The Mass can sometimes feel like this: a few readings from the Bible, a sermon, a collection, the priest saying a bunch of stuff while we kneel down, the Our Father, Communion, announcements, dismissal. If this is our experience of Mass, it might surprise us that the most fascinating part of it actually takes place during the part where the priest says a bunch of stuff while we kneel down. What the priest is saying there is called the Eucharistic Prayer. The priest addresses this prayer to God, exercising the sacred privilege given him through his holy ordination to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice he makes present again on the altar as an offering to God the Father. It’s important to remember that this is not a time in which those kneeling in the pew are mere spectators. Rather, the faithful gathered are to actively unite themselves to the sacrificial offering of Christ through the ministry of the priest.
There are four variations of the Eucharistic Prayer that a priest can choose from. The most ancient of these is the first one, also known as the Roman Canon. While the other three were developed as part of the liturgical reforms of the 1960s, the Roman Canon has been part of the Latin Rite of Catholic liturgy in some form since at least the end of the fourth century. On Sundays, I like to use the Roman Canon. Not simply because it’s old or because it’s long, but because of the beautiful way it makes us aware that those physically gathered in the church building are not the only ones present at the Mass. The whole Church is present, including the 41 people whose names the priest recites as part of the Roman Canon. So, you might be asking, “who are these people?”
The list of saints begins with some whom we know well – the Blessed Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the Eleven Apostles (no Judas) plus Paul. The next five are early popes who were martyred during times of persecution. Linus, Cletus, and Clement were the three popes who immediately succeeded St. Peter. Sixtus and Cornelius, were also martyred popes. Cornelius was a contemporary of Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage in North Africa, and a hugely important figure in the ancient Church. He was martyred in the year 258. Lawrence was a deacon of the Church in Rome, responsible for caring for the poor of the city. He responded to imperial demands that he turn over Church funds to the official treasury by exhausting them on provisions for the poor. For this, he was roasted to death on a gridiron. The next several names belong to laymen. Chrysogonus was a beloved teacher of the faith. John and Paul were neither Apostles nor Beatles but brothers who served as soldiers in Caesar’s army. Cosmas and Damian were also brothers. As physicians, they refused to accept payment for the care they gave to their besieged fellow Christians. All four of these men were martyrs for the Faith.
The second list of saints begins with John the Baptist. Next is Stephen, named in the Acts of the Apostles as a deacon and the first person to give His life in witness to Christ. Matthias was selected to take the place of Judas among the Twelve Apostles. Barnabas was a beloved leader in the early Church and a close collaborator with St. Paul during his missionary travels. He is the last person in the list who is featured in the Sacred Scriptures. Ignatius is not the founder of the Jesuits, but the Bishop of Antioch who is believed to have been a disciple of St. John the Apostle. Ignatius wrote several important letters to various Christian communities as he was brought in chains from Antioch to Rome where he was martyred in the arena by lions in 108 A.D. After Ignatius is Alexander, the bishop of the Egyptian city of Alexandria who was heroic in his resistance to the Arian heresy at the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. He is the only non-martyr to appear in the Roman Canon, besides Our Lady and St. Joseph. Marcellinus was a priest beheaded along with his friend Peter in the year 302. Next is a group of seven women martyrs of the ancient Church. Felicity was a pregnant slave who was thrown to the lions in the city of Carthage along with Perpetua, a wealthy woman of high rank from that same city. Agatha was viciously tortured by her captors in Sicily. Lucy, before her execution, was blinded by her tormentors during the Diocletian persecutions. The final three women – Agnes (12 years old), Cecilia, and Anastasia – are beloved martyrs from the City of Rome. For over 1600 years the Latin Church (of which we are members) has been naming these holy men and women in our liturgy as part of the Roman Canon. They are not merely historical figures, but living people who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Knowing who they are helps us to be more intentional about uniting ourselves with them to the perfect and eternal sacrificial offering of Christ that is made present at each and every Mass.