The Mystery of the Swiss Synod Eucharistic Prayer
Procedural Ambiguities and Theological Questions Plague the Latest Optional Canon
By Father Jerry Pokorsky and Helen Hull Hitchcock
“It was only recently that I was in a religious goods store and I saw this beautiful booklet on Eucharistic prayers and I thought, where did this come from?”, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan of Richmond remarked to his fellow bishops at last November’s plenary meeting. He was speaking of the Eucharistic Prayer for Masses for Various Needs and Occasions, usually called the “Swiss Synod” prayer because it originated in the Swiss conference of bishops.
Bishop Sullivan’s question reveals the confusion about this most recent addition to a growing number of options and choices of Eucharistic prayers for use in the United States. And this raises significant questions about the effect of constant change and the procedures by which changes are accomplished.
Background on the “Swiss Synod” Prayer
The Holy See had approved the original prayer in 1974, and the text eventually appeared in German, French and Italian. In 1991, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a Latin “typical edition” of the text, making it available to the universal Church for translation into the vernacular.
Two years ago, in November 1994, the American bishops had approved the English version of the Swiss Synod Eucharistic Prayer with little opposition. The English version of the text of the Swiss Synod prayer, translated by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL], was confirmed by the Holy See in May 1995.
In 1996, the Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minnesota published the Swiss Synod Eucharistic Prayer. Monsignor Alan F. Detscher, then executive director of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) had previously certified that the text agreed with the Latin “typical edition”.
There are many vexing problems surrounding the Swiss Synod prayer: it contributes to the confusing proliferation of liturgical options, it raises questions of translation principles, liturgical procedure and theological integrity, and it is not yet clear that the published text actually does conform to the typical edition.
Proliferation of Eucharistic Prayers
The recent introduction of the Swiss Synod prayer is simply the latest example of the growing number of Eucharistic prayers recently approved by the Church for universal use. The Eucharistic prayer, or canon, is at the heart of the Mass. Until 1965, the Roman Canon was the only Eucharistic prayer available for universal use in the Latin rite.
Today, thirty years after the Council, there are at least ten Eucharistic prayers approved for use in the US. (See “From One Eucharistic Prayer to Many“, by Father Cassian Folsom, OSB, Adoremus Bulletin, September 1996.)
It is interesting to note that no mandate for the composition of additional Eucharistic prayers is to be found in conciliar decrees. One scholar familiar with liturgical questions wrote, in private correspondence, that in 1965 he had “personally heard” Chicago Cardinal Albert Mayer explain that the Council had decided to permit some use of the vernacular in worship, but that “the Canon of the Mass will remain in Latin until the end of the world”.
The fathers of the Council who granted permission for use of the vernacular in Catholic worship, and other necessary changes to the liturgy, could not have foreseen the current proliferation of Eucharistic Prayers. (Even the decision to insert the name of Saint Joseph into the Roman Canon, which occurred during the Council, involved the intervention of the pope!)
The Canon as the Rule of Prayer
Why would increasing the number of Eucharistic prayers cause concern? Doesn’t a multiplicity of options make it possible to serve the “pastoral needs” of each parish better? What is the significance of the Eucharistic prayer, or Canon of the Mass?
The word “canon” comes from a Greek word meaning a rule, measure or standard. The Canon of the Mass is the standard of thanksgiving and blessing in the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Eucharist. It is the most essential part of the Mass.
During the Canon the great mystery of transubstantiationthe changing of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ takes place. Because the Canon is at the heart of the Mass, the maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of belief, applies to it in a special way.
The Canon, especially the Roman Canon (now usually called Eucharistic Prayer I), is made up of the words of Our Lord, of the tradition of the apostles and the legislated prayers of the Church over the centuries. The Roman Canon is truly a living historical artifact of Catholic prayer.
Effects of Constant Change
With the multiplication of Canons (or Eucharistic Prayers) there occurred also a multiplication of “rules” or standards of worship. The factors to be considered in changing the rule of worship, the law of prayer, is analogous to that of changing any law.
Saint Thomas Aquinas warns that even when a human law needs to be changed, there is danger of reducing the binding power of the law as a consequence of the change. Hence, laws should not be changed unless the existing law is “clearly unjust” or its observance “extremely harmful”:
human law is rightly changed, in so far as such change is conducive to the common weal. But, to a certain extent, the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good: because custom avails much for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave.
Consequently, when a law is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished. Wherefore human law should never be changed, unless, in some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect. Such compensation may arise either from some great and very evident benefit conferred by the new enactment; or from the extreme urgency of the case, due to the fact that either the existing law is clearly unjust, or its observance extremely harmful” (ST I-II, q. 97, art. 2, Volume II, Trans. by the English Dominican Province, page 1023).
What effect has the introduction of so many changes and options (especially in the Eucharistic prayers) in the Mass had on the devotional and faith life of the laity? Has the “binding power” of liturgical prayer, the law of prayer, been diminished as a result of the changes?
A Roper poll commissioned by Catholic World Report in February reveals that the majority of Catholics disagree with Church teaching on abortion, although the same poll showed that most Catholics prefer standard, not neutered, English in Catholic worship. The reason for this apparent contradiction may at some point be worth examining in detail. But for now it is enough to observe that the poll’s findings on pervasive dissent reveals that the “rule of faith” is in crisis. [editor’s note — to see more on this poll, click here.]
It would be an exaggeration to blame the breakdown of the rule of faith entirely on changes in the liturgy, such as the multiplication of Eucharistic Prayers or flawed translations. However, it is impossible not to see a strong correlation between the breakdown in the “law of belief” and the evident breakdown of the “law of prayer”.
Pope John Paul II evidently believes there is a connection. In December 1993, he addressed several American bishops, reminding them that:
One of your responsibilities in this regard [i.e., the revision of liturgical texts]… is to make available exact and appropriate translations of the official liturgical books so that, following the required review and confirmation by the Holy See (cf. CIC, can. 838, para. 2-3), they may be an instrument and guarantee of a genuine sharing in the mystery of Christ and the Church: lex orandi, lex credendi…. The arduous task of translation must guard the full doctrinal integrity and, according to the genius of each language, the beauty of the original texts.
Stability of the Sacral Vocabulary
The way language is used can have a profound effect on the doctrinal integrity of liturgical texts a point that has surfaced repeatedly during the debate over the ICEL revision of the Sacramentary. The Swiss Synod prayer suffers from the same flaws found in other contemporary liturgical texts, whether original and translated. One of the problems is “desacralizing” the traditional language of prayer.
One example of this tendency is in the Eucharistic Prayer for Masses with Children, which attempts to use the language of children: “He loved everyone and showed us how to be kind.”
The language of the Swiss Synod prayer is not for children, but it uses the same kind of cozy, prosaic expression, as the following excerpt shows:
You are truly blessed, O God of holiness:
you accompany us with love
as we journey through life.
Blessed too is your Son, Jesus Christ,
who is present among us
and whose love gathers us together.
As once he did for his disciples,
Christ now opens scriptures for us
and breaks the bread.
This falls far short of Pope John Paul II’s 1993 call for dignified and beautiful liturgical prayer:
When so many people are thirsting for the living God [Ps 42:2]whose majesty and mercy are at the heart of liturgical prayerthe Church must respond with a language of praise and worship which fosters respect and gratitude for God’s greatness, compassion and power. When the faithful gather to celebrate the work of our redemption, the language of their prayer free from doctrinal ambiguity and ideological influenceshould foster the dignity and beauty of the celebration itself, while faithfully expressing the Church’s faith and unity.
Many words have special meanings which are derived from Christian theology and tradition. Some examples of this “sacral vocabulary” are words like “beseech”, “righteous”, “merit”, certain lovely words like “handmaid”. Words acquire religious connotations from use in the liturgy, somewhat in the same way as objects such as a chalice or a candle become endowed with special religious meaning.
Use of such words lends a certain stability to the liturgy. And the words we use in the liturgy influence the way we speak and pray when we are not reading the actual texts. When was the last time you heard a homily on the “salvation of souls” or “merit” or the theological virtue of charity (as opposed to “love”)? The rule of prayer is the rule of faith.
Replacement of this vocabulary in most re-translations with “contemporary” equivalents, has been justified by a 1969 Vatican document on translation principles, known by its French title, Comme le prévoit: (“as foreseen…”). For example
so long as the teaching of the Gospel remains intact, not only must inappropriate expressions be avoided, but others found which express a corresponding meaning in modern words. The greatest care must be taken that all translations are not only beautiful and suited to the contemporary mind, but express true doctrine and authentic Christian spirituality.
What is Lost in Translation?
The multiplication of Eucharistic prayers (including, besides those four printed in missalettes, the Swiss Synod prayer, the three Eucharistic prayers for Masses with children and the two Masses of reconciliation) may intend to anticipate every “contemporary need”. But surely there is an even more compelling “contemporary need” to transmit the Catholic faith intact, and to link the Church today to her rich theological tradition.
ICEL’s flawed translation of the Roman Canon (approved by the US bishops in June 1995) highlights the close connection between the law of prayer and the law of faith. For example, ICEL translated the phrase (from the Roman Canon) pro redemptione animarum suarum (for the re-demption of their souls) as “for our well-being and redemption.” ICEL failed to translate “soul”.
After the Consecration, the Canon uses a beautiful phrase in reference to the consecrated Host: offerimus hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam. Here ICEL retained the flawed 1973 translation, “this holy and perfect sacrifice.” The Latin is considerably more vivid (pure, holy, spotless) and more obviously connects the epithets of the lamb of sacrifice with the Eucharistic action. But these images of faith are lost in translation.
At the June 1995 bishops’ meeting, Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, DC, called for a more accurate translation of the Roman Canon (or Eucharistic Prayer I). His amendment was narrowly defeated; however, the close vote probably led to the withdrawal of Cardinal Bernardin’s motion to permit standing during the entire Eucharistic prayer.
Who Changed the Swiss Synod Prayer?
The Swiss Synod Eucharistic prayer also raises questions about how liturgical texts are approved. The text the US bishops approved is not exactly the same as the published version. The final version of the Swiss Synod prayer includes an innovation in which the people, at various points, are invited to “take up the acclamation” such as “Blessed are you, holy and faithful God.” This interruption of the Canon was not included in the original text presented to the bishops for vote.
Traditionally, the Canon of the Mass is recited by the celebrant alone. This signifies his distinction from the people in the exercise of his priestly office. He is like the high priest of the Old Testament who once a year entered the holy of holies alone to offer sacrifice (Heb. 9:7).
The repeated interruptions, besides being distracting, also have the symbolic effect of engaging the congregation in the Eucharistic prayer of admitting the people into the “holy of holies” reserved for the priest who alone confects the Eucharist.
Evidently the acclamation was added after the bishops’ vote, presumably either by ICEL, the liturgy committee or the Vatican. The acclamation made its appearance when the “Eucharistic Prayer for Masses for Various Needs and Occasions” was published in 1996. No explanation was given as to the origin and authority of the inserted acclamations.
How did this happen? If ICEL or the liturgy committee inserted the acclamations before Rome received the prayer for confirmation, on whose authority were they included? Why didn’t the bishops vote on the acclamations? Did the Vatican know that the bishops did not vote on the changed text? Were the bishops informed of the change when the acclamations were inserted into the text? So far, the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy has not responded to Adoremus’ request for clarification.
Are we quibbling over a minor matter? Not when the effect is to further blur the distinction between priest and people and reduce the role of the priest to one of a mere “presider” or “leader of the assembly”. There are serious questions of ecclesiology and authority here that should be acknowledged and addressed.
Effect of Confusion on Evangelization
In the early 1990s, the liturgy committee changed the response to the proclamation of the readings at Mass. The translation of Verbum Domini, “This is the Word of the Lord” was changed to “The Word of the Lord”. The bishops approved this minor change and the Vatican confirmed it. The liturgy committee painstakingly informed the dioceses of the United States and priests were informed of this change with a flurry of letters.
At the time, most people did not understand why mandating this change was regarded as so important by the BCL. In retrospect it seems clear it was intended to prepare the ground for the confusing avalanche of proposed translations, adaptations and changes to the liturgy that followed. The ambiguity which now surrounds the Swiss Synod prayer suggests that yet another problem has emerged: apparently unauthorized changes to liturgical texts are being justified.
What will happen if legitimate procedures are simply bypassed by those impatient for change? What effect might this have on the unity of the Church and the integrity of the liturgy? What effect is it intended to have?
Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee remarked, during the NCCB meeting in November 1993, that the bishops can easily “get lost in the maze of detail.” Bishop Sullivan’s mystification at the appearance of the Swiss Synod prayer attests to this confusion.
Bishop Donald Trautman, former chairman of the BCL, expressed impatience with the Holy See, even as the latest Vatican consultation on the proposed Lectionary was in progress. In late February, Bishop Trautman told an audience at the University of St. Thomas (Houston) that it would be a “sad day” for the Catholic Church in the United States and for Catholic biblical scholarship if the Holy See did not approve language that “includes women”.
Bishop Trautman warned that unless an “inclusive language” version of the revised Lectionary for Mass is approved by the Vatican, people will change the texts anyway, improvising according to their personal preferences. His warning implicitly acknowledges the breakdown liturgical discipline an inevitable result of disregard for liturgical tradition and endless accommodation of supposed “contemporary needs”.
The Holy Father has called the Church to a “New Evangelization” by the year 2000. But perpetually shifting liturgy impedes the bold proclamation of the Gospel. Constant changes to the “law of prayer” inevitably undermines the “law of belief”.
(Father Pokorsky is a priest in the Arlington diocese, and a member of the editorial committee of Adoremus. Helen Hull Hitchcock is Editor of Adoremus Bulletin and President ofWomen for Faith and Family.)