Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: What is the meaning of the words “The mystery of faith” at the end of the consecration? Do they refer to the totality of the Eucharistic rites or, as some suggest by making an indicative gesture toward the Eucharistic species, to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist? — F.M., Turin, Italy
A: In order to explain this we shall have to place this text in context.
In the pre-conciliar liturgy, and hence also in the extraordinary form, these words are found within the rite of consecration of the chalice. To wit:
“For this is the Chalice of My Blood, of the new and eternal Covenant: the Mystery of faith: which shall be shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins. As often as ye shall do these things, ye shall do them in remembrance of me.”
Everybody admits that the expression “The mystery of faith” is non-biblical and was added to the consecration formula before the sixth century. Some authors plausibly suggest that it was added by Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) in order to combat the Manicheans who denied the goodness of material things. In this way the Pope underlined the gift of salvation itself comes through the shedding of Christ’s material blood as well as through partaking in the material elements used in the Eucharistic sacrifice that makes this sacrifice present in the here and now.
The expression was removed from the consecration rite after a series of long debates by the experts preparing the new rites. At first there had been no intention of introducing new Eucharistic Prayers but simply to make some minor adaptations to the Roman Canon. The experts, however, as they are wont to do, were quickly gridlocked into opposing proposals. Pope Paul VI then decided to leave the canon as it was and approved the suggestion that alternative prayers be prepared.
None of the new prayers proposed retained the non-biblical expression “mystery of faith,” and the forms of consecration were slightly different in each one. Paul VI again intervened and mandated that the form of consecration must be the same in all of the Eucharistic Prayers and that the expression “Mysterium fidei,” whose presence in the canon had been hallowed by centuries of use, should be conserved, not in the formula of the consecration, but as an introduction to an acclamation by the people.
This acclamation by the people was a novelty for the Roman rite although quite common in some other ancient rites such as the Alexandrian.
With respect to its meaning we can say the following. The possible historical context of Manichaeism mentioned above has little relevance for today. I believe that the best key to interpreting the present liturgical meaning of the expression comes from the texts of the people’s acclamations:
“We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.”
“When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again.”
“Save us, Savior of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free.”
All three expressions show that the expression “The mystery of faith” is not limited to the Real Presence but rather to the entire mystery of salvation through Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension which is made present in the celebration of the Eucharist.
In Ireland the bishops received approval for a fourth option, “My Lord and my God.” It is a curiosity that in one of his memos Paul VI had suggested that this particular expression was not suitable for the acclamation for, while it expresses a truth of the faith, it appears to center the attention primarily on the Real Presence rather than on the Eucharistic sacrifice in its entirety.
Perhaps if one takes into account the biblical context of St. Thomas the Apostle’s proclamation of the divinity of Christ, at once wounded and risen, then this expression also embraces the entire mystery.
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Follow-up: When to Wear a Dalmatic
In the wake of our Sept. 23 article on dalmatics, a reader asked for further clarifications regarding the vesture of the deacon: “Can a permanent deacon wear a cassock for house visits etc.? Also, is it OK for him to be addressed as “father,” “brother,” “deacon”?
A deacon, permanent or transitory, may wear a cassock in those liturgical situations where it is worn with a surplice. Regarding other situations, it depends on the norms issued by the bishops’ conference and/or the local bishop with respect to clerical vesture of permanent deacons. These norms vary widely from place to place.
A similar situation reigns with the mode of address for a deacon. In some places it is “the Reverend Mr. Deacon Smith”; in others, simply “Deacon Jones.” In some places “Father” is used, but this is not very common and is used only to refer to transitional and not permanent deacons.
Another reader, from Maine, asked for a clarification regarding the Liturgy of the Hours: “My parish prays Morning Prayer before the weekday Mass and adds ‘The Word of the Lord’ with the response ‘Thanks Be to God’ after the Reading, just as we would during Sunday Mass after the First and Second Readings. I have found no reference that this is a mandatory addition when praying the Divine Office privately. Would you kindly clarify?”
The customary practice for proclaiming the short reading during Morning and Evening Prayer is to omit any salutations or conclusions. The reader or cantor either goes to the ambo or stays put in the pews and simply proclaims the text. There is no “A reading from” at the beginning nor “The word of the Lord” at the end. This holds true for both public and private recitation.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.