Some of my favorite prayers of the Mass are the ones you don’t usually hear. Throughout the Mass, there are many prayers that the priest says inaudibly. Why is this, you might ask? Why should the priest pray prayers in the midst of a communal, public liturgy that no one else can hear? Couldn’t the people whom he’s leading in worship benefit from hearing those prayers? Quite possibly. I know that I have been given ample fodder for reflection on this prayer, as one example, said during the preparation rite:
“By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity."
Here in this one sentence we’ve managed to pack in references to the Incarnation, the dual natures of Christ, transubstantiation, and apotheosis. That’s theological density equivalent to a neutron star. That’s a family fun-pack of divine truths in one convenient carrying case. It’s beautiful and profound (unlike my previous two sentences).
And you’ve probably heard it before. Many a priest will say out loud some or all of these prayers which the priest, according to the rubrics, is meant to say in audibly. Why do they do this? And why does the instruction say to pray the prayers inaudibly in the first place? I think both have to do with liturgical orientation. By that, I mean the direction toward which one is aimed during the liturgy. I mean essentially one’s interior disposition, though it can be expressed outwardly and physically (that’s the nature of sacramental worship—visible signs of invisible realities). One could put it as simply as, “What are you focused on during the Mass?”
A concrete and obvious example: in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in the Latin Rite, the priest faces in the same direction as the congregation, while in the Ordinary Form, the priest faces the congregation themselves. The relationship between priest and people in these two orientations has a different look to it, and seems to send different messages. One could assign both a negative and a positive meaning to each. With ad orientem worship, one could call it (as people often do) “the priest with his back to the people,” as though he is scorning the lowly non-ordained plebs while he does the real work of worship; or one could call it “facing east,” as the great Advent hymn invites us to do, evoking the patristic notions of worshiping the Lord by facing the direction from which it was thought He would come again, with priest and people together looking at the rising sun as a sign of the Risen Son. With versus populum worship, one could see it as an unhealthy enclosure, the Christian community turning in on itself with the result that they see only themselves, singing, “We are called, we are chosen,” and forgetting who chose them or what they were called for; or one could see it as the appointed shepherd calling out to his flock, inviting them back to their home in the sheepfold—and one doesn’t call out to someone by facing away from them. These different views have the capacity to convey either a beautiful Christian truth or an ugly distortion of it. It’s possible within those two liturgical postures to develop one of the orientations described above: either self-exaltation standing on the backs of the peasants, or being the guide leading his people home; either the self-worshipping community, or the father addressing his spiritual children.
And notice similarities between the two positive and the two negative views: each of the positive views envision the priest doing a service for the people in the quest to commune with God, while each of the negative views envision priest and people losing sight of God and becoming self-obsessed. Whether the priest and people are facing one another or facing liturgical east, they must be focused on God; wherever the eyes of their heads are looking, the eyes of their hearts must be searching to behold the Lord.
So, back to the original question: why does the priest say some prayers inaudibly? Because they are intended to help him focus. These prayers serve as markers which can help the priest to maintain the proper liturgical orientation and stay on course. (Yes, priests’ minds can wander during Mass, too.) When the priest addresses a prayer to God quietly, instead of addressing a prayer to God out loud, the temptation to “play to the crowd,” to become focused on the congregation such that one loses sight of God, is thwarted. Now, obviously, the priest should be focused on the congregation to some degree, since it his duty to lead them in worship during the liturgy. But the relationship at the center of the Mass is not that of the priest with the people, but between the priest and people together with God.
Enough prelude, then. What are some of these “hidden prayers” of the Mass?
When the deacon reads the Gospel at Mass, you may notice that he bows before the priest and receives a blessing before going to the ambo. The priest blesses him, saying:
May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips,
that you may proclaim his Gospel worthily and well,
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
When the priest reads the Gospel, he bows before the altar on his way to the ambo and prays:
Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God,
that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.
After reading the Gospel, he kisses the book and says:
Through the words of the Gospel
may our sins be wiped away.
After the Offertory prayers (the two that begin “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation”), the priest bows to the altar and prays:
With humble spirit and contrite heart
may we be accepted by you, O Lord,
and may our sacrifice in your sight this day
be pleasing to you, Lord God.
When he washes his hands, he prays:
Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
Just before the Agnus Dei, when the priest breaks a small piece from the host and puts it into the chalice, he prays:
May this mingling of the Body and Blood
of our Lord Jesus Christ
bring eternal life to us who receive it.
Just before saying “Behold the Lamb of God,” the priest prays one of these two prayers:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
who, by the will of the Father
and the work of the Holy Spirit,
through your Death gave life to the world,
free me by this, your most holy Body and Blood,
from all my sins and from every evil;
keep me always faithful to your commandments,
and never let me be parted from you.
May the receiving of your Body and Blood,
Lord Jesus Christ,
not bring me to judgment and condemnation,
but through your loving mercy
be for me protection in mind and body
and a healing remedy.
Before he receives Communion, the priest prays:
May the Body of Christ
keep me safe for eternal life.
May the Blood of Christ
keep me safe for eternal life.
While purifying the vessels after Communion, the priest prays:
What has passed our lips as food, O Lord,
may we possess in purity of heart,
that what has been given to us in time
may be our healing for eternity.
I’ve given you these one after another, without comment from me, so that the texts could speak for themselves, and so you’d get a sense of the overall feel of them. These prayers, as with all the prayers of the Mass, are signals and reminders to us that when we are at Mass, we’re not at the meeting of a social club, or a show at a theatre: we are, all of us, participating in the presentation of Christ’s sacrifice to the Father for the forgiveness and healing of our sins, communing with God through the reception of His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, receiving a taste of heaven. It can be hard to keep that in mind, for any of the billions of reasons that we get distracted in anything that we do. So let the prayers of the Mass keep you focused on what is at hand. Pay attention to what is being said and what you are saying. There are profound and beautiful truths there, if only we have the mental presence to realize it.