Eucharistic Praying in the 21st Century

Thomas Reese has an article in the National Catholic Reporter that reports on discussions at the North American Academy of Liturgy meeting of a draft of a eucharistic prayer by Jesuit Father Robert Daly. Reese’s article reports some of the critiques that were offered (such as the oddity of addressing the preface first to the Father, then to the Son, and then to the Spirit, rather than following the near-universal tradition of addressing the Eucharistic prayer to the Father) and I think we might come up with a number of others (such as the absence of any mention of the resurrection of Christ in the anamnetic section of the prayer or the vagueness of what the Spirit is being asked to do in the epiclesis with regard to the eucharistic action, or the oddness of the doxology, which seems not only to never getting around to praising God—the doxa part of a doxology—but also seems to treat the trinitarian names as three among a number of other equally significant metaphors for God).

But a more general question might be whether we want eucharistic prayers that are so thoroughly invested in a particular scientific worldview that they are likely to sound outdated before too long. Of course, some might object that our current prayers are no less wedded to particular (premodern) world views. But it seems to me that our current prayers on the whole use language that is only problematic if you are particularly persnicketty about saying things like “heaven is up” or “the sun rises and sets.” Daly’s prayer, on the other hand, seems far more wedded to its particular worldview (for example, its valorization of chaos). Maybe this is not a problem, particularly if we think of liturgical prayer’s primary purpose as expressing who we are now, how we see things now, what is meaningful to us now, and that it can and should be revised or replaced every few years as world-views change. I think that purpose of of liturgical prayer is self-expressive, but prayer is also a means of conveying tradition, of giving a sense of stability and rootedness, of being confronted with something that might at first seem slightly alien (such as angels carrying our offering up to heaven), things that are undercut if our prayers are too much prayers-of-the-moment.


  1. Fritz, thanks much for posting on this! I was thinking of doing so myself.

    I think you’ve hit upon the key issue: is a pre-modern (unscientific) worldview a barrier to prayer? Or does one see it as poetic imagery, and does it transcend the ages? Can we keep talking about “heaven up there” (and for that matter, “kings” and “servants”) as our tradition has done since forever, as a way of being part of that tradition, even as we don’t take it literally? Or has it become an unsustainable burden requiring us constantly to retranslate in our mind as we hear old texts? I don’t know the answer to that.

    And using the language of today’s science: is it so tied to this moment that it will be dated in no time? Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. On this point, I think Fr. Daly is incorporating scientific commonplaces that have held true for at least a century, and will likely last a few more.

    I’m decidedly undecided about this. It seems right to have language that makes sense, and I’m open in principle to what Fr. Daly is trying to do. But I can’t decide whether “scientifically legit” language will never sound like prayer language to us because it sounds too much like “today,” or whether we need “today” because our faith isn’t an escape to an earlier era.

    Then I have this in the back of my mind: young Catholics are leaving the faith in droves, and according to a recent study, a major reason is that they think faith is incompatible with science. This suggests some pastoral urgency to do what Fr. Daly is attempting.


      1. #10 @Dunstan Harding:

        It does to me, actually, and I do regularly and explicitly give thanks to God for giving us the eyes to see the wonders of the universe, like the Higgs boson, or baryogenesis, or the computer code that lets me type this and send it out to the ends of the earth. I pray for my research, and the research of my colleagues.

        So maybe this speaks to the tension that my students articulate – faith communities don’t value the work they do, as finding God, or inspired by God, and the secular scientific community can be very dismissive of believers, who they suspect won’t be as dogged in discovery if they think “God did it all”. I hear often that they feel rejected by both sides.

        They aren’t leaving church (and I mean this broadly, not just the Roman Catholic communion) over this in droves, it’s more like a trickle. Still, even trickles add up (math joke, sorry.)

        Why shouldn’t the poetry of our liturgical language reflect the fullness of the world — in which scientists are not evil figures in secret labs hidden in volcanic craters, but in which discovering the world around us, they not only discover God, but point Him out to the rest of us?

        mmf – Adjunct Scholar, Vatican Observatory (a not-so-secret lab in a volcanic crater)

  2. I would also object to the omission of a significant portion of the Paschal Mystery (Resurrection and Ascension). That strikes me as part of the dated struggle over sacrifice vs meal, very much a contemporary hitch among some liturgists.

    I think some “science” in prayer is potentially helpful, as it is in the St John’s Bible. I’m not sure that Fr Daly’s effort alone merits a condemnation of it as a whole.

    While work by committee is often, and accurately criticized, I do think that collaboration on a small scale, 2 or 3 persons–a poet, a theologian at least–might develop some good material.

    Lastly, if young people have abandoned the Church because of liturgy, I’d say it’s more a statement about the lack of quality. A poverty of ars celebrandi in local parishes, and perhaps in part a reflection on settling for a mediocre Roman Missal. On that point, I’m not talking translation only. Maybe some of the structure and content of the Roman Rite prayers are just plain poor. Nods to tradition are well and good. But mindless and slavish harvesting of what worked in 700, 1200, 1600 … perhaps we can do better. And we should.

      1. @Todd Flowerday:
        Of course. But then that also means Here Comes Everyone. And musicians and liturgists have historically found the on-the-ground reality of that (when it’s truly engaged) as confounding as prelates and clerics, though we are typically more in denial about it.

  3. As a scientist, a quantum physicist who consorts with astrophysicists on occasion, the science in this, and the terms in which it is cast, will probably age as well as any of the language in this (or the last) translation. As Fr. Ruff notes, none of the terms are new, and the picture painted is so broad that any shifts in our understanding of the details isn’t going to intrude.

    As to whether poetic imagery that contradicts what we now understand scientifically distracts from prayer, I will say that every time I hear “by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall,” some part of my brain notes that dew doesn’t actually fall from some higher place. I suspect this is my failing and not that of the language, but there you have it.

    I wonder how this Eucharistic Prayer would develop if it were prayed by a community of astrophysicists? Last summer, while at the Vatican Observatory, I went to daily Mass where presider and congregation were all scientists, mostly astrophysicists.

    1. @Michelle Francl-Donnay:
      I share some of Michelle Francl-Donnay’s professional experiences – I was a professor of physical chemistry for 30-some years. I agree with her comment about the dewfall. For me the true physical picture of condensation – appearing almost as if out of nowhere on the blades of grass — is far more beautiful and representative of both the reality of dew and how the Holy Spirit works. But the language may not resonate with those inclined to traditional language.

      Like Pope Francis, I, too, left the field of chemistry to work in the church. I now help with RCIA, teach retreats for confirmation, write bulletin reflections, etc, etc. in a large bilingual parish. Father Ruff’s first question asks, can we continue to use the ancient language, even if we don’t take it literally? The reality is, or so experience in the parish suggests, that most people still take the words literally. Their science background is weak or they discount the science when it suggests something other than their faith will allow. For young people who see the science as exciting and providing new insights into God, the stranglehold of the literal can be a driving force that pushes them away.

      I like the idea of a new Eucharistic Prayer that builds in the broad ideas of cosmology and evolution, but the prayer must use language that is beautiful and poetic. Perhaps Michelle who has both the gift of understanding the science and of being able to write poetically could collaborate.

  4. The idea the language of this prayer would connect with younger people seems … rather questionable at best.

    The language is at least as foreign from contemporary usage as any biblical idiom.

  5. Several issues strike me
    When I was a high school RE teacher, not once did I hear a student cite the conflict between science and religion as the reason for their not wanting to go to church. Reasons given were mainly the clerical abuse scandal, the church being seen as part of the remote elite, and the many rules surrounding sexual behaviour. Never the science/religion thing.
    Prayers that remind the Almighty at length of what he has done leave me puzzled. Who is being reminded here? And why is it being expressed in that way? Maybe it would be better if each sentence were prefaced by “We praise you because ……..”
    Personally I find the imagery of the Spirit hovering over Mary’s womb rather too forensically specific. There are some pictures I don’t need painting in my mind before breakfast.

    1. @Alan Johnson:
      Points one and three: excellent.

      On two: it is the people who are praying who remind themselves. Otherwise, why would there be so much of this in the Psalter. A litany of God’s accomplishments in the context of thanksgiving is not a deal-breaker theologically.

      As for “here comes everyone,” I don’t have a problem with this, as long as the principle of discernment is in play. For example, one might suppose there are more candidates for priesthood and religious life than those actually suited with the charism. All are welcome to apply, but not all are authentic vocations. The Church, of course, rather lacks any mechanism beyond the parish for sorting through art. It seems rather convenient for quashing contributions to the modern Roman Rite.

      And James on #1 at comment 14, I’ve seen better compositions, yes.

  6. On a technical point, the first word of the doxology , “This”, is surely a simple typo for “Thus” ? (The two letters are adjacent on the keyboard.)

    Reading this EP, I found myself wondering why the bishops didn’t press harder for Nathan Mitchell’s magnificent Eucharistic Prayer A. (Remember that? ICEL issued it for consultation around the same time as their Prayer of St Basil.) It was more universal and not centred on one idea like Daly’s, and so far more likely to gain acceptance.

  7. I am reminded of EL Mascall’s revision of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. It begins:

    Hark! The herald angels sing:
    Bultmann is the latest thing!
    Or they would if he had not
    Demythologized the lot.

  8. I don’t mind if liturgical prayers refer to galaxies and subatomic particles – while some current science is likely to go out of date, the existence of galaxies and subatomic particles seems to be pretty well-established. But this prayer:

    1. Is not well-written IMO. It is full of showy but awkward phrases such as “groaned our way toward the fullness of time,” “chaos-beauty,” and “garden-globe.” The rest is OK but pedestrian.

    2. Responds to a request that no one made. Who wanted a new eucharistic prayer?

  9. I’ve encountered this prayer before, and thought it seemed more like its intent was to give the Almighty a physics/biology/evolution lesson.
    The larger discussion falls into the trap of believing that if we tinker with the right things in the right way inside the sanctuary walls, then people will stay, or return, especially those highly-sought-after young people.
    In my view, if there is anything about the eucharistic prayer that disconnects or disengages, it probably is its dramatic form – the lone narrator’s monologue with occasional (and not truly essential, save maybe the Sanctus) punctuations from the Greek chorus.
    This language of this particular prayer trips over itself – and as others have observed – its vocabulary is not necessarily inviting. I’d think an integrated approach toward a prayer that has language both beautiful and economical that lends itself to singing, with truly frequent acclamations for the assembly (a bit like the Trinitarian primer acclamations at the outset of this one), offered by all while standing MIGHT do something to rehabilitate the EP in the 21st century US.

  10. My mental translation of dewfall of “like the dewfall” is that the Holy Spirit does not come down, but becomes present from within and around, part of me and outside of me somehow. Like the dew appears.

    My difficulty with this prayer is that it misses the crescendoes. Interrupting the preface with acclamations, and not building to the Song of the Cosmos deflects lifting our hearts up to the Lord. The Doxology also should expand from through,with,in to all, forever… The English doesn’t quite get it either, so maybe I’m completely wrong.

    1. #20 @Fritz Bauerschmidt:

      Nothing is falling at all, or perhaps everything is, it’s all relative. For all that I think we should not be afraid of a dash of science creeping in to liturgical language, replacing “nightfall” with “the time at which photons coming directly from the nearest star cannot reach the surface of the earth where I am standing” might be a bit much. I’ll take the dewfall over that any day — or anytime the photons are hitting my side of the rock we’re on.

  11. Especially because “dewfall” refers back to Israel’s experience of manna from heaven as dewfall. Exodus 16 and all that. For all the effort at objecting to dewfall, there are more fruitful exercises of energy.

    Perhaps illustrating how a certain puny-mindedness gets replicated in mirror image – how often human beings become in different guise the substance what we are objecting to. With the best of intentions.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      I’m glad that I read all the way down the thread before typing what Karl said in this first sentence. With all of the clumsiness (to put it gently) of the current translation, I consistently find “Send your Spirit upon them like the dewfall” one of the most beautiful lines.

      My 8 year-old blew me away one day at Mass by somehow catching the line in the prayer and making the connection to manna (Deo Gratias!). I say this not to normalize her unusual (even for her) experience, but to emphasize the biblical home of good prayer language. The lines I find most moving in Daly’s prayer are richly biblical.

  12. This posting makes me think of the famous so-called Star Wars’ anaphora in the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer.

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