Today we honor St. Gregory the Great who had much to do with the way we offer the Mass. Most of Europe was overrun with barbarian tribes in the century before Gregory was born in 540 A.D., and the opportunities for a real education were all but gone. But as the son of great Roman family, Gregory embodied all the erudition of Rome’s great centuries. Eight hundred of his letters, written in flawless Latin are still to be wondered over in Rome’s archives.
For two hundred years before Gregory’s birth the rulers of the empire had been residing in Constantinople, leaving it to the popes to keep order in Rome; and from age forty Gregory had served in Constantinople as the official go-between of Pope Pelagius II with the Emperor.
When Pope Pelagius II died in 590 every Catholic in Rome demanded that Gregory become their new pope. Thus elected, in his fourteen years as pope Gregory was concerned principally with the Mass. Let me say something about the problem Gregory was facing.
The original Eucharistic Prayer offered by the Apostles in the First Century had grown right out of the traditional table blessing that Jesus had followed at the Last Supper. That blessing, called the Brakha, consisted of three consecutive prayers. There was the Calling to Mind Prayer, the Calling Down the Spirit Prayer, and the Pleasing Gift Prayer.By that third part the diners strove to answer God’s goodness by making themselves into pleasing gifts to God. In Greek those three consecutive prayers were known as the Anamnesis, the Epiclesis, and the Eucharistesas.
Now, while the host’s blessing always had to contain those three parts, it was felt that sincerity on the host’s part called for him to make up his own words each time.
When St. Justin from the year 160 left us an example of the Eucharistic Prayer as priests offered it in his time, he wrote that the one presiding offered the Eucharistic prayer “as much as in him lie.” That spontaneity that was obligatory for the Brakha was retained.
However, Pope Gregory in the year 600 was faced with the situation where he hadn’t priests who were educated enough to make up a respectable Eucharistic Prayer. With no better choice available, Gregory composed a Eucharistic Prayer that contained the three parts of the Brakha that Jesus offered at the Last Supper.
That prayer composed by Gregory came to be known as the Roman Canon. It was the same Latin Mass Prayer I used from the time I was ordained in 1952.