Gifts help transform congregation into active participants

Father John A. Kiley

It has been fifty years since the Latin Mass of our youth began its transformation into the vernacular Mass of the present day. This alteration of Catholic worship did not take place all at once. First the old Tridentine Mass was translated wholly into the world’s languages except for the Roman canon which was still prayed in Latin. Then the Novus Ordo, the new order, often known as the Mass of Paul VI, with wider readings, a selection of Eucharistic prayers, and other assorted additions and eliminations, became the Church’s regular liturgy. One especially notable revision was the broadening of the former offertory into the more expressive presentation and preparation of gifts.

The true offertory of the Mass is, and always was, the canon of the Mass, the Eucharistic prayer that effects the substantial change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ thus renewing Christ’s sacrificial offering of Himself on Calvary. All four Eucharistic prayers in current use make explicit reference to the celebrant offering, not mere bread and wine, but rather Christ’s sacramental Flesh and Blood. Canon I reads majestically, “…we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty, from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.” Canon II prays, “…as we celebrate the memorial of his Death and Resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the Bread of life and the Chalice of salvation.” Canon III professes simply, “we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.” And Canon IV declares, “we offer you his Body and Blood, the sacrifice acceptable to you which brings salvation to the whole world.”

The Mass regularly celebrated today rightly proclaims the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ made present on Catholic altars to be the acceptable and effective sacrifice to be offered to the Father for the continuing salvation of the world. This emphasis on the consecrated elements being the Church’s true and authentic offerings allows what was long mislabeled the offertory to become an appropriate and dramatic presentation and preparation of gifts from the laity. Unconsecrated bread and wine in worthy vessels are properly placed in the midst of the congregation before Mass. These are the laity’s gifts. They are not only the “fruit of the earth” but they are even more importantly the “work of human hands.” These gifts are accepted at the altar by the celebrant, often along with the laity’s monetary donations (but hopefully nothing else), and then arranged properly by the deacon in a setting that clearly indicates a meal is about to take place. The bread on its paten and the wine in its vessel are placed on the open corporal in full view of the worshipping community and then, just slightly lifted up, the elements are audibly presented by the priest to God as suitable elements soon to become the Body and Blood of Christ on behalf of the assembly.

The practical preparations out of the way, the celebrant washes his hands in anticipation of greater matters ahead. This portion of the Mass concludes not with an offertory prayer — the former secret prayer — but rather with a “prayer over the offerings.” The real offertory is yet to come when the people’s earthly offerings of bread and wine become Christ’s holy offerings of his own Body and Blood, the ultimate offering and effective sacrifice that brings about the salvation of the world.

The widening of the former offertory into a more graphic presentation and preparation of gifts expressively draws the congregation much more intimately into the sacrifice of the Mass. The assembled are not mere bystanders, witnessing an exalted event. The laity are actual participants in the Mass as the first Eucharistic prayer clearly states, “For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them.” As one participant in the City of Rome’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the vernacular Mass observed, “Indeed, one of the main aims of liturgical reform was full, active and conscious participation in the liturgy, so that the faithful moved on from their role as mute, extraneous spectators.” At all Masses, the suitable presentation and preparation of the laity’s proffered gifts can indicate exactly how integral the faithful are to proper Catholic worship.