At Mass, have you noticed there are words which the priest says very quietly? Sometimes you don’t even hear them, only seeing his lips move. (And some say them only “in their heads.”)
These prayers are sometimes called the “priest’s secret prayers.” This doesn’t mean they are “secret” in that we aren’t supposed to know them. Instead, it comes from a Latin word (mysterium) meaning “hidden.” Again, this sounds like secrecy. However, Fr. Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome, explains it more as the “priest’s personal prayers.”
“Sometimes,” Fr. McNamara wrote, “these prayers are called ‘priestly apologies,’ which are not prayers in which the celebrant excuses himself for being a priest, but in which he recognizes his intrinsic indignity and implores divine aid in order to worthily celebrate the august mysteries.”
Fr. John Girotti, vicar for canonical services for the Diocese of Green Bay, echoes this, saying that we all have a need for personal prayers at Mass, even the celebrant.
“The priest is not a machine,” Fr. Girotti said, “he is going to Mass himself and there are times when he needs to pray quietly, just as the people do.”
So what are these “secret prayers” during the Mass?
The first happens just before the Gospel proclamation. If there is a deacon of the Mass, he will proclaim the Gospel. He first kneels before the celebrant and quietly asks for “your blessing, Father.”
The priest replies quietly: “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.” The deacon makes the Sign of the Cross and answers, “Amen.”
If there is no deacon, the priest proclaims the Gospel. As he walks to the ambo, he bows before the altar for what is called in Latin the “Munda cor meum.” These words come from the beginning of his prayer: “Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.”
After the Gospel, the priest kisses the book, saying quietly: “Through the words of the Gospel may our sins be wiped away.”
The next secret words come during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, at the preparation of the gifts. Sometimes you will hear them, if the offertory hymn has already ended, or if there is no hymn.
The priest holds up the hosts and prays — sometimes aloud, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you. Fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.”
Should the prayer be said aloud, the people reply, “Blessed be God forever.”
After this, the priest — or the deacon of the Mass — pours wine and some water into the chalice. He quietly says, “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.”
Then the celebrant raises the chalice saying, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you. Fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.”
Again, this may be said aloud. If so, then those assembled reply, “Blessed be God forever.”
The priest then bows to the gifts on the altar, softly saying, “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.”
Then we reach a point in the Mass which is known as the “Lavabo,” from Psalm 26, v 6: “I will wash my hands in innocence, so that I may process around your altar, Lord.” The server pours water over the priest’s hands. This is not to clean any dirt from his hands, but as a moment of petition. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says, “The priest then washes his hands at the side of the altar, a rite that is an expression of his desire for interior purification” (n. 76). The priest’s words here are: “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”
Lamb of God
After the Eucharistic Prayer, Lord’s Prayer and Sign of Peace, the Mass proceeds to the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). As the assembly prays, the priest breaks the host over the paten — an act called the Fraction rite. He places a bit of the broken host — called the fermentum — in the chalice. He says quietly: “May this mingling of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.”
Afterwards, the priest folds his hands and prays quietly: “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.”
Fr. Girotti explains that, in the Latin form of the Mass (called the Extraordinary Form), there is more spacing at this point in the Mass, allowing the priest to add a second prayer: “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.”
“Most priests do say both of these prayers,” Fr. Girotti added.
The next personal, and quiet, prayer of the priest comes before he takes Communion. He faces the altar and prays: “May the Body of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.” Before partaking of the chalice, he also prays: “May the Blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.”
The final secret prayer of the priest comes after Communion, while he purifies the paten and chalice. He says, “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.”
The Mass proceeds to its conclusion with no further “secret prayers” of the priest — except those he may hold in his heart.
Sources: The Order of Mass (USCCB); General Instruction of the Roman Missal; Catholic Encyclopedia; zenit.org; Msgr. Charles Pope, Archdiocese of Washington; aleteia.org; Fr John Whiteford blogspot; and parishableitems.wordpress.com