The Fourth Canon of the Mass

“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. (1928-2019)

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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