Canon Missae: Central Prayer of the Roman Catholic Mass

Canon Missae, or The Canon of the Mass, comprises the unchangable heart of the Roman Catholic Mass. The word Canon is derived from the Greek "Kanon" or "rule", signifying its permanence within the liturgy. Within the Canon, or eucharistic prayer, the wafer and wine becomes the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ effected at the point known as Consecration. The Consecration, though considered the high point of Mass, forms only a portion of the prayer. The Canon also contains prayers for the living and the dead, invocations of the Holy Spirit, and prayers underscoring the sacrificial nature of the Holy Eucharist. The lone eucharistic prayer before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the Canon has been joined by numerous other anaphoras under the name "Prex Eucharistica I (Eucharistic Prayer I)." The term "Canon" has been informally reserved for this oldest Roman prayer, believed to have been codified under the reign of Pope St. Gregory the Great at the turn of the 7th century.

Words Eagerly Seen, Rarely Heard: Te igitur, clementissime Pater

The evolution of Canon Missae through Western civilization narrates the development of religious art and doctrine. Before delving into historical analysis, I begin discussion of the Canon Missae through the study of what is known as a "Canon page" or illumination of the first few words of the Canon. The Canon begins with the two words Te igitur. While this snippet's removal from context reveals nothing about the Canon's meaning, the 'T' of 'te' offers ample room for imagination. Considering that the main focus of the Canon is the expiatory representation of Jesus in the unbloodied form of the wafer and wine, the embellishment of the 'T' of 'te' into a crucifix amplifies both the Canon's sacrificial nature and the importance of 'You', God crucified.

The left facing page of the Canon in almost every Latin language altar missal depicts the Crucifixion, many times with Mary and John at either side or with primitive Christian symbols such as the chi rho or alpha and omega. Canon pages remind the priest celebrant of the significant action ahead, whether as a simple print in a modern press produced missal or as a magnificent Medieval illumination glittering in gold leaf and layered with precise brushstrokes. Many times the illumination will include a small portion of the first prayer, usually the following igitur clementissime Pater, although early Medieval missals will frequently illuminate the 'Te' and continue the prayer until the end of the page. Indeed, Canon illuminations take the pietistic pulse of their day, summarizing an understanding of sacrifice in just two jeweled letters. The Canon page's sublime ornamentation often transfixes the mind towards the summit of prayer soon approaching.

The Canon page's artistic embellishment underscores the pains taken to separate this prayer from others at Mass. In today's new rite of Mass or Novus Ordo, the priest recites the entire Mass aloud and almost always in the vernacular translation. Until 1967 the Canon was always recited in a low tone, usually a whisper inaudible to worshippers in the nave. Bells rang to cue the faithful towards the Consecration, and the priest raised his voice during the prayer nobis quoque peccatoribus for reasons lost to history. I have always considered this burp a sign to the faithful that the priest is about to finish saying the Canon; however, the prayer does ask for God's graces on our behalf. Coincidentally, the Canon was the last part of the Mass translated into the vernacular given its high esteem in the Church's liturgical life. Many likened the silent recitation of the Canon to a verbal iconostas, or icon screen, shrouding the sacrificial utterances from ear given their awesome power. The silent Canon has survived where the old Tridentine Mass is still celebrated, though many have called for a universal return of this practice to shore up a perceived indifference to eucharistic dogma.

The Uncertain Genesis of the Canon Missae

The Canon's artistic power in so few words contradicts the uncertain origins of the prayer. Although many believe that the near definitive form of the Canon appeared during the reign of Pope St. Gregory the Great (AD 590 - 604), some propose earlier composition dates for a few component prayers. Considerable similarities exist between the Canon Missae and ancient forms of the Alexandrian and Antiochian eucharistic prayers. These similarities are most striking at the qui pridie (the opening clause of the Consecration) and the communicantes, or the intercession of the saints. (Catholic Encyclopedia:1908)

The famous opening line te igitur poses unique textual difficulties. The particle igitur suggests a related thought that does not precede the opening segment. Although this prototypical prayer may not have survived the cutting room floor, more likely than not the te igitur initially resided at another point in the prayer. One theory proposes that the prayer supplices te rogamus immediately preceded the te igitur at one point in the prototypical Canon. (Drews; Catholic Encyclopedia:1908) The rather arbitrary positioning of prayers within the Canon combined with theologically vague language has created headaches for modern liturgists eager for idealized eucharistic prayers according to exegesis and the needs of modern faith.

Liturgical Reform and Controversy

On the heels of Vatican II, the last years of the sixties witnessed a massive overhaul of Roman worship including the creation of many new eucharistic prayers. Some liturgists and theologians consider the Canon Missae incomplete, especially in its dearth of references to the Holy Spirit. Most jarring was the Canon's lack of an explicit epiklesis, or invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts soon to be consecrated. New eucharistic prayers complement the new rite of Mass, based on ancient prayers but in some respects newly composed. The authorized English translation of the Canon paraphrases the Latin, inserting new sentences to tie the Canon with the other eucharistic prayers. More literal English translations of the entire Roman Rite will appear by the end of this year.

Many liturgically conservative Catholics balk at the new eucharistic prayers, deeming them creations by committee and not an organic praxis honed over more than a millenium. Although expressly discouraged by Rome many priests only say the Canon Missae either from the approved English text or in Latin. For many, the textual differences between the Canon and other eucharistic prayers from other Rites of the Church need not be smoothed over or homogenized for the sake of idealism.


Fortescue, Adrian. (1908) "Canon of the Mass." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III Online ed. 2003. New York: Robert Appleton.

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