Editor’s note: The following entry begins a series of pieces by Benedictine Father Boniface Hicks on the private prayers of the priest at Mass. Future entries of “The Quiet That Speaks” will be published in our electronic newsletter, AB Insight, and be posted on our website, Adoremus.org.
The Roman Ritual for the Mass instructs the priest to offer certain prayers quietly (secreto). These “private” prayers of the priest in the celebration of the Holy Mass carry layers of meaning. Both priest and people benefit from some mystagogical reflection on these prayers. That reflection begins with the importance of reciting prescribed, yet unheard prayers, and then follows with specific reflections on the words, gestures, and context of the Mass for each of the prayers.
To start, we must first consider the value of prescribing prayers for the priest to say but that the people cannot hear. This goes together with a more general reflection on the meaning of intentional periods of silence in the Mass. The Roman Rite Mass prescribes periods of silence at various points, including after the readings, after the homily, and after the reception of Holy Communion. These silences are not merely emptiness or a lack of something to say or do. To the contrary, they are a sign that we are fully engaged in something in those moments that words would only cheapen. Like the silence that fills heaven for about half an hour when the Lamb opens the seventh seal (Revelation 8:1), silence in the Mass is a sign that something profound has happened and we are summoned to sustain our interior attention without the distraction even of good words or other gestures.
Therefore, silence in the Mass carries a meaning of a shared, hidden fullness with God, a form of divine communion and intimacy. It is intended in the same spirit as Jesus’ exhortation for us to go into our inner room and pray to the Father in secret where the Father who sees in secret will reward us (Matthew 6:6). Some might interpret Jesus’ words as referring only to the need for private prayer outside of the public worship of liturgical prayer. The intentional silences in the Mass and the unheard prayers of the priest, however, are intended to overcome that false dichotomy, and they point out the way that our secret prayer is also supposed to permeate the Mass. This is the sign value of seeing the priest’s lips moving silently or possibly hearing only the whispering sound of his low voice as he addresses his secret prayer to the Father. Thus, the very fact that the prayers are intended not to be heard is an important ritual action in the Mass.
Each of these prayers then are a sign of the secret inner dialogue that takes place between God and each believer during the Mass, and they are also specifically a sign that the priest himself carries out a personal inner dialogue with God during the Mass. He is not merely a functionary who mechanically carries out certain ritual words and gestures in order to bring about a particular result, however powerful and important that result may be. He is also personally a participant in these sacred mysteries. His own relationship with God grows through his silent, internal participation in the prayers of the Mass. That comes through especially clearly in the conclusion of the Preparation of Gifts in which several of the silent prayers are prescribed. After silently (or mostly silently) preparing the altar, the priest says, “Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours….” Here we see that the priest is playing a different role from the faithful (distinctly offering the sacrifice of Christ in a way the faithful are not), and yet with the silent prayers that he has been saying in preparing the gifts, we see that he also has his own personal participation, similar to the rest of the faithful.
Obviously, there is nothing “secret” about the content of the prayers spoken quietly by the priest. They are easily accessible and published in the vernacular for all to find. They are also not meant to exhaust the inner prayer of the priest, but to serve as initial liturgical formulations that help him to enter into and offer himself more fully at those points in the liturgy. They are also meant to provide starting points for the personal prayer of the lay faithful at those points of the Mass. As stated concisely on the Vatican’s webpage for liturgical celebrations: “The celebrant’s silence and his gestures of piety move the faithful who are participating in the celebration to be conscious of the need to prepare themselves, to convert, given the importance of the liturgical moment in which they are taking part: before the reading of the Gospel, or at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer.”
The first of the priest’s quiet prayers is in preparation for the proclamation of the Gospel: Munda cor meum ac labia mea, omnipotens Deus, ut sanctum Evangelium tuum digne valeam nuntiare (“Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel”). When there is a deacon reading the Gospel, a variant of this prayer is offered as a blessing for the deacon, but the rubrics prescribe that in the absence of a deacon the priest says this prayer quietly while bowing before the altar. The ritual calls for a combination of words, gesture, and location which all carry sacramental significance at this particular point in the Mass.
What is the significance of this particular point in the Mass? The proclamation of the Holy Gospel is a high point for the Liturgy of the Word and it takes place last among the readings to indicate its importance. Even though the other readings from the Epistles or the Acts of the Apostles may have occurred later historically, the Gospel always presents Christ’s mysteries most directly, and so it comes at the end to show its primacy of place. Jesuit Father Joseph Jungmann states that there is a “strict rule which holds true in all liturgies, that the last of the readings should consist of a passage from the Gospels” because “they contain the ‘good tidings,’ the fulfillment of all the past, and the point from which all future ages radiate.” The significance of the proclamation of the Gospel is also set apart by the restriction of who may proclaim it. It is ordinarily proclaimed by the deacon in Western liturgies, because he is the highest assisting cleric, or in his absence the priest or bishop himself proclaims it.
The significance of this proclamation of the saving mysteries as contained in the Gospel gives the reason for the quiet preparatory prayer in its words, gesture, and location. Such a prayer can be found already in the earliest Roman Ordo. The content of the prayer focuses on the worthiness of the one who proclaims the holy Gospel. This is no wonder since the minister is taking on the very voice of Christ himself. The Second Vatican Council emphasized that when the Scriptures are proclaimed at Mass, it is Christ himself who speaks. The proclamation of the Gospel has the power to open hearts and bring about repentance and conversion, to cleanse our sins and strengthen our discipleship. It is the great meta-story of salvation history in which every other personal story finds meaning. It brings us into an encounter with the Lord and Lover of Mankind. Seen through a spousal lens, it is also the love story or the love song of the Divine Bridegroom who woos his Bride and gives her his Word before he gives her his Body.
For all these reasons, the text of this prayer emphasizes the need for worthiness in the minister and asks that his heart be cleansed. There is something very personal about the request for the minister’s heart to be cleansed. When he says the prayer over the deacon who proclaims the Gospel, he does not make a judgment on the deacon’s heart, but only asks that the Lord would be in his heart (“May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips, that you may proclaim his Gospel worthily and well, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit”). But for himself, the priest acknowledges his need for a divine cleansing to produce a pure heart for the sake of a pure proclamation of the saving words God has entrusted to his Church. This is one of the “apologetic prayers” that the priest offers, which is a theme that will re-emerge in this series of reflections on the priest’s quiet prayers.
“Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). The most important thing is for the priest’s heart to be cleansed and filled with the Gospel that he proclaims. Then, out of the abundance of his heart the words flow authentically, authoritatively, and effectively through his lips. Even with the cleansing of his heart, this abundance can only happen if his heart is also filled with the Gospel. That raises the question of the priest’s preparation for Holy Mass. A priest reads the Gospel differently when he has first prayed with it. The practice of lectio divina can greatly enhance the liturgical proclamation and should be considered a necessity for every liturgical reader, but most especially for the one who proclaims the most important liturgical scripture, namely the Gospel. When he has prayed with the Gospel and understands its twists and turns, its unexpected phrases, exhortations, and ironies, then the priest can proclaim it from the abundance of his heart, owning the words and announcing them as if they were his own.
This prayer is to be made as the priest bows before the altar. The gesture of bowing indicates reverence and humility. The fact that the priest bows before the altar in particular also connects the proclamation of the word with the Eucharistic sacrifice. Other liturgical norms also reinforce that connection: for example, by directing that the principal celebrant also ordinarily be the homilist. This prayer with its accompanying gesture and connection with the altar reinforces who the priest is, his orientation to the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice, and his need for God’s grace to carry out this ministry.
As mentioned earlier, the priest should not feel that this ritual prayer exhausts all possible personal prayer at this powerful moment in the Mass. Especially if the priest will also be preaching, it would be appropriate to add a personal word from the heart to ask for God’s grace in giving the homily. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of an ancient prayer that included this request for help with preaching: “Send your Paraclete Spirit into our hearts and make us understand the Scriptures which he has inspired; and grant that I may interpret them worthily, so that the faithful assembled here may profit thereby.” Inspired by the spousal interpretation of the Eucharist as described in Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, another personal prayer I sometimes add is: “…that I may worthily proclaim your Gospel and woo your Bride.” The priest stands by the grace of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in the position of the Divine Bridegroom and it is his responsibility to pray, preside, and speak in such a way that he opens the heart of the Bride to receive her divine Bridegroom more fully, consciously, and actively in his Word and in his Body.