The Richness of Our Eucharistic Prayers

Something that increasingly troubles me is our failure to fully utilize the treasury of Eucharistic prayers that are approved for usage in the Roman Rite.  Nine times out of ten when I attend Mass the Eucharistic prayer chosen by the priest and prayed with the people is EP 2.  This is ironic given the complaints leveled around the time of the Second Vatican Council concerning the poverty in Eucharistic praying.  The poverty stemmed from the fact that the Roman Canon had been the sole Eucharistic prayer in the Roman Rite for over 1500 years.

Despite the concerns around the Second Vatican Council about the reliance on only one Eucharistic prayer, today EP2 seems to have become the dominant—if not in some areas the sole—Eucharistic prayer since its promulgation.  For this reason one can argue that the Eucharistic praying of the Church was and still is today impoverished.  The travesty today is that we are the ones who are making a conscious decision to not fully utilize the options available in the Roman Rite.

In thinking about this problem, I turned to Annibale Bugnini’s reflection on the Second Vatican Council and the work of the Consilium in The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975.  While one can fault the historical scholarship of the time concerning early Eucharistic praying in the Roman Church (at the time they believed Apostolic Tradition was Roman), the “rediscovery” of euchological pluralism in the early church is undeniable.  Bugnini writes:

“Once euchological pluralism and rubrical flexibility had been rediscovered after centuries of fixism, it was unthinkable that a monolithic approach to the Eucharistic Prayer should long endure…This was true first and foremost on historical grounds:  the exclusive place given to a single Eucharistic Prayer was not original” (448).

A quick survey of the Eastern and Western non-Roman rites makes this point obvious.  Only the Roman Rite, it appears, had one Eucharistic prayer.  Perhaps because of this, it utilized variable prefaces.  Therefore in the mind of Bugnini and others, “the decision to add other Eucharistic prayers to the Roman liturgy was not an ‘intolerable audacity’ but a return to authentic tradition and a rejection of the deplorable impoverishment that had been a typical result of centuries of liturgical decadence” (449).

The historical argument for a multiplicity of Eucharistic prayers, which as I have said above has been critiqued in regards to the Roman Rite, is not the only argument that Bugnini and the Consilium employed.  Nor in my opinion is it the most important.  The critique of the exclusive usage of the Roman Canon was a pastoral one.  Bugnini speaks of a “principle of variety” in which

“it seems proper that while respecting the laws that every anaphora must obey, the new anaphoras should also have their own spiritual, pastoral, and stylistic characteristics that would distinguish them both from one another and from the Roman Canon.  This kind of variety seems needed if the Roman liturgy is to have the greater spiritual and pastoral riches that cannot find full expression in a single type of text” (452).

The reason for the introduction of new Eucharistic prayers into the Roman Rite was to provide new spiritual, pastoral, and stylistic perspectives.  That they are meant to be complementary is attested to by the fact that “as far as possible, therefore, concepts, words, and phrases from the Roman Canon have been avoided in the three new anaphoras, and things found in one of the three have not been repeated in the other two” (452).  The three new core Eucharistic prayers introduced into the Roman Rite by the Consilium were meant to provide the Roman Church with new ways of praying euchologically.  They provided new perspectives, new emphases, and necessary correctives which were not in the Roman Canon and which could not be contained in a single newly composed Eucharistic prayer.

If Bugnini is correct, and I think he is, the failure to regularly use all of the four main Eucharistic prayers of the Roman Rite leads to a deficiency in Eucharistic praying.  The exclusive use of any one Eucharistic prayer is categorically denied by the vision of the Consilium.  Similarly, the exclusion of any Eucharistic prayer is equally as intolerable.  For this reason, the near exclusive usage of EP2 in some places is a rejection of a fundamental principle of the reform of the liturgy after the Council.  So too is the almost absolute exclusion of the Roman Canon.  This may come as a surprise to some people who envision themselves as supporters of the Council and subsequent liturgical reforms.

While many liturgical problems today are hard to surmount because of bureaucratic barriers, the solution to correcting the deficiency in our Eucharistic praying today is quite simple and easily within the reach of the ordinary parish priest.  Just as the Council stated that “the treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §51), the Consilium called for the more lavish usage of Eucharistic praying so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of the Eucharist.  The clergy and the faithful need to become more aware of the richness of the reformed rite.

The practical question we are left with is:  When should each Eucharistic prayer be used?  Turning to the Eucharistic prayers for reconciliation, various needs, and those with children, the answers should be apparent.  However, a more conscious attempt to use these Eucharistic prayers is needed.  For the main Eucharistic prayers (RC, EP2, EP3, and EP4), the work of the Consilium can be our guide.

When to use EP2?  According to Bugnini, the aim behind the composition of EP2 “was to produce an anaphora that is short and very simple in its ideas” (456).  For this reason, EP2 seems to lend itself well to daily Mass, Masses which are under a time constraint, and Masses which warrant an ease of accessibility.  While its usage to shorten the time of Mass appears to be a factor which weighed into its composition by the Consilium, the usage of EP2 to shorten Mass time should be thought through judiciously.  Additionally, EP2 utilizes changeable embolisms for Masses for the dead, marriages, and so on.  This makes it a suitable Eucharistic prayer for such occasions.

When to use EP3?  Again, Bugnini gives us a reason for its composition:

“The intent here was to compose an anaphora of medium length that would be clear in its structure and in which the transitions from section to section would be immediately perceptible.  In addition, as I said above, it could be used with any of the traditional Roman prefaces or any new preface and would be compatible with them in its overall style” (456).

EP3 seems to be suitable to both daily Mass and Sunday Mass.  Its composition also makes it rather Roman in form.  Similarly, it strongly and clearly affirms the sacrificial character of the offering.  It is also more cosmic with references like “from the rising of the sun to its setting” and its opening up in the intercessions to “all [God’s] children scattered throughout the world.”  To me this gives EP3 a more Lenten and eschatological feel.  Like EP2, its changeable embolisms make it an option for special liturgies.

When to use EP4?  This anaphora is a poetic masterpiece in my opinion.  Bugnini writes that

“the aim here was to produce an anaphora that, while remaining in the Roman tradition, would have room to develop the total picture of the economy of salvation on a much broader scale than in the other anaphoras.  Of the three new Eucharistic Prayers, it is the one that approaches most closely the Antiochene type” (458)

EP4 is most appropriate at Sunday Masses.  Its beautiful articulation of salvation history is especially suited to Masses which celebrate a key event in that history.  Because EP4 has an invariable preface, it may only be used when no other preface is called for – e.g. Ordinary Time.

When to use the RC?  The usage of the RC is most proper on any Sunday or feast day throughout the year.  Due to its length, it would seem wise to refrain from using it on weekdays, at least in its longer form.  Perhaps I resonate too much with Baumstark’s principle that the most ancient usages are preserved at the most solemn times, and wish to make this principle a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I think the retention of the RC at the most solemn times of the liturgical year is in keeping with the tradition of the Roman Rite.

However, a case can be made that its lack of pneumatology should in fact exclude it from usage at the most solemn times of the year.  Despite this critique of the RC, I think our usage of EP2, EP3, and EP4 with their robust pneumatologies will re-contextualize the RC within an explicit tradition of pneumatological praying, thus in my opinion making the pneumatological concerns about the usage of the RC at the most solemn times of the year a non-issue.

What is most important is that we utilize the diversity inherent in the Roman Rite as it stands today.  Calls for greater diversity and inculturation of the Roman Rite make little sense when the current richness of the Roman Rite is not being fully utilized.  If we want to take seriously the reforms of the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, this should be apparent at the heart of our worship, i.e. the Eucharistic prayer.

It is time that we open up the treasury of Eucharistic prayers and begin exploring them more deeply.  This means making a concerted effort to use all of the Eucharistic prayers available to us.  A failure to do so not only denies a key part of the reform, but really denies the whole spirit of the reform.  Most importantly, however, the usage of a multiplicity of Eucharistic prayers allows even more ways for the Church at prayer to touch the hearts of the faithful.


  1. This post raises a lot of excellent points, and I would not contest the basic thesis that more use of this diversity, and more thoughtful selections among them, will do good in our liturgical celebrations.

    But I’d like to add one additional consideration however, which is that, sadly, the people in the pews do not pay much attention to the Eucharistic Prayer AT ALL. How else to account for the fact that when Communion Services were used in place of Mass, nobody missed the Eucharistic Prayer? I speak to a lot of adults in parish groups and in ministries, and the content of the Eucharistic Prayers is a novelty to them. Beyond “the consecration” they don’t track what is going on.

    The prayers for reconciliation and for children and the ones from the Swiss Synod “sound different” and will awaken attention, but the difference between 2 and 3? People notice the saints in 1. But the rest passes in a blur. I believe that, sadly, generations of Catholics were taught to regard the EP as the priest’s prayer which “does the magic” and we are only interested in the results. Now, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, and there are certainly some who engage with these prayers in a more attentive and comprehending fashion, but my point is that in addition to having priests who use all of them, we need to cultivate the ability of the people to perceive what is going on in those prayers. I have no doubt that our common prayer could be enriched in this way.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #1:

      Rita, without discounting your observation on consecration, I wonder in some ways whether the brevity of the most commonly used Prayers is a factor. For the summit of the liturgy, the amount of time allotted to the Eucharistic Prayer (especially II, and I include the ‘preface’) is only a little more than the Introductory Rites or even the General Intercessions.

      I realize it works both ways – it is also harder to pay attention to a longer text (and I don’t think that more congregational responses, as some suggest, necessarily help). But for something that takes less than 3 minutes, I can see how people don’t necessarily ‘miss’ it.

    2. @Rita Ferrone – comment #1:
      i like the way you put forth your view therefore i want to ask you this simple question to be considered. Is it right for the priest to change the words in the Eucharistic prayer and bring the reality with it. in this way can we not only cultivate but bring them more close prayer and be united.
      thank you..

  2. I agree with Rita concerning the excellent points raised by this article, but it seems to me that another factor at play in choosing the Eucharistic Prayer these days is the new translation. As I believe has been pointed out elsewhere on this blog, the Roman Canon may be falling further into disuse because the translation that we now have renders it rather unintelligible.

    This sad and unfortunate state of affairs may also affect the use of the other Eucharistic Prayers to a greater or lesser degree. It would be instructive to learn what influence the perceived accessibility of the translation has on the frequency of selection of each of the Eucharistic Prayers.

  3. Parishes that attend to liturgy tend to be the ones who hire people like me and my colleagues. I hear EP 1 on big feasts regularly. Less so with MR3, but not totally less. (How many priests have opted out of EP 1 just to “stick it” to the retrenchment?)

    I hear EP 4 almost never.

    People seem to appreciate the direct language of C1, C2 and C3. R1 and R2 I hear a lot during Lent, occasionally Advent.

    With only half snark, is better seminary education needed? As a liturgist, I can suggest EP’s to harmonize better or best with the Scriptures and seasons. But do clergy listen?

  4. It is interesting to note that in the liturgies of the Eastern and Oriental Churches (which apparently were one of the reasons behind the decision) while there are multiple Eucharistic Prayers, in practice they are mostly regulated.

    The Ethiopians and Copts usually assign Eucharistic Prayers to a particular day, and in the East Syrian tradition it is usually by season. The Armenians (to my knowledge, but I may be wrong) only use one all the time – and any others have long fallen into destitute. Among the Churches of the Byzantine tradition, Chrysostom predominates most of the time. That really leaves the Antiochene tradition – but even there (at least, in its Indian variant) Eucharistic Prayers are assigned for some days and on other days, in a parish setting (and even otherwise), there is barely any variation. More often than not, you’ll get Xystus, James or Apostles.

    I think the idea of variation is more of an ideal than a reality when one considers the practice of the other Churches. Perhaps we need a system that assigns prayers according to day or season in the West, if we are going to switch to multiple Eucharistic Prayers.

    Though I think it is a fair question to ask why the Roman tradition of a single Eucharistic Prayer that was the norm for a millenium and a half had to be completely jettisoned. Certainly, it does not reflect later emphases in pneumatology, etc. – but was there really no other way to work those in? The whole idea of this not “being original”….well, yes, but then very little really is, is it? It is an aspect of development and one that was received into the tradition and became part of it for over a millennium.

    1. @Joshua Vas – comment #4:

      Though I think it is a fair question to ask why the Roman tradition of a single Eucharistic Prayer that was the norm for a millenium and a half had to be completely jettisoned. […] It is an aspect of development and one that was received into the tradition and became part of it for over a millennium. [my ellipsis]

      I am convinced that the introduction of three new EPs in 1968 resulted from a need to provide comprehensible vernacular prayer. The Roman Canon cannot be translated into modern languages well, if at all. The 1967 ICEL interpretation was a good summary and paraphrase of the concepts, but deviated noticeably from the Latin syntax and semantics. The current 2010 translation follows the linguistic contours of the Canon well, but makes little sense in English. The latter point is noticeable not only because of the translation style used, but also because late imperial/early medieval Latin prayer was written in a significantly different orthography (miniscule, punctuation, and spaces in Latin and earlier vernacular texts are later innovations.)

      The Roman Canon must be spoken or heard in Latin to be understood, just as Cicero had to read every letter aloud to discern its meaning. The igitur, quoque, and unde, among other connective particles, are now perceived as abrupt stops in modern (after printing press) texts. These particles are very important in texts without spaces between letters and words, and are also extremely important for maintaining the rhythm of the spoken text. None of these points are relevant to modern vernacular prayers. Parataxis works best for many modern vernaculars, and the Canon is decidedly not paratactic.

      I don’t find it odd that many priests do not say the Roman Canon in the vernacular. That choice is sound, in my opinion. EP III contains the pattern and theme of the Canon, but in an easier to vernacularize Latin typical text.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #18:
        There was quite a debate in the 1960s about the Canon centring on difficulties with the Latin text (which would become apparent to any latin speakers if recited aloud) and on perceived difficulties arising from some of its unusual theology and structure (compared with other Eucharistic prayers).
        I did hear it said that the reason for the other prayers was that Paul VI did not want to revise the text of the canon but wanted to avoid its difficulties.
        (See John Baldovin’s in Commentary on the Order of Mass, p253, for example.)

  5. Thanks, well written analysis and good questions. My experience in the 1970’s-80s basically followed your usage comments.

    Now, given your analysis, what about the inclusion and use of the other eucharistic prayers – reconciliation and children’s. In some ways, the reconciliation EPs remind me of the points you make about EP4?

    And what about the 1998 ICEL movement to provide added insertions into the EPs and the attempt to insert other sacraments into the Sunday liturgies? and what about the attempt to compose additional EPs – funerals, ordinations, confirmations?

  6. Maybe if all the EPs had frequent acclamations like the Children’s EPs, more people would pay attention to them? Why let the kids have all the fun?

  7. I find myself rotating between #s 2 and 3, with #1 on “high holydays.” I would love to use #4, but its gender insensitivity turns me away. I used to clean up that stuff (in minor ways) before the new missal, but now I’m trying to be good. The only thing I notice about congregational effect is that when I use the reconciliation prayers, people root around their worship aids, give up and then put them away for the rest of the prayer.

  8. I am always pleased when I hear another (other than I or II) EP at Mass, because it happens so rarely. In my first, heady, naive days as Director of Liturgy, I included in my weekly plans suggestions for an appropriate EP. I soon learned that most of the priests felt I was overstepping my bounds, so in the interests of harmony I stopped. It seems that there are limits to the consultation on the use of texts from the missal!

    I do wonder what is taught in seminaries about choosing them. Anything?

    My pastor has delighted me this year by including in his objectives an attempt to increase the use of a variety of EPs by our priests. I wait in joyful hope.

  9. At my parish, Sunday Mass usually had EP3 and sometimes EP1 or EP2. But now that we have this new “translation”, I’ve heard only EP2. I don’t think this is out of any desire to “stick it to Rome”, but because our priests (two assigned and one in residence) have all learned English as a second language. While their English ability ranges from good to excellent, they all seemed comfortable with the previous translation into English as opposed to this new “translation” into “English”.

    EP4 is so under-used as to be almost non-existent. I think that I’ve only ever heard it twice in my entire life.

    Part of Nathan’s post seems to be a call to enhance the instructional aspect of the Mass by opening up the variety of Eucharistic Prayers. Perhaps we could also do this with the Liturgy of the Hours or creating a separate lay liturgy or a prayer service for individuals. You could incorporate parts of the language of the Eucharistic Prayers into that. Beyond this idea, I have no sense of what this might at all look like.

  10. I used to use the Various Needs, keying into something in the readings or season. Now that they are pointedly not in the missal, I don’t reach for the extra book, and I’m not really clear on how and how often they can be used–and they are not reformed as to the new translation, although a reformed version probably exists online.

    I used to use #4 all the time, but so much masculine language…

    I resonate with the use of EP#2 in second language situations. I’m afraid that I almost always use #2 when celebrating with the Hispanic Migrant community. After so much concentrating to do the other texts, EP#2, even in Spanish, seems like an old shoe.

    When the new translation came out, I used #2 for the first month or so almost exclusively, just to get used to the new “flow” (dribble? cough and start?) of the language.

    This thread encourages me to embrace the offered diversity. Let’s see if the diversity flowers, at least in my choices.

  11. @Joe McCaffrey – comment #13
    All four of the Various Needs EPs are indeed in the Missal, in the middle of the book, right after the EPs for reconciliation. The EPs for Masses with Children are not in the Missal any more.

    1. @Mike Novak – comment #14:
      So right you are. I was looking at the missal this morning and there they were. And I thought–you know this; you used them a few times–It’s so interesting what my mind does and doesn’t do any more.
      I will try to use them–as I understand it they can be used at masses without prefaces specified on the page with the orations.

  12. In the Boston area until RM3 was rolled out, EP3 tended to be the heavy favorite for Sundays, with EP1 used on major solemnities with a special Communicantes formulae, EP2 being used when there were rituals such as baptisms or the Scrutinies (or hot weather in an infernal worship space), and EP4 sprinkled too infrequently (because of the fixed preface). EPR1 & 2 made appearances from time to time. The EPVNOs only once or twice.

    RM3 has seen EP1 almost vanish (the only priests I’ve seen attempt are the progressive liturgigeeks), and EP2 displace EP4.

    I will add my usual note that there were two special EPs authorized for the 2000 Jubilee that were rather lovely, but I never heard them used. A nice idea that had virtually no publicity.

  13. We’re a downtown parish, with many poor and homeless people. The Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs and Occasions #4 is our “go to” Eucharistic Prayer for Sundays during Ordinary Time, especially over these past few Sundays. I couldn’t imagine using any prayer besides that one yesterday and the last Sunday.

    EP3 is still the usual one for Sundays, outside of Ordinary Time.

    And please don’t tell the bishop: we use the embolisms for EP 2 or 3, and just insert it whichever prayer we’re using (EPVNO 1-4, R1 or R2, etc). Baptisms, anointing of the sick, etc. They still fit nicely.

      1. @Lee Bacchi – comment #17:
        All of the various inserts for the dead, for confirmation, for the scrutinies, for baptism, for anointing of the sick, etc. Usually found in the ritual Masses in the back of the Missal, but occasionally you have to flip to ritual books.

  14. Before the advent of the new translation, priests in my experience would make liberal use of EPs I to IV, inclusivizing IV as necessary. II was the normal weekday choice (but also on occasions when saving time was a desideratum), III the normal Sunday choice, IV and I would be used on more solemn occasions. Enterprising pastors would also use Reconciliation I and II and Children I and II (but not often III). Various Needs and Occasions was scarcely used at all in any of its four options.

    Since the new translation, I see that most priests have abandoned I and IV altogether, while maintaining II and III. Some more conservative priests have opted for I, but those are the ones who prefer to celebrate in the EF. What heartens me is the number of priests who are increasingly discovering VNO options 1 to 4, and using them in preference to the others. The reason for this is that the new translation version of VNO is considerably less toxic than the new translation of I to IV, and VNO is now in the body of the Missal which means you don’t have to find another booklet as previously.

  15. GIRM 365 gives guidance on choice of EuchPr. (At least between 1,2,3&4). While RC receives favourable treatment and “is especially suited for use on Sundays”, EP3 “should be preferred on Sundays and festive days”.

  16. I have committed myself to using EP 4 on one Sunday a month during Ordinary Time. The congregation all use the same liturgy aid, and the EP is announced and posted before Mass. When there is the possibility of a tie up between the readings and either the EP or the chosen Preface I try to utilize it at the beginning of the Eucharist or in the Homily. All takes a litte extra preparation, but the catechetical possibilities, offering something that can deepen and broaden the faith life of the faith community/congregation surely warrants the effort.

  17. This is a painfully ignorant question, but does anyone know offhand of a good study on the pneumatic/epicletic character of the old offertory prayers? Cuz that seems like a pretty important feature of any discussion of the RC, and one that is often ignored.

    1. @Dominic McManus, OP – comment #26:
      I am not sure if this answers what you are looking for as a study of the old offertory prayers, but the most authoritative study of the pre-Vatican II Mass is “The Mass of the Roman Rite” by the Jesuit Joseph Jungmann. He taught at the Jesuit Theology Faculty in Innsbruck, Austria where I was granted my STL degree. My English translation of this two volume work was published by Christian Classics, Inc in 1992. Hope this helps.

  18. I was once ratted out to the chancery by a visiting university student for creating my own Eucharistic Prayer. Would that it were true! I had used Reconciliation II which was my favorite in its previous translation.

    My go to prayer for Solemnities is EP III. EP I is way too cumbersome. EP IV is way too and unnecessarily sexist.

    I use RECON most Sundays of Advent and Lent and when OT readings call for preaching reconciliation, repentance, forgiveness, etc.

    I use VNO III or IV monthly on average.

    Variety is good. I only wish we had MORE prefaces available like the Ambrosian Missal.

  19. I am happy to tell you that we the brothers from the congregation of the blessed sacrament have the different approach towards this Eucharistic prayers. How? we make our own prayer without changing the concept given in the text. I think that would make a better participation and keep us united. try and see.

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