By the 16th century, the priest had become such a predominant figure in the celebration of Mass that several bishops at the Council of Trent (1545-63) went on record with a startling proposal. Perhaps it would be better, they suggested, if the laity just stayed at home and let the priest say his Mass without the distraction of a congregation. This breathtaking idea was rejected, but it showed how far the eucharistic liturgy had strayed from the assemblies of the early church, where the priest and people usually acted in tandem.
In fact, the church had to wait until the Second Vatican Council, some 400 years later, before laypersons could regain their rightful place in the eucharistic liturgy. Today, the liturgy has come full circle, with the restoration of full and active participation for the whole church and the recovery of the diversity of liturgical ministries. The priest has become the presider, who serves at the altar first and foremost as a member of the assembly, while still acting as both a representative of Christ (in persona Christi) and in the name of the church (in persona ecclesiae).
The presider’s principal role emerges as the liturgy shifts from the ambo, where the word is proclaimed and preached, to the altar, which the church from its earliest days has revered as a primary symbol of Christ. For this reason, the presider reverences it with a profound bow and a kiss and circles it with incense. It is also why, as noted in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (G.I.R.M., No. 306), the altar is to remain uncluttered during the Liturgy of the Word except for the book of the Gospels, which is placed upon it. Likewise, during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the altar should hold only those elements necessary for the celebration: bread, wine, chalice and the Sacramentary or Missal. The G.I.R.M. (No. 72) delineates three distinct parts of this rite: the preparation of the gifts, the eucharistic prayer, and finally the breaking of the bread and Communion of the faithful.
The Dynamics of the Liturgy
Members of the assembly take an active role in bringing forward the bread and wine in procession at the preparation of the gifts, sometimes preceded by the collection of monetary offerings, which are placed nearby. A profound bow to those who present the gifts can be one way for the presider to acknowledge both the gift and the giver. But I have sometimes seen the occasional smile, handshake or kiss as the presider whispers, “Hey, thanks, Jennie. Thanks, Bob.” Such gestures—made with the best of intentions, of course—easily personalize the exchange, but they also suggest that the gifts are somehow for the priest himself. This is one of those occasions where the presider can easily get in the way without intending to.
A similar dynamic can be observed during the preparation of the altar itself. The altar belongs to the whole assembly—Christ’s mystical body. At the preparation, and even more during the eucharistic prayer, the presider should avoid giving the impression that it is his table or that the gifts being offered are his. When I am presiding, for example, I prefer that the gifts be placed squarely in the middle of the altar rather than nearest to where I stand. This is one small way of suggesting that the gifts of God belong to the people of God, as Augustine affirmed in the fourth century. The Sacramentary is then placed directly in front of where I stand. It is also preferable that someone other than the presider prepare the altar. If there is a deacon present, this is one of his responsibilities. On other occasions, the servers or other members of the assembly should do that task.
With the exception of the presentation of the gifts, the preparation is largely a passive time for the assembly and need not be drawn out or accentuated. When music is sung or instrumental music played, the presider is to say the preparatory prayers silently. When there is no music, he may say them either silently or aloud. As an antidote to the abundance of words in our reformed liturgy, I prefer to pray the preparatory prayers silently, but this is very much a matter of personal choice. There is no option, however, for the presider to pray aloud the specifically private and silent prayers of the priest. Those prayers include the text that accompanies the washing of the hands, “Lord wash away my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin,” and the preparatory prayers before Communion. They are prayed silently precisely because they are private. They belong to the personal piety and spirituality of the priest and have no reference to the assembly. Since the liturgy is already sufficiently verbose, the rubric requiring silence here shows wisdom.
After the exchange “Pray, brothers and sisters” and the prayer over the gifts, the presider enters into the preface dialogue, which introduces the eucharistic prayer. Vatican II restored the integrity of the entire eucharistic prayer as a single entity and viewed the entire prayer as consecratory. To highlight both the unity and importance of the whole eucharistic prayer, all three eucharistic acclamations (the Sanctus, memorial acclamation and great Amen) should normally be sung. It is equally appropriate that on feast days and some Sundays, presiders capable of singing might chant the entire eucharistic prayer to heighten its importance and solemnity. For this reason, musical tones are offered for each eucharistic prayer in the back of the Sacramentary.
A word is in order on a few technical items. The preface dialogue should not commence until the one presiding has found the proper page in the book for the preface to be used. This is infinitely better than for the presider to address the congregation with the words “Lift up your hearts!” and simultaneously flip through the Sacramentary searching for the right page. That communicates a very different message. Eye contact is a second important aspect of presiding at the Eucharist, especially during the eucharistic prayer. It is particularly appropriate that the presider look into the eyes of the assembly when they are addressed. They are, after all, the body of Christ. So the greeting “The Lord be with you” in the preface dialogue should be accompanied by eye contact that embraces those whom God has called together.
As the prayer continues, however, a certain balance is needed, since the presider should, first and foremost, be praying, not performing in the theatrical sense. Thus, to say “Lord, you are holy indeed...” while looking all around the church trying to make eye contact with members of the congregation does not give the impression that the presider is in fact praying (although he may well be doing so). Body language and bodily gestures are also critical, because they communicate wordlessly. Each presider needs to develop a particular style according to what feels most natural (e.g., how he extends his arms and the like). What is important, however, is to avoid gestures that appear artificial, stiff or defensive. I knew a priest who would furiously scream “Lift up your hearts” at the assembly, with facial expressions that suggested he was almost spoiling for a fight.
The Sacramentary offers a variety of eucharistic prayers, some of which are especially appropriate for certain feasts and seasons. The presider will therefore need to give thought to this beforehand and become familiar enough with the text to pray it with grace and ease. Many opt for Eucharistic Prayer 2 because it is the shortest and most familiar, but to decide on that text for those reasons is to shortchange the assembly. Once a eucharistic prayer is chosen, however, improvising on the text is not recommended. I was once present at a Mass when the presider improvised on Eucharistic Prayer 3 in a way that completely changed the meaning of the text. He prayed: “...so that from east to west, from north to south, a perfect offering may be made....” He apparently thought that the reference was geographical (e.g., from Montreal to Miami), when in fact it refers to the rising and setting of the sun. Improvising on the eucharistic prayer and other liturgical texts calls unnecessary attention to the presider and, ultimately, is a distraction.
Toward a Spirituality of Presiding
What can we say of a spirituality of presiding at the Liturgy of the Eucharist? I would suggest three key ingredients: prayerfulness, intentionality and transparency. First and most important, presiders need to be prayerful. This begins in contemplation long before they reach the sacristy to prepare for the liturgy, and it continues as they stand at the altar with arms outstretched. In other words, if those who stand at the table proclaiming the eucharistic prayer do not have a personal daily rhythm of prayer or meditation during the week, such prayerfulness will not magically happen when they stand before the assembly on Sunday morning.
Second, presiders need to be intentional about what they are doing. This means careful and reverent gestures that are not rushed or distracting. Whether bowing, incensing the altar, inviting the assembly into the eucharistic prayer with the words “Lift up your hearts” or distributing Communion to those who come before them, presiders need to be fully engaged in the process. Third, when presiders are prayerful and intentional, they will preside with transparency.
In short, presiding at the Liturgy of the Eucharist is not about the presider. It is about the service of God’s reign that we celebrate and remember with holy food and drink. So the more a presider can stay out of the way and not draw attention to himself, the better. In the end, effective presiding at the Liturgy of the Eucharist should draw the whole community into that vision of the mystery of God that is both present among us and not yet fully revealed.
A Brief History: From Justin Martyr to Vatican II
In the early church there was a close link between presiding at the Eucharist and presidency over the local community’s outreach to the poor and needy. The same person who stood at the altar to proclaim the eucharistic prayer also looked after the material needs of the community. As noted in the classic text of Justin Martyr (writing about mid-second-century Rome) in which a description of the Sunday Eucharist is presented, he mentions that a collection is taken at the end of the celebration, just before the deacons and deaconesses leave to bring Communion to the sick and homebound. The proceeds from the collection are given to the presider, who then sees that they are properly distributed to those in need. Justin provides a list of worthy recipients: orphans, widows, the sick, the incarcerated, foreigners and anyone else who is in need. Even today, the purpose of the collection that takes place at the preparation of the gifts is first of all for the needs of the poor (G.I.R.M., No. 73). This reminds us of the important link between liturgy and social justice, and of the responsibility of the presider at the eucharistic table to embody that important relationship in his liturgical service of the assembly.
The eucharistic prayer lies at the heart of the entire liturgical celebration, the “source and summit of the liturgical action” (G.I.R.M., No. 78). In the early church the prayer was improvised; there were as yet no liturgical books. Justin Martyr reported that the prayer should be prayed to the best of the president’s ability. (All were not equally gifted in the craft of poetic improvisation.) Most significantly, the prayer was prayed as a single unified prayer. From start to finish, the presider proclaimed the Great Thanksgiving with arms outstretched, while the whole assembly stood together around the altar singing its great Amen at the conclusion, expressing full assent to what was proclaimed.
In the medieval period, as the liturgy became increasingly clericalized, the distance between worship and daily life grew ever greater. The use of Latin perpetuated this distance, leaving the liturgy unintelligible to most. Mass also came to be celebrated facing the East, with the priest’s back to the people. The eucharistic prayer was prayed silently by the priest, which underlined both its sacral nature and the belief that it no longer needed to involve the assembly directly. The prayer became divided, with the moment of consecration emphasized as the single most important moment in the whole Mass. (A bell was rung to alert the faithful that the moment had arrived.) The congregation no longer stood but knelt. Private Masses abounded.
In the 12th century, chantry priests in England and elsewhere celebrated Masses throughout the day to keep pace with the demand. The focus was now on the “fruits of the Mass,” which were applied to the living or the dead according to the priest’s intention. Later, the Council of Trent’s emphasis on rubrics also brought new burdens to some priests who were already overly scrupulous. Fearful that they had pronounced the words of consecration improperly, they would repeat them over and over until they felt they had spoken them correctly.
The moment of Communion traditionally represented the fullness of unity in the one body of Christ and the commitment of believers to be broken as Christ’s body and poured out as his blood. Accordingly, in the early church the chalice was always offered to communicants, as it was the most complete response to Jesus’ command, “Take and eat, take and drink.” But consistent with the overall decline in lay liturgical participation in the Middle Ages, all this later changed. Communion was no longer distributed during Mass, although this was sometimes done before or after Mass. And by the 13th century, the chalice was no longer offered to the laity. At the Council of Trent, there was some discussion in favor of offering the chalice to the laity, and permission was given for the practice in certain regions (e.g., Prague in the late 16th century), but the universal practice of making the chalice available to the laity would return only with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. K.F.P.