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The Roman Canon won’t be used at Benedict XVI’s funeral Mass. Is that a big deal?

When the Vatican published the booklet for Benedict XVI’s funeral Mass, one omission raised eyebrows.

Catholics mourn Benedict at Westminster Cathedral in London, England, on Dec. 31, 2022. © Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.

When the Vatican published the booklet for Benedict XVI’s funeral Mass on Tuesday, one omission raised eyebrows.

Instead of using the Roman Canon, the prayer recited for centuries at papal funerals, the celebrant will say the Third Eucharistic Prayer.

How significant is this? The Pillar takes a look.

What is the Roman Canon?

The Eucharistic Prayer is an extended prayer of thanksgiving recited during the most solemn parts of the Mass, when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Roman Canon is the oldest Eucharistic Prayer used at Masses in the Roman Rite, the principal liturgical rite of the Latin Church. Dating back to at least the 7th century, the Roman Canon was the sole Eucharistic Prayer used by Latin Rite clergy up to the late 20th century. It was therefore also a staple of papal funerals, with several commentators suggesting that it has been used at every Requiem Mass for a Roman pontiff since A.D. 604.

In 1970, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI oversaw the publication of a new Roman Missal, the book containing prayers approved for use at Masses in the Roman Rite.

The 1970 edition contained three new Eucharistic Prayers, which together with the Roman Canon were called Eucharistic Prayers I-IV.

The ancient Roman Canon was designated as Eucharistic Prayer I.

The new Eucharistic Prayer II, the shortest of the four, opened with a preface beginning “It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks...”

Eucharistic Prayer III began “You are indeed Holy, O Lord, and all you have created rightly gives you praise….”

And the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer IV started with the words “It is truly right to give you thanks, truly just to give you glory…”

The Eucharistic Prayers were intended for use on different occasions.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains that Eucharistic Prayer I “may always be used” and “is especially suited for use on Sundays.”

Eucharistic Prayer II, which is roughly half the length of the Roman Canon, “is more appropriately used on weekdays or in special circumstances.”

Eucharistic Prayer III is preferably employed on Sundays and feast days, and is an option for Masses for the Dead, as it has a special formula commemorating the deceased.

Eucharistic Prayer IV, meanwhile, “has an invariable preface and gives a fuller summary of salvation history. It may be used when a Mass has no preface of its own and on Sundays in Ordinary Time.” But it cannot include a special formula for a deceased person due to its structure.

From 1970 onward, traditionally inclined Catholics have viewed the newer Eucharistic Prayers with a certain suspicion. One frequently told story is that the final, revised version of Eucharistic Prayer II was composed hastily one evening at a Roman restaurant.

Critics have disparaged the new prayers as the banal products of a committee, contrasting them unfavorably with the Roman Canon, which they see as the culmination of centuries of organic liturgical reform.

Yet others have expressed gratitude for the expanded options and appreciation for the pared-down style of Eucharistic Prayer II.

What’s the issue with Eucharistic Prayer III?

The last funeral Mass for a pope took place in 2005. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would be elected as Pope Benedict XVI shortly afterward, was the celebrant. When it came to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, he followed the tradition of using Eucharistic Prayer I (the Roman Canon).

One of the words often associated with Benedict XVI is “continuity.” During a landmark address to Vatican officials in 2005, Benedict criticized what he called “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” which put so much stress on the differences between the Church before and after Vatican II that they almost seemed two distinct entities.

He proposed instead a “hermeneutic of reform,” in which the Church remained “one subject” that “increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same.”

That was the thinking behind the most significant (and controversial) liturgical decision of his pontificate: the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, a document liberalizing the use of the Roman liturgy before the 1970 reform.

Many Catholics intuit that, given his respect for liturgical tradition, Benedict XVI would opt for continuity when it comes to his funeral Mass, preferring the Roman Canon to the modern Eucharistic Prayers.

Catholics on social media have called the decision to use the Eucharistic Prayer III “sad,” “shameful,” and “a disgrace.” Some speculated that it was a deliberate snub for a pope who treasured tradition by Vatican forces opposed to his liturgical vision.

The case for Eucharistic Prayer III

But other Catholics demurred. They pointed out that Benedict XVI himself used Eucharistic Prayer III regularly. Some suggested that the pope emeritus personally preferred it to the Roman Canon, although the source of that claim is unclear.

Several people noted that Eucharistic Prayer III has a prayer that can be added for funeral Masses and that this was a likely reason for the change.

The prayer, which will be said at Benedict XVI’s funeral in Latin at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, reads as follows:

“Remember your servant Pope Emeritus Benedict, whom you have called from this world to yourself. Grant that he who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection, when from the earth he will raise up in the flesh those who have died, and transform our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious body.”

“To our departed brothers and sisters, too, and to all who were pleasing to you at their passing from this life, give kind admittance to your kingdom. There we hope to enjoy forever the fullness of your glory, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”

“For seeing you, our God, as you are, we shall be like you for all the ages and praise you without end, through Christ our Lord, through whom you bestow on the world all that is good.”

The Vatican hasn’t offered an explanation for the use of the Eucharistic Prayer III. Official Vatican media have only described the funeral Mass in the broadest strokes and the booklet accompanying the Mass simply presents the text without commentary.

Perhaps the reason will emerge on the day of the funeral Mass itself — or it may simply remain a small Vatican mystery.

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