There can be a tendency, especially among those of us belonging to the Roman Rite, to obsess over the amount of time we spend in church. This syndrome is probably truer of priests than anyone else. Like many public speakers, they may not know how long they preach, but the majority of priests, I believe, are thoroughly conscious of how long they take to offer Mass.
When the fear of going too long arises and visions of a congested parking lot or keeping a congregation waiting at another parish or church within a cluster of parishes come to mind, what is a priest with such a busy schedule of Masses to do? For many, the first solution is to use Eucharistic Prayer II. While that is certainly a common tendency, is the canon of the Mass really the best place to “make up time”? Moreover, does that solution take into account the appropriate usage of the various approved canons? The entire liturgy of the Church moves in the direction of the Eucharist, and the consecratory prayers are the most important words of Holy Mass. Would it not make more sense to preach shorter and use the Roman Canon?
The Roman Canon, by virtue of its universal and nearly unaltered usage over nearly 1,500 years, holds a unique and venerable place among the canons and, as such, is not just one among several equal options. It is the only anaphora that liturgical directives say “may always be used.” Eucharistic Prayer IV has limitations on when it may be used, on account of its proper preface. Eucharistic Prayer III is most apt for memorials of saints, and Eucharistic Prayer II is specifically not recommended for use on Sundays and other solemnities and feasts. These are not my personal categorizations of the four major canons, but rather the norms given in Chapter VII of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.
In the celebration of the Mass, there ought to be a balance. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, made this point beautifully in 2013: “The homily…should be brief and avoid taking on the semblance of a speech or a lecture. A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour, but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith. If the homily goes on too long, it will affect two characteristic elements of the liturgical celebration: its balance and its rhythm…. The words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the center of attention.
This means, furthermore, that the lesser parts of the Mass ought never to dominate those which are greater. When, for example, we offer 14 prayers of intercession and spend only 10 seconds in silence after Communion, there is an imbalance. When we sing four hymns and recite all of the dialogues and acclamations, there is an imbalance. When we preach for 18 minutes and offer Eucharistic Prayer II in three minutes, there is an imbalance.
The argument against defaulting to Eucharistic Prayer II to “save time” is not only theoretical; it can also be based on practical evidence. The pagination of altar missals can make it seem as though the Roman Canon is inordinately longer than the other prayers, but I have often thought that a closer study would show the actual lengths to be not so wildly disparate. So I decided to undertake this closer study for myself by counting the words of the four major canons and comparing the length of time it takes to recite them.
Below (Graph I) are the results of the word counts, which unsurprisingly show that Eucharistic Prayer II is, in fact, the shortest canon. It is shorter than the Roman Canon by a margin of 453 words. Not included in these word counts are the Prefatio, the Sanctus, the Mysterium fidei, the Per ipsum, the special forms of the Communicantes and the Hanc igitur, and the special commemorations for Masses of the Dead.
Into what amount of speaking time does the disparity of the word counts translate? I considered timing myself while reading each text sitting at my desk, but I feared subconsciously rushing one or more of the texts so as to skew the data to suit my purposes.
Instead, I found recordings of each prayer that were made by Father James Lyons of the Archdiocese of Wellington, New Zealand, to assist priests in learning the 2011 English translation of the Roman Missal, third typical edition. Below is a graph showing the length in time of those four recordings. Interestingly, the longest prayer is not the Roman Canon, but Eucharistic Prayer IV; although the fourth prayer contains approximately 100 fewer words than the Roman Canon, its phrasing must demand more pauses.
While recordings from a single priest admittedly constitute a small sample size, I suspect that the data I took from Father Lyons’s recordings are fairly representative of what would be the average of a larger study. Furthermore, what is at issue here is not so much the actual time it takes a particular priest to pray the anaphora, but rather the comparative length of the various prayers. And what do these data show? Just how much longer is the Roman Canon than Eucharistic Prayer II? As Graph 2 indicates, less than two minutes.
The supposition that using Eucharistic Prayer II “saves time” is deeply imbedded in many priests and Mass-goers. Yet, by both theoretical and practical considerations, it would appear that this supposition is founded upon two false assumptions: first, that the canon is the best (or easiest) place to “save time” and, second, that offering Eucharistic Prayer II saves significant time. There are, however, better parts of the Mass to shorten than the canon, and the time “saved” by Eucharistic Prayer II is, in fact, rather negligible.
I am as guilty as any Catholic I know, but I still long for a world in which we were not so concerned about the length of Mass, since the worship of Almighty God ought not to be placed on a kitchen timer. While we wait for the arrival of that world, we should at least keep things in perspective. To the laity, I would say, the next time your pastor offers Eucharistic Prayer II on Sunday, ask yourself if you could have spared two extra minutes. To my brother priests—and all our bishops—I would ask, how can we better economize our time to return the Canon to its place of honor in our Sunday celebrations of the liturgy?
General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 365a. It may be noted that even the letter of Pope Francis accompanying the recent motu proprio, Traditiones custodies, underscores the distinctiveness of the Roman Canon. ↑
. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 365a-d. ↑
Evangelii gaudium, no. 138. ↑
It appears that these recordings are no longer available on the Internet. They were initially accessed 26 January 2014 at http://www.catholic.org.nz/ms/dsp-default.cfm?loadref=268&pid=C9F2B42F-B3C8-569A-74B5BAAD927FF5F1. ↑
It should be noted that the original lengths of the audio files were longer than the times presented here; the recordings included introductions given by Fr. Lyons, which I excised for more precise measurement. ↑
Father David M. Friel, STL has been a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia since May 2011. Having served as parish priest at St. Anselm Church in northeast Philadelphia, he is presently a doctoral candidate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America and serves as Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.