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For centuries, only one Eucharistic Prayer, known as the Roman Canon, was used in the Latin rite. This prayer is usually dated at around 375 and was most probably composed in Latin as the Roman Church at this time was moving away from using Greek in liturgy towards Latin, the language of the people. The prayer underwent various elaborations until the definitive version was established under Pope Gregory the Great (590 – 604).
Because it did not have its own preface, one was chosen for the feast, season or celebration. The rest of the prayer was fixed, apart from some minor additions on certain days, hence the name ‘canon’, meaning ‘rule’.
Originally this great prayer of thanksgiving was proclaimed aloud by the celebrant in the name of the gathered community. By the late 800s it came to be considered too holy to be heard by the people and was prayed in a low voice. The ‘silent canon’ remained until 1967. Until the end of the 19th century, it was even forbidden to print a vernacular translation of the canon.
After the second Vatican Council a special committee was established to study the Eucharistic Prayer in light of the liturgical reforms called for by the council. It was clear that, despite its early origins and long use, the Roman Canon had several weaknesses. It lacks a strong sense of praise and an explicit invocation of the Holy Spirit. It is also very long and repetitive.
Rather than make major alterations to rectify these problems, the committee decided to retain the Roman Canon with some minor changes, such as the addition of the memorial acclamation, and to issue alternative Eucharistic Prayers which could replace it at Mass.
In 1968, a slightly revised version of the Roman Canon was published as Eucharistic Prayer I, along with three other prayers designated as Eucharistic Prayers II, III and IV. Because several Eucharistic Prayers are now approved for use, it is not accurate to call any of them a ‘canon’.
After such long stability in the Eucharistic Prayer, there were some initial doubts about these ‘new’ prayers. A look at their origins soon shows that they are not ‘modern’ texts at all.
Eucharistic Prayer II is based on a model prayer for bishops presiding at Mass by Hippolytus. It is included in his description of the traditional liturgy of Rome in 215. Apart from some minor changes made to the early text to adapt it for use in the Roman rite today, the second Eucharistic Prayer in the current Order of Mass is the one used by Hippolytus nearly 1800 years ago.
Eucharistic Prayer III is a new composition based on old forms. It contains elements of the old Roman Canon rearranged to give a more intelligible structure and logical development. The prayer has been enriched by the addition of elements taken from Alexandrian, Byzantine and Maronite liturgical traditions.
Eucharistic Prayer IV is also based on texts from the first few centuries of the church. While following the general pattern of the traditional Roman Canon, it is the most ecumenical of our Eucharistic Prayers in the sense that it has strong echoes of Eastern (especially Greek) forms.
Despite their differences, these three ‘new’ Eucharistic Prayers follow a common structural pattern while adding a richness to our worship of God in this central prayer of the Mass.