Response to Questions Regarding Orthodoxy in Celebration of Mass

by Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino


Response to Bishop David Foley of Birmingham, Alabama from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments regarding which way the priest faces to say Mass and whether or not the Roman Canon is superior to the other three Eucharistic prayers. The letter is dated February 8, 2000.

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CNS Documentary Service, March 2, 2000

Thank you for the letter of Feb. 7, 2000, asking this Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments for clarification of certain questions regarding liturgical celebration and the various options permitted by the Roman Missal. Thank you also for the confidence that Your Excellency has shown toward this congregation.

As regards the position of the celebrating priest at the altar during Holy Mass, it is true as Your Excellency indicates—that the rubrics of the Roman Missal, and in particular the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, foresee that the priest will face the body of people in the nave while leaving open the possibility of his celebrating toward the apse. These two options carry with them no theological or disciplinary stigma of any kind. It is therefore incorrect and indeed quite unacceptable that anyone affirm, as Your Excellency sums up this view, that to celebrate toward the apse "is a theologically preferable or more orthodox choice for a priest who wishes to be true to the church's authentic tradition."

Your Excellency's second question concerned the three eucharistic prayers introduced into the Roman Rite by Pope Paul VI by means of a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites on May 23, 1968. In answer to the assertion that "only the Roman Canon is really orthodox .... The other eucharistic prayers are heterodox or at least of dubious theological, liturgical and ecclesial value" and that "in the light of the perceived inadequacy of the other eucharistic prayers, the priest celebrant [should] always use the Roman Canon, whether he celebrates in Latin or in the approved vernacular," it must be said firmly that such a view is in direct conflict with the position of the Holy See, as Your Excellency has rightly understood. The three eucharistic prayers in question are each to be considered lawful, and the liturgical law of the church establishes no gradation with respect to their orthodoxy. There is therefore no question of the first eucharistic prayer or Roman Canon being "more orthodox" than the others, and such an idea is without any foundation.

A distinction could be made rightly between the different eucharistic prayers with respect to their appropriateness for pastoral use in different circumstances and in the setting of different liturgical celebrations. As is clear to Your Excellency, the varying length of the eucharistic prayers, the fact that the fourth prayer has an invariable preface, that special embolisms and intercessions are given for different feast days and circumstances in this or that prayer, all makes for a happy variety that allows the bishop or priest celebrant to make appropriate pastoral choices for the good of the people, opting for one or other eucharistic prayer with its variant internal parts. While the first eucharistic prayer is a venerable text which deserves all respect, having been in continuous use for perhaps a millennium and a half, the other three eucharistic prayers are also in one way or another ancient and in any case are worthy of the veneration and deep respect of priests and faithful. To suggest otherwise is at the least erroneous and irresponsible. The second eucharistic prayer represents a liturgical tradition found in the early centuries in Rome and diffused in distant lands. The third eucharistic prayer enjoys a rich history with its origins in the Hispanic or Mozarabic rite. The fourth eucharistic prayer likewise is of venerable origin, being based upon the Antiochene tradition.

This congregation is grateful to Your Excellency for raising in such a focused manner these serious questions and for offering the occasion to formulate and make known an appropriate answer. According to your pastoral judgment, Your Excellency is free to refer publicly to the content of this letter or to publish it in whatever form seems appropriate.

With every good wish and kind regard, I am sincerely yours in Christ.

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