The Priest in the Offertory of the Mass

Reflection by Father Juan José Silvestre Valór

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ROME, FEB. 19, 2010 ( This article by Juan José Silvestre Valór, professor of liturgy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and consultor to the Office of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, describes the priest’s role in the Offertory of the Holy Mass.

The commentary only takes the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite into consideration, which, in comparison to the Extraordinary Form, has been simplified with regard both to the gestures and the prayers. The article shows the spiritual richness, which is still possible to identify, despite the simplification of the Ordinary Form.

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«In the early Church there was a custom whereby the Bishop or the priest, after the homily, would cry out to the faithful: ‘Conversi ad Dominum’ — turn now toward the Lord. This meant in the first place that they would turn toward the East, toward the rising sun, the sign of Christ returning, whom we go to meet when we celebrate the Eucharist. Where this was not possible, for some reason, they would at least turn towards the image of Christ in the apse, or towards the Cross, so as to orient themselves inwardly toward the Lord.

Fundamentally, this involved an interior event; «conversion,» the turning of our soul toward Jesus Christ and thus toward the living God, toward the true light.»[1] These words of the Holy Father Benedict XVI permit us to introduce the theme that we would like to focus on: the priest in the Offertory of the Holy Mass.

After the Liturgy of the Word we enter into the Eucharistic Liturgy. As we know, both parts of the Mass «are closely united and form a single act of worship.»[2] This part of the Mass begins with the «oblatio donorum,» or the presentation of the gifts, the first gesture that the priest, representing Christ the Lord, performs in the Eucharistic Liturgy.[3] This is not a mere interlude between the two parts of the Mass but is rather a moment in which they are unified, without being confused, and so form a single rite. In fact the Liturgy of the Word, which the Church reads and proclaims in the liturgy, leads to the Eucharist.

The Liturgy of the Word is a true discourse, which awaits and demands a response. It has the character of proclamation and dialogue: God who speaks to his people and the people who answer and make the divine Word their own through silence and through song. They adhere to it and profess their faith in the «profession fidei» and, filled with confidence, they present their requests to the Lord.[4] Consequently, the turning of the one who proclaims toward those who listen, and vice versa, implie that it is reasonable that they face each other.[5]

Nevertheless, when the priest leaves the ambo or his seat to ascend to the altar — the center of the whole Eucharistic Liturgy[6] — we prepare ourselves in a more immediate way for the common prayer of the priest and the faithful directed to the Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit.[7] In this part of the celebration the priest speaks to the people only from the altar,[8] since the sacrificial action that takes place in the Eucharistic Liturgy is not principally directed to the community. In fact, the spiritual and interior orientation of everyone, of the priest — as representative of the entire Church — and of the faithful, is «versus Deum per Iesum Christum» (toward God through Jesus Christ). In this way we better understand the acclamation of the ancient Church: «Conversi ad Dominum» (turn toward the Lord). «Of course the priest and the people do not pray to each other, rather toward the one Lord. Therefore, during the prayer they face in the same direction, toward the image of Christ in the apse or toward a cross, or simply toward heave, as the Lord did in his priestly prayer on the eve of his Passion.»[9]

The «oblatio donorum,» that is, the Offertory or the presentation of the gifts, prepares the sacrifice. In the early Church it was a simple external preparation of the center and summit of the whole celebration, which is the Eucharistic Prayer. This is evident in the testimony of St. Justin,[10] or in the more elaborate development that the «Ordo Romanus I» presents already in the 7th century. At any rate, to limit oneself to considering the offering of the faithful in these first centuries only from the point of view of a simple external preparation would be to empty the action of its ideal and concrete meaning.[11]

Indeed, quite early this material gesture was understood in a much more profound way. This preparation came to be conceived not only as a necessary external action but as an essentially interior process. It was seen as related to the Jewish practice in which the head of the household lifted up the bread to God to receive it again from him, renewed. Eventually, understood in a deeper way, this gesture was associated with Israel’s preparation for presenting herself before the Lord. In this way, the external gesture of the preparation of the gifts was more and more regarded as an interior preparation before the nearness of the Lord, who seeks the Christians in their offerings. In reality «it is made clear that we are the true gift of sacrifice conformed to the Word, or at least we must become this through participation in the act by which Jesus Christ offers himself to the Father.»[12]

This deepening of the gesture of the presentation of the gifts stems from the logic of the external form that the Holy Mass itself presents.[13] Its primordial element, the radical «novum» that Jesus inserts into the Jewish sacrificial supper, is precisely the «Eucharist,» that is, that it is a memorial prayer of thanksgiving. This prayer, the solemn Eucharistic Prayer, is something more than a series of words: it is a divine action that is realized through human discourse. Through it the elements of the earth are transubstantiated, wrested, so to speak, from their creaturely reality, taken into something more profound and transformed into the Body and Blood of the Lord. We ourselves, participating in this action, are transformed and converted into the true Body of Christ. Thus, we understand that «[the] remembrance of his perfect gift consists not in the mere repetition of the Last Supper, but in the Eucharist itself, that is, in the radical newness of Christian worship. In this way, Jesus left us the task of entering into his ‘hour.’ ‘The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving.’ Jesus ‘draws us into himself’.»[14]

It is God himself who is at work in the Eucharistic Prayer and we feel ourselves drawn by this action of God.[15] In this journey, which begins with the presentation of the gifts, the priest plays a mediating role, as happens in the Canon or in the administering of Communion. Although in the current offertorial procession the task of the faithful is above all in evidence, the mediation of the priest always remains because the priest receives the gifts and places them on the altar.[16]

In this movement toward the «oratio,» which carries the offering of self with it, the external gestures are secondary. With the «oratio» man’s action takes a backseat. What is essential is God’s action. Through the Eucharistic Prayer he wants to transform us and the world. Because of this, it is logical that we draw near to the Eucharistic Prayer in silence. And it remains necessary that corresponding to the external procession of the presentation of the gifts there is an interior procession. In «the preparation of ourselves we place ourselves on a journey, we present ourselves to the Lord: we ask him that he prepare us for the transformation. The community’s silence is therefore the community’s prayer, and ultimately its common action; it is the beginning of a journey toward the Lord in our daily life, making ourselves his contemporaries.»[17]

Thus, the moment of the «oblatio donorum,» while it is a «humble and simple gesture, [it] is actually very signi
ficant: in the bread and wine that we bring to the altar, all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer to be transformed and presented to the Father.»[18] This is what we can call the cosmic and universal character of the eucharistic celebration. The offertory prepares the celebration and we place ourselves within «the ‘mysterium fidei’ which is accomplished in the Eucharist: the world which came forth from the hands of God the Creator now returns to him redeemed by Christ.»[19]

This is what the elevation of the gifts and the prayers that accompany it are: «Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.» The content of the prayers is connected with the prayers that the Jews recited at table. They are prayers that, in the form of benedictions, have as their reference point the Passover of Israel and are thought, declaimed and lived thinking of this event. This supposes that they were chosen as a silent anticipation of the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ. For this reason, the preparation and the definitive reality of the sacrifice of Christ interpenetrate in these words.

On the other hand, «we also bring to the altar all the pain and suffering of the world, in the certainty that everything has value in God’s eyes.»[20] In reality, «the celebrant, as minister of this sacrifice, is the authentic priest, performing-in virtue of the specific power of-sacred ordination-a true sacrificial act that brings creation back to God. Although all those who participate in the Eucharist do not confect the sacrifice as He does, they offer with Him, by virtue of the common priesthood, their own spiritual sacrifices represented by the bread and wine from the moment of their presentation at the altar.»[21]

The bread and wine become, in a certain sense, the symbol of all that that the eucharistic assembly as such brings in offering to God and that it offers in spirit. This is the force and the spiritual meaning of the presentation of the gifts.[22] In this light we understand the incensing of the gifts on the altar, of the cross and the altar itself, which signifies the offering of the Church and her prayer, which ascend like incense into the presence of God.[23]

«We now better understand why the Eucharistic Liturgy, as a presentation and offering of creation and [the faithful themselves] to God began, in the early Church with the acclamation: ‘Conversi ad Dominum’ — we must always distance ourselves from the dangerous pathways on which we often travel with our thoughts and deeds. We must instead always direct ourselves toward him. We must always be converted, with our whole life directed toward God.»[24]

This path of conversion, which must be more intense and immediate in the moment leading up to the Eucharistic Prayer, must always be guided in the first place by the cross. In this connection Benedict XVI makes the following proposal: «Do not go on with new transformations but simply place the cross at the center of the altar. The priest and the faithful look together toward the cross to let themselves be guided in this way by the Lord, to whom all pray together.»[25]

On the other hand, the gesture of the presentation of the gifts and the attitude with which it is done stimulate the desire of conversion and the gift of self. The gestures and the words that are directed toward this end are different. Let us briefly look at two of them:

a) The prayer «In spiritu humilitatis»[26]: This formula entered into the liturgical books of France in the 9th century. It appears for the first time in the sacramentary of Amiens, in the offertorial part.[27] In the Roman liturgy we already find it in the «Ordo» of the Curia and from there it passed into the Missal of Pius V.

As Lodi points out, before the text of the great Eucharistic Prayer begins (the Roman Canon), which must be faithfully recited and in which it is the most difficult to express personal intentions, we find this prayer that permits the celebrant to express his sentiments. At the same time, though the biblical Word that inspires this whole prayer, the ultimate meaning of external offering is expressed: the gift of the heart accompanied by the intimate disposition of personal sacrifice.[28]

We observe that the plural articulation («sacrificium nostrum») seems to indicate, once more, that the celebrating priest pronounces it in the name of the people. The fact that it is said silently by the priest does not seem to us a sufficient reason to regard it as a private prayer. Indeed, the prayers of the presentation of gifts themselves can be said aloud or quietly and in no way are they considered private.
The silence that is produced in this moment of apologetic prayer, and the position — a profound bow — of the priest, which is clearly penitential, helps those present at the celebration to enter into the invisible realm and emphasizes the idea of the necessity of penitence and humility in our encounter with God. Humility and reverence before holy mysteries. These are attitudes that reveal the substance itself of any liturgy.[29]

b) The lavabo[30]: The priest’s washing of his hands does not represent a universal tradition (in Italy and Spain it is not met with until almost the end of the 15th century, while is France it was introduced in the «Ordines» that came from Rome toward the end of the 9th centiry).[31] In Rome it had an entirely practical function, even though later it also acquired a symbolic value.[32] 
Currently, the lavabo is an entirely symbolic gesture, as can be deduced from the formula that goes along with it, and as can also be seen from the fact that, in general, all that get washed are the tips of the priest’s fingers and thumb, those that touch the sacred Host. We can say that the rite expresses the desire for interior purification.[33] Some have proposed and continue to propose the suppression of this rite. We do not share this idea, because we believe that it has a clear catechetical value and, moreover, renewed penitential act of the priest, who in that moment is disposing himself to the eucharistic act and is preparing himself for it. At the same time, as Lodi notes,[34] the formula that accompanies the washing of the hands is already present in Christian antiquity as a solemn practice used before the priest recollects himself in prayer, as is testified to by Tertullian [35] and the «Apostolic Tradition».[36]

The priest concludes the presentation of the gifts turning to the faithful and asking them to pray that «my sacrifice and yours will be acceptable to God the Father almighty.» «These words are binding, since they express the character of the entire Eucharistic Liturgy and the fullness of its divine and ecclesial content.» [37] The same can be said for the response of the faithful: «May the Lord accept this sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his Holy Church.» It is therefore logical that the «[a]wareness of the act of presenting the offerings should be maintained throughout the Mass,»[38] because the faithful must learn to offer themselves in the act of offering the immaculate Host, not only through the hands of the priest, but also together with him. [39] [Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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[1] Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil Homily, March 22, 2008.[2] «Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani» (General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM)), No. 28; cf. Vatican II, «Sacrosanctum Concilium,» No. 56.

[3] Cf. GIRM, Nos. 72-73.[4] Cf. GIRM, No. 55.

[5] Cf. J. Ratzinger, «El espíritu de la liturgia. Una introducción,» p. 102.[6] Cf. GIRM, No. 73.[7] Cf. GIRM, No. 78.

[8] Cf. «Pregare ‘ad Orientem versus’,» «Notitiae.» 322, vol. 29 (1993), p. 249.[9] J. Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, «Gesammelte Schriften,» Preface to vol. XI: «Theologie der Liturgie.»

[10] Cf. St. Justin Martyr, «Apology,» I, 65 ff.[11] Cf. V
. Raffa, «Oblazione dei fedeli,» in «Liturgia eucaristica. Mistagogia della Messa: dalla storia e dalla teologia alla pastorale pratica,» CLV-Edizioni Liturgiche, Rome, 2003, p. 405.

[12] J. Ratzinger, «El espíritu de la liturgia. Una introducción,» p. 237.[13] Cf. J. Ratzinger, «Forma y contenido de la celebración eucarística,» in «La fiesta de la fe,» pp. 43-66.

[14] Benedict XVI, «Sacramentum Caritatis,» No. 11.[15] «The greatness of Christ’s work consists precisely in the fact that he does not remain isolated and separated from us, that he does not relegate us to a merely passive role; not only does he support us, but he carries us, he identifies with us, whose sins belong to him, whose being belongs to us: he truly accepts us in such a way that we become active with him and from him; we act with him and so participate in his sacrifice, we share in his mystery. Thus also our life and our suffering, our hope and our love become fruitful in the new hear he has given us» (J. Ratzinger, «Il Dio vicino,» pp. 47-48).

[16] Cf. GIRM, No. 73.[17] J. Ratzinger, «El espíritu de la liturgia. Una introducción,» p. 236.[18] Benedict XVI, «Sacramentum Caritatis,» No. 47.

[19] John Paul II, «Ecclesia de Eucharistia,» No. 8. «However it is explained, objectively speaking, it does not seem possible to deny the effective involvement, already actual in the action and movement (which we say is sacrificial by nature — ‘offerimus’), of the earth, of man and his creative activity, obviously not as an absolute object closed in on himself and definitively complete in the fleeting moment, but dynamic, open to what is to come and aimed at a goal that is future in itself but already present in the mind and heart. Certainly in the ritual the sacrifice will only be represented in the eucharistic prayer. Nevertheless, it will not be as an event that emerges out of nowhere. It will be rather be the culmination of a discipline that is lived interiorly and wholly directed toward it» (V. Raffa, «Liturgia eucaristica: Mistagogia della Messa: dalla storia e dalla teologia alla pastorale pratica,» p. 415).

[20] Benedict XVI, «Sacramentum Caritatis,» No. 47.[21] John Paul II, «Dominicae Cenae,» No. 9.

[22] Cf. GIRM, No. 73.[23] Cf. GIRM, No. 75.

[24] Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil Homily, March 22, 2008. [sic][25] J. Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, «Gesammelte Schriften,» Preface to vol. XI: «Theologie der Liturgie.»

[26] Cf. J. Jungmann, «El sacrificio eucarístico,» II, nos. 52, 58, 60, 105. M. Righetti, «Historia de la Liturgia,» II, p. 292.[27] Cf. P. Tirot, «Histoire des prières d’offertoire dans la liturgie romaine du VIIe au XVIe siècle,» «Ephemerides Liturgicae» 98 (1984), p. 169.

[28] Cf. E. Lodi, «Les prières privées du prêtre dans le déroulement de la messe romain», in «L’Eucharistie: célebrations, rites, piétés,» BEL Subsidia 79, CLV-Edizioni Liturgiche, Rome 1995, p. 246.

[29] Cf. John Paul II, Message to the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Sept. 21, 2001.

[30] Cf. J. Jungmann, «El sacrificio eucarístico,» nos. 83-84. M. Righetti, «Historia de la Liturgia,» II, pp. 282-284.

[31] Cf. P. Tirot, «Histoire des prières d’offertoire dans la liturgie romaine du VIIe au XVIe siècle,» pp. 174-177.

[32] It should not be forgotten that the symbolic ablution is found very early on in the Eastern liturgy. It is attested to by Cyril of Jerusalem, who died in 387. (cf. «Catechesi mistagogiche,» V, 2: ed. A. Piédagnel, SCh 126, 146-148) and in the 5th and 6th centuries in Pseudo-Dionysius (cf. «Ecclesiastica Hierarchia,» III, 3, 10: PG 3, 437D-440AB).

[33] GIRM, No. 76: «The priest then washes his hands at the side of the altar, a rite that is an expression of his desire for interior purification.»

[34] Cf. E. Lodi, «Les prières privées du prêtre dans le déroulement de la messe romain,» p. 246.

[35] Cf. Tertullian, «De oratione,» III: CSEL 20, 188.[36] Cf. «Tradition Apostolique,» 41, SCh 22 bis, 125.

[37] John Paul II, «Dominicae Cenae,» No. 9.[38] Ibid.[39] Cf. Vatican II, «Sacrosanctum Concilium,» No. 48.

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