A Silence That Contemplates and Adores

The Apologetic Prayers of the “Ordo Missae”

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ROME, DEC. 4, 2009 (Zenit.org).- In this article, Father Mauro Gagliardi, a consultor of the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, explains the importance and meaning of the “apologetic prayers” said during the celebration of the holy Mass.

These “apologetic prayers” are the ones that the priest recites quietly — in “secret” — before God, to participate more consciously and worthily in the divine mysteries that he celebrates on behalf of the whole Church.

The faithful accompany these prayers with reverent, external silence and internal recollection, which aids in a fuller understanding of what is happening on the altar, and therefore allows a more active participation in the liturgy.

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The sacred liturgy, that the Second Vatican Council understands as the sacerdotal action of Christ, and therefore the source and summit of ecclesial life, can never be reduced to a simple aesthetic reality, nor be considered as an instrument for purely pedagogical or ecumenical ends. The celebration of the holy mysteries is above all an act of praise of the supreme majesty of God one and three, an act desired by God himself. In this act, man, personally and in community, presents himself before the Lord to give him thanks, aware of the fact that his very being cannot achieve its proper fullness if he does not praise God and do his will, in constantly seeking the kingdom, which is already present and, nevertheless, will arrive definitively in the day of the “parousia” of the Lord Jesus.[1]

In light of this, it is clear that the direction of every liturgical action — which is the same for the priest and the faithful — is that directed toward the Lord: to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Thus “the priest and people certainly do not pray toward each other but toward the one Lord.”[2] It is a matter of the continual living of the “conversi ad Dominum,” that turning to the Lord, which supposes “conversion,” the directing of our souls toward Jesus Christ and, in this way, toward the living God, that is, the true light.[3]

In this way the liturgical act is lived as a virtue of that virtue of religion that, consistent with its nature, is characterized by a profound sense of the sacred. In it, the individual and the community must be aware of meeting each other, in a special way, before him who is thrice Holy and the Transcendent. Hence, “a convincing indication of the effectiveness of Eucharistic catechesis is surely an increased sense of the mystery of God present among us.”[4]

The appropriate attitude in the liturgical celebration can only be that of complete reverence and stupor, which flows from our being aware that we are in the presence of the majesty of God. Was this not perhaps what God himself wanted to indicate when he ordered Moses to take off his sandals before the burning bush? Was it not perhaps from this awareness that the attitude of Moses and Elijah was born, they who did not dare to look at God face to face?[5]

Two tasks

It is in this framework that we can better understand the words of the second canon of the Mass that perfectly defines the essence of the priestly office: “Astare coram te et tibi ministrare” (To stand before you and serve you). There are therefore two tasks that define the essence of the sacerdotal office: “Standing in the presence of the Lord” and “serving in his presence.” Benedict XVI, commenting on this ministry, noted that the term “service” is used primarily to refer to liturgical service. This implies various aspects, including nearness and familiarity.

The Pope wrote: “No one is closer to his master than the servant who has access to the most private dimensions of his life. In this sense ‘to serve’ means closeness, it requires familiarity. This familiarity also bears a danger: when we continually encounter the sacred it risks becoming habitual for us.

“In this way, reverential fear is extinguished. Conditioned by all our habits we no longer perceive the great, new and surprising fact that he himself is present, speaks to us, gives himself to us. We must ceaselessly struggle against this becoming accustomed to the extraordinary reality, against the indifference of the heart, always recognizing our insufficiency anew and the grace that there is in the fact that he consigned himself into our hands.”[6]

In effect, before any liturgical celebration, but in a special way before the Eucharist — the memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, thanks to which this central event of salvation is made truly present and the work of our redemption is realized — we must fall down in adoration before the Mystery: the great Mystery, the Mystery of mercy. What more, in fact, could Jesus have done for us?

In the Eucharist he shows us in a real way a love that goes “to the very end” (John 3:1), a love that does not know limits.[7] We are astonished and dazed before such an extraordinary reality: With what humble condescension God desired to unite himself to man!

If in a few weeks we find ourselves standing, deeply moved, before the manger, contemplating the incarnation of the Word, what must we not feel before the altar upon which Christ makes his Sacrifice present in time through the poor hands of the priest? There is nothing to do but to kneel and adore the great Mystery of faith in silence.[8]

The logical consequence of what has been said is that the people of God must be able to see, in the priest and in the other ministers of the altar, a comportment that is full of reverence and dignity, that is capable of helping them to penetrate invisible things without many words or explanations.

In the Roman Missal of Pius V, as in the various Eastern liturgies, we find very beautiful prayers with which the priest expresses the deepest sentiment of humility and reverence before the holy mysteries: They reveal the substance itself of any liturgy.[9] Some of these prayers that are present in this Missal — which in its 1962 edition is the Missal of the “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite — have been taken up in the Missal promulgated after the Second Vatican Council. These prayers are traditionally called “apologies.”

The “Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani” refers to these prayers in Section 33. After the reference to the prayers that priest says as celebrant in the name of the whole Church, the GIRM states that “at times he prays only in his own name, asking that he may exercise his ministry with greater attention and devotion. Prayers of this kind, which occur before the reading of the Gospel, at the preparation of the gifts, and also before and after the Communion of the priest, are said quietly.”

From “I” to “we”

These brief formulas prayed in silence invite the priest to personalize his work, to give himself to the Lord in his own name too. At the same time they are an excellent way to set out — like the other faithful — toward the encounter with the Lord not only the communal way but in an entirely personal way as well. And this is a first aspect of essential importance, because only in the measure that we understand and internalize the liturgical structure and the words of the liturgy, can we enter into an interior harmony with them. When that happens the celebrating priest does not speak with God only as an individual but rather enters into the “we” of the praying Church.

If the “celebratio” is prayer, that is, colloquy with God — God’s colloquy with us and ours with him — the celebrant’s “I” is transformed, entering into the “we” of the Church. The “I” is enriched and enlarged praying with the Church, with her words, and a colloquy with the Lord really begins. In this way celebrating is really celebrating “with” the Church: the heart dilates, not, of course, in a physical way but in the sense that it is “with” the Church in colloquy with God. In this process of the enlargement of the heart, the apologetic prayers and the contemplative and adoring silence that they produce
represent an important element and this is why they have been a part of the Eucharistic celebration for more than 1,000 years.

In the second place, in the journey toward the Lord, we become aware of our unworthiness. Thus it becomes necessary during the liturgy to ask God himself that he transform us and accept our participation in that “actio Dei” (action of God) that configures the liturgy. In fact, the spirit of continual conversion is one of the personal conditions that makes possible the “actuosa participatio” (active participation) of the faithful and of the priest himself. “Active participation in the Eucharistic liturgy can hardly be expected if one approaches it superficially, without an examination of his or her life.”[10]

Recollection and silence before and during the celebration are understood in this context and facilitate the realization of the words of Benedict XVI: “A heart reconciled with God makes genuine participation possible.”[11] Again, it follows that the apologetic prayers play an important role in the celebration.

An instrument

For example, the apologetic prayers “Munda cor meum” (Cleanse my heart), recited prior to the proclamation of the Gospel, or “In spiritu humilitatis,” (In the spirit of humility) which precedes the “Lavabo” after the presentation of the offerings (bread and wine), allow the priest who prays them to be aware of the reality of his unworthiness and, at the same time, of the grandeur of his mission. “The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord’s hands.”[12]

The celebrant’s silence and his gestures of piety move the faithful who are participating in the celebration to be conscious of the need to prepare themselves, to convert, given the importance of the liturgical moment in which they are taking part: before the reading of the Gospel, or at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer.

For their part the apologetic prayers “Per huius aquae et vini” (Through this water and wine) during the Offertory, or the “Quod ore sumpsimus, Domine” (What by mouth, O Lord), during the purification of the sacred vessels, are perfectly situated in the desire to be introduced into and transformed by the “actio divina.” We must constantly bear in mind and heart that the eucharistic liturgy is “actio Dei” that unites us to Jesus through the Spirit.[13] These 2 prayers orient our existence toward the incarnation and resurrection and, in reality, constitute an element that favors the realization of that desire of the Church that the faithful not be present at the celebrations as mute spectators, but that they take an active part in giving thanks to God and learn how to offer themselves together with Christ.[14]

It does not seem excessive to us, then, to affirm that the apologetic prayers play a primary role in reminding the ordained minister that it “is the same priest, Christ Jesus, whose sacred person his minister truly represents. Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself (virtute ac persona ipsius Christi).”[15]

At the same time, they remind the priest that, being an ordained minister, he is “the sacramental bond that ties the liturgical action to what the apostles said and did and, through them, to the words and actions of Christ, the source and foundation of the sacraments.”[16] The prayers said by the priest in secret thus constitute an extraordinary means to unify, to form a community that is “liturgical” and that participates turned completely “versus Deum per Iesum Christum” (toward God through Jesus Christ).

A work of the Trinity

One of the apologetic prayers retained in the post-conciliar “Ordo Missae” spells out perfectly what we are saying: “Domine Iesu Christe, Filii Dei vivi, qui ex voluntate Patris cooperante Spiritu Sancto per mortem tuam mundum vivificasti” (Lord Jesus Christ, who by the will of the Father, with the working of the Holy Spirit, brought life to the world by your death). In fact, the prayers that the priest says in secret, and this one in particular, can in an effective way help the priest and the faithful to achieve a clear awareness that the liturgy is the work of the Most Holy Trinity. “The prayer and offering of the Church are inseparable from the prayer and offering of Christ, her head.”[17]

Thus we see that for over 1,000 years the apologetic prayers configure themselves as simple formulas purified by history, full of theological content, that permit the priest who prays them, and the faithful who participate in the silence that accompanies them, to be conscious of the “mysterium fidei” in which they participate and so to unite themselves to Christ regarding him as God, brother and friend.

For these reasons, we must rejoice that, despite the fact that the post-conciliar liturgical reform drastically reduced the number and noticeably revised the text of these prayers, they continue to be present even in the most recent “Ordo Missae.” The invitation to priests is not to skip these prayers during the celebration and also not to transform them from prayers of the priest to prayers of the whole assembly, reciting them aloud like all the other prayers. The apologetic prayers base themselves on and express a theology that is different and complementary to that which is behind the other prayers. This theology is manifested in the silent and reverent way in which they are prayed by the priest and accompanied by the other faithful.

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[1] John Paul II, “Messaggio all’Assemblea plenaria della Congregazione per il Culto Divino e la Disciplina dei Sacramenti,” September 21, 2001.[2] J. Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Preface to the first volume of the Collected Works.

[3] Cf. Benedict XVI, Homily for the Easter Vigil, March 22, 2008.[4] Benedict XVI, “Sacramentum Caritatis,” n. 65.

[5] Cf. John Paul II, “Messaggio all’Assemblea plenaria della Congregazione per il Culto Divino e la Disciplina dei Sacramenti,” September 21, 2001.[6] Benedict XVI, Homily for the Chrism Mass, March 20, 2008.

[7] John Paul II, “Ecclesia de Eucharistia,” no. 11.[8] John Paul II, “Holy Thursday Letter to Priests,” 2004.

[9] Cf. John Paul II, “Messaggio all’Assemblea plenaria della Congregazione per il Culto Divino e la Disciplina dei Sacramenti,” September 21, 2001.

[10] Benedict XVI, “Sacramentum caritatis,” no. 55.[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., no. 23.[13] Cf. Ibid., no. 37.

[14] Cf. Second Vatican Council II, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” no. 48.[15] Pius XII, “Mediator Dei,” cited in “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” no. 1548.

[16] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” no. 1120.[17] Ibid., no. 1553.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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