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Liturgy Corner November 9 2021 - The Silent Prayers of the Priest Part 1: The Gospel

Recently, I wrote about the preparatory prayers the priest says as he puts on his vestments. I hope by writing about them, I have highlighted the fact that the Mass is, indeed, a long and multifaceted prayer itself that we all can try to “sink into” a little deeper every time. We are not, cannot be spectators; not at Mass and not in the christian life.

In that same vein, I would like to spend a few weeks explaining and reflecting on the silent prayers of the priest at Mass. To start, we must first consider the value of prescribing prayers for the priest to say but that the people cannot hear. I talked in the past about the importance of the moments of silence at the Mass. The silent prayers of the priest are a sign of the secret inner dialogue that takes place between God and each believer, including the priest, during the Mass. Attending to this inner dialogue should be a central point of attention for both me as the priest and for each of you. It is how the external prayer of the Mass enters into the “inner room” of our soul where we , “...pray to the Father in secret where the Father who sees in secret will reward us.” (Matt. 6:6).

These important moments of silent prayer by the priest ought to be opportunities for the congregation to recognize the significance of a particularly profound moment of the Liturgy and enter into the prayer of that moment in a more profound way. The Church envisions all of this in prescribing these silent prayers for the priest: “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.” (Vatican’s webpage for liturgical celebrations).

Now, we shall move on to the first set of silent prayers of the priest.

The first of the priest’s quiet prayers is in preparation for the proclamation of the Gospel: “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, gestures, and locations 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.

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.

Hence, the priest asks that the one who proclaims it, the deacon or himself, be made worthy for so profound a task.

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. 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.

After the priest or deacon has finished reading the Gospel, he speaks silently, “Through the words of the Gospel, may our sins be washed away.” He then lightly kisses the text. These words and the gesture serve to further highlight the ultimate significance of the Gospel. The content of the Gospel texts is the life of Christ, and by His life, death and resurrection, we receive of the gift of Sacramental cleansing from sin. But Scripture is not just a record of past events, it is the living Word of God which, “... is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12)

 

 

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