SECRET WORDS

Prayers priests whisper to Jesus at Mass

 JOSÉ MARIO MANDÍA

In the Extraordinary Rite, there is a prayer called the “Oratio secreta”, literally meaning secret prayer. It is said at the end of the Offertory and in the Ordinary form of the Mass it is called the “Prayer over the Gifts.” The Latin word “secreta” comes from the verb “secernere”, meaning to separate or set apart. Something that is set apart is hidden. Why was it called the “secret prayer?” Because it was said a low voice. 

There are, in fact, other prayers in the Mass which are said in a low voice. They are prayers that Mother Church has included for the sake of the celebrant, to remind the priest that “he himself is beset with weakness,” says the letter to the Hebrews  (5:2), that is why – the letter continues – “he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.” As Henri Nouwen wrote, we are “wounded healers.”

In fact, all Christians should pray not only now and then or when we feel like it, but as Jesus says, 24/7 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week): “oportet semper orare” – “one must pray always” (Luke 18:1). Saint Paul echoes this when he says “sine intermissione orate,” literally “pray with no intermission” (I Thessalonians 5:17). Oops! But there is always WhatsApp, and WeChat, and Facebook Messenger, and SMS, and Angry Birds. Lots of intermissions, eh!

In the book of Leviticus, the priests were instructed: “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it, it shall not go out; the priest shall burn wood on it every morning” (Leviticus 6:12). The fire is, of course, only a symbol of the prayer that should be going on in the heart of the priest, and in the heart of every believer, a prayer that we should feed with our own words and with words of Scripture.

So let us examine some of these secret prayers, if only to learn something about how we ought to pray.

Before the Gospel, the celebrant bows before the Tabernacle or the Crucifix, and whispers, “Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.” This prayer tells us many things. One of them is that purity in heart and speech is needed to proclaim the Gospel. Otherwise, people will only hear us and not Christ. We are channels of Christ’s grace, but we can become obstacles through selfishness, arrogance, impurity, anger, lust, greed, ambition, or apathy.

After offering bread and wine, the priest bows once more and says, “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.” Again an admission of guilt. Once more a confession that one is stained and wounded and in need of help. Only then will we appreciate the infinite value of what is about to take place on the altar.

Then, as he washes his hands, the priest whispers, “Wash me, O Lord from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” One more reminder, a few moments before he utters the words “This is my Body,” and “This is my Blood.” Not even the Blessed Virgin had the power to summon God again and again with just a few words. Once these words are said, God obeys his sinful creature, and comes down to the altar – truly, really, substantially.

Then very close to communion time, there are two prayers that help the priest prepare to receive Jesus. The first one goes, “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.” Keep me always faithful. How beautiful fidelity is – in marriage and in the priesthood. Never let me be parted from you, keep me close to you (ahem, that means asking him to keep us close to his Cross as well!).

In the present rite of the Mass, the following prayer is an alternative to the previous one (the two are always recited in the extraordinary form): “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.” How can it bring “judgment and condemnation”? Because receiving Jesus means being free of grave sin. If we receive him in a state of mortal sin, that means we have not yet decided to reconcile with him. In a previous article, I remember quoting Pope Benedict who said that there is a sacrament of reconciliation (Confession), and another sacrament for those already reconciled (Communion). Receiving communion would be a hypocrisy, and it would “bring judgment and condemnation.” Oh yeah? Does the Bible say anything about this? Well, yes. Saint Paul wrote, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. ” (I Corinthians 11:27-29) The prayer also says communion is a “healing remedy,” because it heals us of venial sin, it cures our imperfections, it fires us up with the charity that only God can give.

Finally, as he is about to receive Communion, the priest whispers to his Lord and Savior, “May the Body of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.” “May the Blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.” The Eucharist is also a guarantee, a pledge, a promise. For those who receive worthily, Jesus promises unending joy. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:53)

There are indeed more things to learn from these prayers, but I leave it to the reader to read them unhurriedly, thoughtfully, prayerfully, with or without intermission.

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