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The Fourth Canon of the Mass Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 15 October 2013

“Yet, you, who alone are good, the source of life, have made all that is, so that you might fill your creatures with blessings and bring joy to many of them by the glory of your light.”
                                                                                         – Preface to the Fourth Canon, Roman Missal

Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, at Catholic University, commented recently that he has begun to use the Fourth Canon. The new translation was excellent. I seldom used this canon. It is used only with its proper Preface. So I began to use it. Sometimes called the “Intellectual Canon,” its origins are in St. Basil and the Eastern Liturgy. It needs listening to. And it pays to listen to it. It is a remarkably concise statement of the faith, how it all fits together.

Canons are cast in the mode of praise and worship of the Father. They depict by name who is there “present” at any Mass. It is a surprising reality, if we pay attention. Christ is there; that is what it is all about. Through Him we can worship and praise the Father in the first place, always in the Holy Spirit. We are not there looking at ourselves. We all look to the Father of Our Lord. The angels and saints are named in various combinations in the four main canons.

The pope and the local bishop are specifically identified. Our loved ones are recalled, also the dead, those kneeling before the altar. The Blessed Mother is “venerated,” not adored. Saint Joseph, the Apostles, the early popes and martyrs are listed. In short, the whole of creation is conceived to be there. We are not alone at Mass.

We are there as members of the mystical Body of Christ. We are together, yet each of us directs himself to the Father through the Son and Spirit. We are there because we are made for eternal life. But it is not achieved apart from our choice.

In the Preface, we state that what we do is “right and just.” To do what? To give the Father “glory.” He existed before and will abide “for all ages.” All goodness comes from the Father. He has made “all that is.” The Father is the “light.” He is the source of intelligence made manifest in the Word. And it is “we” who speak God’s name “in exaltation.” Significantly, the rest of creation receives its “voice” through us men. This giving voice, intelligence, to creatures, including ourselves, is part of why we exist.

            St. Basil consecrating the Gifts (Cathedral of St. Sophia in Ohrid, Macedonia)

The first part of the Fourth Canon is what I will consider here. It is rather long, certainly compared to the brief Second Canon. We first explain why we give “praise” to the Father. All His works are “fashioned in wisdom and love” including ourselves. The intellectual efforts of human philosophy are to see and explain that the world itself bears signs of intelligence not simply of chaos.

What about man himself? He is made in God’s “image.” The whole of creation is “entrusted” to his care. He is to “have dominion over all creatures.” What about the smallness of man and the enormousness of the universe – the dark energy and the Higgs boson? Man is the one being from within the universe that reflectively looks at it. His responsibility is to know it, to know its order.

Next, we are brought up short. We are reminded that, in human history, we lost the initial divine “friendship” by “disobedience.” This implies that the Creator is more interested in man than He is in the universe’s gyrations. But how does the Father respond to this “disobedience?” Each man was created to reach eternal life. But God could not and did not want to force Himself on anyone. Each person had to choose God because he loved Him. So “death” was not their final word. God sent many messengers. He made many “covenants” to work out their “salvation.”

Finally, God sent His own Son born of the Virgin Mary. He was true God and true Man, body and soul, like us in “all things but sin.” What did this Son do? He told everybody, even the poor, the imprisoned, and the sorrowful, not only the wealthy and intelligent, but them too, of their salvation, of what they really exist for and how to attain it.

How did He do this? Through His death and rising again. We are thus no longer to live only for ourselves. How could this be? He sent the Holy Spirit from the Father.  Why? To “perfect” His initial work to “sanctify creation to the full.” Such was the Father’s “plan.” This is what we see being worked out before us. It all does make sense. We affirm that we understand that it does. Our “seeing” is the first step in praising the Father.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Randall, October 15, 2013
Thank you, Father Schall. Today you have contributed to my life-long catechesis. God bless you.
written by Jack,CT, October 15, 2013
Thx Father it read like a beatiful sermon.
written by Dan Deeny, October 15, 2013
Thank you for this article. Explanations and commentaries on the Mass really help. Why do we do what we do? And what do the words of the Canon mean?
written by Stanley Anderson, October 15, 2013
Fr. Schall wrote, “To do what? To give the Father ‘glory’.”

There is an oft-wondered-at question (well, by me at least) of how we, as fallen creatures can give God glory, who is the source of all and who has made “all that is”. And I don’t mean by “giving glory to God” the idea of simply praising him as we might glorify an object with words of praise that then disappear the moment they are uttered, but that the glory we “give” to God is, somehow, some kind of “thing” that manifests a permanence of “glory” in its very giving.

But how can this be, if God is already the source of all? Of course I really have no idea, but I wonder if our very fallen-ness might be part of that mystery? That is, as fallen creatures, we are, by our own unfortunate devices, dim, flattened images, mere shadows of our intended fullness. So by entering into that fullness by means of Christ’s acts for us that we might become part of the Body of Christ, we therefore “increase” the glory, the “fullness”, if you will, of God’s creation that he has allowed us to take part in, even in our current insubstantial fallen state.

(Ok, parts of that paragraph above make me cringe a bit with theological caution flags and caveats and on and on, but I think there may be something there. I haven’t worked out the details, don’t ya know. As when Sallah in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” asked Indiana Jones ‘How?’, Indy replied “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.”)
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, October 15, 2013
It is always good to repeat the kerygma over and over and over again. How else will the faithful know the good news that we are all called to proclaim? And proclaim we must because this is what Christ commands the Church to do. As the Gospel for the upcoming Sunday has Christ asking: "When the Son of Man comes again will He find faith on earth? That question is ours to answer!
written by Joy, October 15, 2013
Fr. Schall, I humbly submit my ignorance on "canons" as you have used it here: "the fourth canon". When I search the web this very article is first and is followed by Fourth Lateran and Fourth Century Canon and other bits that give me no clear definition.

Are you referring here to a Mass translation? Your beautiful essay leads me to think it is a portion of the Mass but I then cannot understand how Monsignor Sokolowski has "begun" using something that should have been used all along. Or maybe it is a prayer at a certain time of the day ...?

I'm confused and feel a bit like an idiot. Someone save me, please.
written by Louise, October 17, 2013
Joy, by "Canon" Father is referring to the part of the Mass that includes the Consecration. there are a number of choices - 4 main ones, but there are also ones for special occasions. It starts after the Offertory prayers and ends before Holy Communion. Look at your missalette this Sunday and you will see the four canons from which the priest chooses. most of the time you hear canon 2 because it is short I suppose.
written by Chris in Maryland, October 17, 2013
Dear Joy:

The word "Canon" refers to one of the multiple Eucharistic Prayers available as options in the Novus Ordo version of the Mass established in the late 1960's (the "ordinary form").

Before the N.O. Mass was created in the late 1960's, in the traditional Mass, now called the "Extraordinary Form" there was only one Eucharistic Prayer - it is called "The Roman Canon."

The Roman Canon is still in the Novus Ordo is entitled Eucharistic Prayer #1 - but remarkably, it is almost universally suppressed by The Church...which is more than a little troubling...given the professed intention of the liturgical "reform" - that the faithful might know better and understand the traditional liturgy of the Church.

There are in the 2,000 years of Catholicism a number of Eucharistic prayers, including some of the Eastern Church, from which, in some way unknown to me, Eucharistic Prayer #4 of the Novus Ordo is derived.

There seems to be very little information about where/how the various Eucharistic Prayers of the Novus Ordo Mass were prepared by the committee that "built" the N.O Mass (lead by Anibale Bugnini).
written by Chris in Maryland, October 17, 2013

Also, among the various Eucharistic prayers in the 2,000 years of the Church, it is the Roman Canon that is the most ancient, with I understand direct documentary evidence from the 6th C., and indirect evidence of its existence reaching back to the 1st-2nd. This is attested by theologians and writers such as the late Fr. Adrian Fortesque of England, the late Msgr. Klaus Gamber of germany (d. in 1990s I believe?), and the late Laszlo Dobszay of Hungary (just died 2012 I believe).

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