Question: I noticed that there are four different Eucharistic Prayers that the priest can choose from in the Mass. Where did they come from and how can we know which one you will choose for Mass?
Answer: You may have noticed, like the questioner, that there are different options that the priest can choose from in the Mass. The central prayer of the Mass, called the Eucharistic Prayer, where the bread and wine are offered to the Lord and become, through the prayer of the priest and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Body and Blood of Christ, has four main options, with five other options that are chosen less often. Let’s look at the history of the main four prayers.
Eucharistic Prayer I, called the Roman Canon was the only option in the Roman Church for most of our history. Very early in the history of the Church the prayers of the Mass differed from place to place, and we have evidence of what these prayers were like in the writings of the early Christians. These prayers typically followed similar patterns but differed in the exact wording. They began to be standardized in the first few centuries of the Church. Some of these ancient prayers, including the Roman Canon, are still used today. Some scholars have suggested that parts of the Roman Canon may go back to St. Peter himself. Pope St. Gregory the Great, around the year 600 A.D., collected the prayers of the Mass all in one book, and it was this form of the Roman Canon that was used in the Church until 1970. In the revisions of the Mass after Vatican II there were a few changes made to the Roman Canon, but it was left mostly intact. The Roman Canon has been used in the Roman Catholic Church for at least 1600 years, and parts of it go back even further.
In the 1960’s a desire began to grow in some parts of the Church for more options in the Eucharistic Prayers, mainly out of a desire for variety. Throughout this time hundreds of unauthorized Eucharistic Prayers were written and distributed in various languages, especially Dutch, French, and German. The committee that was given the task of revising the Mass composed three new Eucharistic Prayers in the 1960’s. They were approved by Pope Paul VI in 1968 and they were issued in 1970. Those are the current Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV.
The three new Eucharistic Prayers are different lengths, on purpose, with II being the shortest, III in the middle, and IV the longest, although IV is still a bit shorter than the Roman Canon. Eucharistic Prayer II is based on the Anaphora of Hippolytus (an anaphora is a Eucharistic Prayer), from The Apostolic Tradition by St. Hippolytus of Rome around 215 A.D. It isn’t a direct translation of that prayer, but it was clearly inspired by it, so this prayer also has a long history in the Roman Church.
Eucharistic Prayers III and IV are based on Eucharistic Prayers written by Fr. Vagaggini, OSB, in the summer of 1966. They aren’t based on any specific ancient prayers, but rather on Fr. Vagaggini’s and other scholar’s study of ancient anaphoras and modern ideas about theology and liturgy. Fr. Vagaggini had a special devotion to the Holy Spirit which can be seen in Eucharistic Prayer III. Eucharistic Prayer IV, on the other hand, is a summary of salvation history.
The GIRM, or General Instruction of the Roman Missal, contains the rules on how to celebrate Mass, and it has the force of law. It tells us that the Roman Canon can be used for any Mass, and that it is especially suited for higher solemnities, feasts of the apostles and saints mentioned in it, and on Sundays. I almost always use it on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation and sometimes on other Solemnities and Feasts. Eucharistic Prayer II is suited for weekdays, but it is the one used most often by most priests. Eucharistic Prayer III is suited for Sundays and feast days of saints. I rarely use it on Sundays, but I will often use it for Feast Days that fall on weekdays. Eucharistic Prayer IV can only be used with its own Preface, so it can’t be used during Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter, or on most feast days. I will often use it once or twice a year during Ordinary Time in the summer.
The other Eucharistic Prayers in the Roman Missal are meant for special occasions. I’ve personally never used them. Four options are enough for me.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.