cultivating our lives and being transformed by God’s presence even as we celebrate that presence in the Eucharist. 

The final prayer of preparation is the lavabo, the washing of hands before the prayer of consecration. The priest washes his or her hands at this point because she is about to touch the very bread of life himself once the earthly bread has been set apart for its divine purpose. The prayer that accompanies this washing is

wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin

This prayer is a reminder of the unworthiness of all those who preside at the Eucharist. It calls to minds the sins of the celebrant, and asks that they may be worthy as the approach this sacrament of encounter. The text is taken from Psalm 51.4. The practice of washing hands in preparation for the liturgy is found in our earliest liturgical sources, from the second century onwards. Once again, it is a reminder of the importance of preparation as we approach the Lord in worship.

Missal from Hamburg, 14th c.  The Morgan Library and Museum .

Missal from Hamburg, 14th c. The Morgan Library and Museum.

After Consecration 

Once the bread and wine have been consecrated, a personal prayer accompanies the fraction, the breaking of the bread. The priest breaks the bread and deposits a small piece in the chalice of wine, whilst saying:

May this mingling of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ  bring eternal life to us who receive it

This is known as the ‘fermentum’, a practice which is found in the liturgy of the Eucharist since the eighth century.

This prayer once again reminds us of the purpose of the Christian life, our salvation to life eternal. This prayer also reminds that the bread and wine of the eucharist are united in Christ. This is known as the ‘doctrine of concomitance’. We encounter Jesus fully 'in both kinds’. We encounter Jesus fully in the bread and fully in the wine. 

There is a rich symbolism of Christian unity at this point. The ‘fermentum’ originally constituted part of the consecrated bread sent by the Bishop to other churches in his jurisdiction to symbolise the unity of the Church. We find such a practice from the second and third centuries. The fermentum emphasises both the hope of eternal life proclaimed at every Eucharist, and the unity of the Church wherever the Eucharist is celebrated. The one Christ in both kinds is the one Christ present wherever the Church meets in worship.

The next personal prayer comes after the ‘Agnus dei’, the communal recitation of the ‘Lamb of God’. The priest joins their hands and says:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
who, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit,
through your Death gave life to the world,
free me by this, your most holy Body and Blood,
from all my sins and from every evil;
keep me always faithful to your commandments,
and never let me be parted from you


May the receiving of your Body and Blood, Lord Jesus Christ, not bring me to judgment and condemnation, but through your loving mercy

These two prayers are from the 9th and 10th centuries respectively. The latter reminds us that the Eucharist is the Church’s prayer of healing par excellence. Our ultimate healing, our salvation is found in Christ. The former is a summary of what Christ has done for all of us: freeing us from our sins and bringing life through his resurrection. Josef Jungmann, in his magisterial study of the Mass describes the central idea of this prayer, that ‘idea of the heavenly Christ and his heavenly exist­ence is so strong that it is not eclipsed even by the sacramental nearness’. We are reminded that we do not come closer to Christ in this life than when we encounter him in this Sacrament.

Before receiving communion, the celebrant says quietly to themselves upon receiving the Sacrament under each kind: ‘May the Body of Christ keep me safe for eternal life’ and ‘May the Blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life’. These are prayers also emphasise the healing and protective nature of the Sacrament and of our relationship to Christ, and derive from the 10th Century.

Post Communion

The final private prayer of the Mass is also possibly the oldest. It is found in the Leonine Sacramentary of the mid-sixth century. As the vessels which have come into contact with the consecrated bread and wine are cleaned, the priest says:

What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity 

We are reminded that our true home is our eternal life in Christ. Earthly life and sustenance are not the ultimate end of our story. Our earthly life, we pray, is but the beginning of our eternal and risen life in the Christ we have encountered in this Eucharist and at every Eucharist. 

This final prayer is a prayer for the transformation of life which has been at the centre of each of these prayers. We pray that we may have been cleansed and healed in our encounter with Christ in receiving the Eucharist. We are reminded that ultimate healing is not freedom from death, but through it to rise with him to eternal life. It expands our horizons from thinking this life and earthly sustenance are the ultimate bounds of our existence, and encourages us to lift our gaze heavenwards to our eternal life and home

The Eucharist has been given to us as food for that ultimate journey. It is one of the means by which Christ delivers on his promise to be with us always, even until the end of time. Each of these prayers helps us, whether priest or people, in our celebration of the Eucharist to open ourselves to the transforming love of God, to encounter God’s transforming presence in bread and wine, and to go forth at the end of each and every Mass transformed and ready to help in the Church’s work of transformation of the broken and divided world around us. 

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