During Mass, we often ask the intercession of eight women. One, of course, is the Blessed Mother.
Seeking the prayers of these women takes place in the second part of the Mass — the Liturgy of the Eucharist — when the celebrant offers the Eucharistic Prayer. For most of the history of the church, roughly from the seventh century to the changes following the Second Vatican Council, the only Eucharistic Prayer used at Mass was what is now known as Eucharistic Prayer I, or “the Roman Canon.” (“Canon” means an agreed upon format.)
Early church history
The Roman Canon’s roots go very far back in church history. The Catholic Encyclopedia has suggested that the Roman Canon was a compromise between early Greek prayers at the offerings during the liturgy and slightly later Latin Eucharistic prayers, and possibly ordered into use by Pope Damasus (A.D. 366-84). The Encyclopedia adds that while the order of the prayers in the canon changed over the centuries, the form of the prayers themselves “can be traced back to a very early date from occasional references in letters of Fathers.”
The canon is offered during the part of the Mass that comes after the gifts are brought up (Offertory) and includes the Consecration.
In its earliest versions, the Roman Canon seems to have mentioned only three women: Perpetua, Agnes and Cecilia.
Liturgialatina.org, a website about the traditional Latin liturgy of the Mass, notes that Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) added Agatha and Lucy to the list. The Catholic Encyclopedia noted that Pope Gregory’s was not an unusual addition to the list of saints in the prayer, which was “enlarged to include various local people” depending on where the Mass was being celebrated. By the 16th century, the Council of Trent ordered this practice stopped. Pope Pius V (1566-72) issued a papal bull forbidding anyone to add to or change anything in the canon.
There are several parts to the Eucharistic Prayer, including the Holy, Holy, Holy (Sanctus). In the Roman Canon, two lists of saints occur within the Eucharistic Prayer — one before the Consecration and one after. The Blessed Virgin Mary appears in the first list — in the part often called “the commemoration of the living” — along with Joseph and 24 male saints, including some apostles and early popes.
After the consecration, there is a corresponding “commemoration of the dead” listing, where we hear the words “all who sleep in Christ.” After that come the intercessions, when we pray for ourselves who live in the “fellowship of your holy apostles and martyrs.” Here is found the second list of names, including 15 martyrs: eight men and seven women.
The list of men includes more apostles and martyrs: John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus and Peter.
The list of seven women includes:
- Felicity and Perpetua, who died in A.D. 202 at Carthage in Africa. Their feast day is March 6.
- Agatha, a virgin-martyr, who died in A.D. 251 at Catania in Sicily. Her feast is Feb. 5.
- Lucy, another virgin-martyr, who died in A.D. 304 in Syracuse, also in Sicily. Her feast is Dec. 13.
- Agnes of Rome was another virgin-martyr who died in A.D. 304 in Rome. Her feast day is Jan. 21.
- Cecilia, a married woman and martyr. This patron of musicians died in A.D. 203 in Sicily. It is said she lingered for three days, after being mortally wounded, singing praises to God. Her feast is Nov. 22.
- Anastasia, another martyr who was married. She died in A.D. 304 in what is now Serbia. Her feast day in the Western church is Dec. 25. In Eastern churches, she is honored on Dec. 22.
This final section of the Eucharist prayer in the Roman Canon, with its intercessions, prays for all the members of the church — in the world and those who have moved beyond the world. The prayer seeks greater unity for the church in general and specifically for those preparing to receive Holy Communion at the Mass being celebrated.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “the church indicates that the Eucharist is celebrated in communion with the whole church in heaven and on earth, the living and the dead, and in communion with the pastors of the church, the pope, the diocesan bishop, his presbyterium and his deacons, and all the bishops of the whole world together with their church” (n. 1354).
The inclusion of women in the Eucharistic prayer of the Roman Canon helps reminds us of the truth that, as St. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).