The Canon of the Mass: The Early Roman Canon

The form and structure of liturgies is something that churches which employ these in worship either take for granted or argue over intensely. But very few people understand how a) these came into being or b) how they should be revised or replaced in times of liturgical change. What kind of theology is embodied in a liturgy? What attention to the rhythm and metre is given? How will a liturgy work in a language other than one the one it’s written in? How well does a liturgy communicate its message, in addition to being the setting for the “sacred pledge” of the Eucharist? All of these important questions frequently get the short shrift, either by defenders of an existing liturgy of by proposers of a new one?

Liturgical change is the time when these questions do get asked the most. Probably the most important liturgical transition of the last one hundred years took place when the Roman Catholic Church promulgated the Novus Ordo Missae, which was instituted in 1970. That mass was the result of both theological and liturgical forces that had been going on in the Church for most of the preceding century.

Many of those changes—and probably some of the process that led to the NOM—were set forth in Cipriano Vagaggini’s book The Canon of the Mass and Liturgical Reform. Published in 1967, it is a careful and thorough treatment of the subject, and probably represents the thinking of those in charge of the liturgical reform initiated by Vatican II.

The focus of his work is the anaphora, which is, by Vagaggini’s definition, “the liturgical text which accompanies and expresses the offering of the Church’s sacrifice to the Father.” The RCC had used the Roman Canon for nearly fourteen centuries and, while Vagaggini is careful to underline the importance of the Roman Canon to the life of the Church, he is also clear that it has its defects as well.

In this series (which starts here,) we will reproduce the various historical anaphorae he sets forth, plus two Projects “B” and “C” which are his proposals (or perhaps those at the Vatican in the process of formulating the then really “new” NOM) for new anaphorae to be used in the church. Vagaggini also has extensive explanations for all of this; consult the book for these.

I will reproduce the English translations of these anaphorae only. Serious liturgists would do well to consult his original Latin, as the translations look like they were taken from the Italian without consideration of the original Latin text. I have tried to winnow out errors in the OCR process but, if you find some, please bring them to my attention.

A general overview of this topic can be found here.

(Here ends the fixed portion of the introduction; the variable portion follows.)

Today’s anaphora is from the “Early Roman Canon.” “Early” represents a “composite” liturgy that was celebrated in Rome between 370 and 416. St. Jerome lived in Rome during part of that time.


The Lord be with you.

And with you.

Let us lift up our hearts.

We have raised them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right and fitting.


It is right and fitting, good and just, that we should always give thanks to you for all things.

Lord, holy Father, almighty eternal God, who in your incomparable goodness were pleased to make light shine in darkness when you sent Jesus Christ to us as protector of our souls. For our salvation he humbled himself, and subjected himself to death, so as to restore to us that immortality which Adam had lost, and to make us God’s heirs and sons.


For such goodness and generosity we can never praise and thank you sufficiently, and so we ask you in your great love and compassion to accept this sacrifice which we offer you in the presence of your divine goodness, through Jesus Christ our Lord and God.


Through him we humbly ask and pray you, almighty Father, to accept and to bless these gifts, these pure offerings. We offer them to you, first of all,for your holy catholic Church: be pleased to give peace to her, spread over all the earth (We offer them to you at the same time, for our blessed bishop, N., and for all the bishops faithful to the true doctrine, who are the guardians of the apostolic faith).

Remember also, Lord, your servants who address their prayers to you, the living and true God, in honour of your saints, N.N., for the forgiveness of their sins.


(Send, Lord, your Holy Spirit from heaven) and mercifully bless and accept this offering which is the image and likeness of the body and blood of Jesus Christ your Son, our redeemer.

For on the day before he suffered, he took bread into his holy and blessed hands, looked up to heaven, to you, holy Father, almighty eternal God, and giving thanks, blessed and broke it and gave it to his apostles and disciples, saying “Take and eat this, all of you, for this is my body that will be broken for you.”

In the same way, on the day before he suffered, after he had eaten, he took the cup into his holy and blessed hands, looked up to heaven, to you, holy Father, almighty eternal God, and giving thanks, blessed and gave it to his apostles and disciples, saying “Take and drink of this, all of you, for this is my blood which shall be poured out for you and for everyone to take away all sins. Each time that you do this, you will do it in memory of me until I return.”


That is why, mindful of his most glorious passion and of his resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven, we offer you this spotless victim, this unbloody victim, this holy bread and cup of eternal life.


And we ask and pray you to accept this offering carried by your angels to your heavenly altar, as you wished also to accept the gifts of your just servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, father of our race, and the offering of your high priest Melchisedech.


(We ask you that through the grace of the Holy Spirit the gift of your love may be confirmed in us, and that we may possess in eternal glory what we already receive from your goodness.)


Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, in whom and with whom honour, glory, might, and power are yours with the Holy Spirit, from the beginning, now and always, for ever and ever. Amen.

2 Replies to “The Canon of the Mass: The Early Roman Canon”

  1. Okay, Don, on this one, I gotta ask: what is he basing this on? This looks like he just cherry-picked the Roman Canon as it now exists, as it has existed since approximately AD 400, if not earlier, and I am aware of no extant documentation that would support this.


  2. Dom Vagaggini’s explanation is as follows (I hope the OCR hasn’t butchered this too badly, from pp. 28-30):

    “Naturally this reconstruction is merely hypothetical, but I think it will serve some purpose by giving us an idea of the early text.

    “The text is that of Righetti (Storia liturgics 111, Milan, 1949, n. 274, 385-7), as corrected by Opfermann (“Die Erforschiing
    des romischen Messkanons”, in Theol. und Glaube, 44 (1955), 277-8).

    “I have based this reconstruction on the following principles:

    “1. We know that a Latin canon was in existence about 370-374 A.D., which was almost certainly Roman, and in this canon there
    was a passage which spoke of Melchisedech as sacerdos summus (Ambrosiaster, pua~stiiones Veteris ac Nowi Testamenti, 109, 21;
    CSEL, 50, 268). This corresponds to the text of the canon given in De Sacramentis. In 416.4.D. there could be found in the Roman
    canon the prayers of intercession for those who had made the offering, and these prayers came after the Commendatio Oblationis
    (Epistnla Innocentii Papae I ad Episcopun~ Eugubinum; PL, 20, 5534). In these prayers publice recitantur offerentium nomina (Jerome, 171 Hier. 11, 11: PL, 24, 784, written after 415).

    “2. In De Sacramentis (IV 5, 21; 6, 26; 6, 27; VI 24; ed. Botte SC 25 bis, Paris, 1961, 114-6; 152, written about 378) there is the text which was in use in Milan at that time. Now the least we can say is that the text is very similar to the text used in Rome. It includes:

    – a prayer that God may accept the oblation (Fac nobis hanc oblationem ascriptam, ratam, rationabilem acceptabilem quod
    figura est corporis et sanguinis Domini nostri Iesu Christi. Qui pridie . . .);
    -the Qui pridie with the narration of the institution;
    -the anamnesis with thc offering (Ergo memores . . . offerimus . . .); a prayer that the oblation will be accepted on the heavenly altar, and Melchisedech is mentioned;
    -the doxology.

    “Further the De Sacramentis states, without actually giving the text, that in the parts preceding the passage which is set out in full, by the priest’s prayers “laudes Deo deferuntur, oratio petitur pro populo, pro regibus, pro ceteris”. This must surely be understood as referring to the preface and the intercessions which come before the institution.

    “3. The De Sacramentis does not give the text of the preface, Commendatio oblationis or intercessions. To supply the defect two texts in particular are available:

    (a) The text of the anonymous Arian of the fourth century edited by Mai, and more recently by Mohlberg in his edition of the Leonine Sacramentary (p. 202, 9-25). Now this fragment actually contains the text of a preface from a Catholic canon, which is Latin, of Italian origin, and belongs to our period (even though there is nothing to guarantee it as Roman). This fragment further gives a Commendatio oblationis without being interrupted by the Sanctus. The last words of the fragment mark the passage from the Commendatio oblationis to the intercessions (. . . . ante conspectum tuae dizinae pietatis per Iesum Christum Dominum et Deum nostrum per quem petimus et rogamus. . . the fragment finishes here).

    (b) A Mozarabic Post pridie, which, in the part that concerns us, is clearly an intercession. (Lib. Sacr. n. 1440; cf. also Lib. Ord. 321-2). Liturgists are agreed that this text is on the whole of Roman origin. Now the opening words of this text coincide with the final words just before the Arian fragment interrupts its quotation (Per quem petimus et rogamus, omnipotenr Pater, ut . . .).

    Further the closing words of the Mozarabic text have a literary link with the words which begin the long fragment of De
    Sacramentis, which then carries on to the end of the canon. In this way we have three fragments whose content and
    structure link them together very neatly. Even the end of the Mozarabic text and the beginning of the quotation of De Sacramentis are clearly the same text with slight variations. In this case, for our reconstruction of the Roman canon, I think the readings of the Mozarabic text are to be preferred to the readings of De Sacramentis, because Pope Gelasius (492-6) provides a guarantee that the Roman canon at least in his day contained the words “imago et similitude cmporis et sanguinis” of Christ (Ada. Eutych. III 14, Thiel, Epist. rom. Pont. 1541). In this instance the reading of the Mozarabic text is the correct one, and it certainly demonstrates how rash it is to identify without more ado the text of De Sacramentis with the authentic ancient Roman canon.

    “Naturally all this does not prove that we are here dealing with one original text spread over three separate fragments, and much
    less can it be taken for granted that this original text is the genuine ancient Roman canon. A more likely suggestion is that we have here fragments of three different canons, which nevertheless were only variations of one basic framework, and this framework was substantially the same in Rome, Milan and other parts of Italy from 370 to 416. And so the structure of the common framework should be apparent if we join the three fragments together.

    “At all events, the three fragments, when joined, give us the text of a canon which appears to be complete. But then there
    remains the question whether we can be sure that there is no essential part missing in the structure of this composite canon.
    For example, such a text has no Sanctus. However, there is a solution to that difficulty, since we do know that the Sanctus of the Mass is not mentioned in Italy until the middle of the fifth century (cf. Righetti, Storia Liturgics, 111, Milan, 1949, 298-9).

    “More complex, however, is the problem of the epiclesis, since it has a twofold function as consecratory prayer and as a prayer
    for a fruitful communion. We may ask whether there was an epiclesis in the early Roman canon, and whether it had this
    double function. If it did exist, we still do not know if it mentioned the Holy Spirit explicitly, nor do we know its precise place in the text. The canon obtained by putting the three fragments together does not seem to contain any epiclesis at all. And there are other unanswered questions too in this matter of the epiclesis (cf. Righetti, loc. cit., 320-2, note 232). In the following reconstruction I have put in brackets the words which refer to the epiclesis coming before and after the institution.”


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