March 2021 Print

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: The Canon—Part Three

By Fr. Christopher Danel

In this article we continue an examination of the Canon of the Mass, presenting the work of Msgr. Nicholas Gihr in his fundamental liturgical commentary The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically, and Ascetically Explained. Msgr. Gihr was a priest of Freiburg in Breisgau whose work of liturgical research took place during the time frame spanning the pontificates of Popes Pius IX to Pius XI, including that of Pope Saint Pius X. The early years of his work were contemporaneous with the last years in the work of Dom Prosper Guéranger. (The English translation of his study appeared in 1902; the original is: Gihr, Nikolaus. Messopfer dogmatisch, liturgisch und aszetisch erklärt. Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1877.)


The first prayer of the Canon consists of three parts: the Te igitur, the Memento of the living, and the Communicantes. This article will consider the third of these parts, namely, the Communicantes.

Communicantes et memoriam venerantes: thus begins the formula. These words, as a continuation of the preceding part of the Canon and its supplement, stand in the closest relation to the preceding words: Those present offer up to Thee, O Lord, this Sacrifice of praise and pay their vows unto Thee, and this not as persons separated from the unity of the mystical body of Christ, but as belonging to the Communion of Saints (Communicantes), and who fulfill this communion towards the inhabitants of heaven by venerating their memory (memoriam venerantes). By name they are mentioned: the Blessed Virgin Mary, the twelve Apostles and twelve Martyrs; finally, all the Saints.

All the redeemed constitute together the kingdom of Jesus Christ, among all these citizens, whether they have already happily reached the term, or are still combating on earth, or making atonement in the place of purification, there is a living communication, a reciprocal interchange; good deeds and sufferings, merits and satisfactions, in short, all the fruits of grace are common property from which each draws and to which each contributes. It is precisely at the celebration of Mass that we are reminded of the happiness and dignity of belonging to so glorious a community, that is, that we are “fellow-citizens with the saints and domestics of God” (Eph. 2:19).

The Blessed Virgin Mary

‘’First of all” (in primis) and, therefore, more than all, we honor the memory of the “glorious ever Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our Lord Jesus Christ.” As always, so also in this instance Mary is rightly named in the first place; she is Queen not merely of the Apostles and Martyrs, but of all the Saints. Her name is not mentioned simply, but with honorable qualifications that proclaim her grandeur, power and dignity.

Let us here yet briefly notice her connection with the bloody and unbloody Sacrifice of Christ. The Victim of the Cross and of the Altar was given to us through the Virgin Mother Mary; He is “the fruit of her most noble body” by the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost. The God-Man is “born unto us and given to us from Mary. She “stood by the Cross of Jesus,” and while her maternal tears were mingled with His blood and the sword of sorrow pierced her soul, she offered her Crucified Son for the redemption and salvation of the world. Her name, therefore, is inseparable from the Sacrifice of Christ.

The Apostles

Next, the twelve Apostles are named in the Canon. The Apostles are those chosen messengers to whom the Lord imparted full powers as teachers, bishops and pastors, that, as His representatives, they might continue the work of the redemption.

St. Peter, who is inseparably combined with St. Paul in the liturgy, is named first. Jesus Christ made him the foundation of His Church and invested him with the office and dignity of primate over the universal Church. As the visible representative of Christ and as chief pastor, he was with supreme power to feed and guide the lambs and sheep, the entire flock of Christ. Hence in the Gospel Peter takes preeminence over the other Apostles. He stands forth in bold relief as the man of truth, transformed by grace, a monumental figure, an exalted prototype, as it were, of the Papacy and of the Church herself, as from the days of Peter till now she passes on through the world and through the centuries.

St. Paul, abounding in labors and sufferings for the Gospel, is the ideal missionary Apostle. He made five great apostolic journeys by water and land. They occupied more than twenty years of his life; during that time St. Paul passed through about thirty different countries and islands, established and consolidated Catholic communities in more than forty cities. By word and writing, by sermons and epistles, St. Paul brought everywhere the name of Jesus, that is, truth and grace, light and life, the doctrine and salvation of Christ to the children of Israel as well as to heathen nations and rulers.

St. Andrew was the first to recognize the Messiah through St. John the Baptist. His arduous and successful missionary labors were first exercised in Scythia; he, at last, went to the city of Patrae in Achaia, where he suffered a heroic martyrdom on November 30 in the year 62. The Apostle made a solemn profession of the Sacrifice of the Cross and of the Altar; whereupon he was condemned to die fastened to the Cross composed of two beams diagonally crossing each other. He remained on the Cross two days and a night, making of it a pulpit, whence he announced Christ crucified. Finally, a bright light encompassed him, and the Cross became for him the ladder to heaven.

St. James the Greater was a brother of St. John, both being sons of Zebedee. Peter, John, and James were distinguished and privileged by the Lord above the other Apostles. St. James preached in Judea and Samaria; then he hastened to distant Spain. He was later put to death by the sword in Jerusalem by Herod Agrippa only nine or ten years after the death of Christ. His holy remains were at an early date carried to Spain, and there they rest even now at Santiago de Compostela.

St. John was honored by Our Lord on account of his innocence and virginity, with His closest friendship and intimacy. In that blessed hour, when Jesus by the institution of the Eucharist gave to His own the greatest proof of His love, John was permitted to repose on the breast, on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, thence drawing light and love in abundance. Then when dying on the Cross, the Lord bequeathed and delivered over to His favorite disciple what to Him was most dear and precious, namely, His holy Mother. St. John first exercised his apostolate in Palestine; later on, he exercised a powerful influence on the Church of Asia Minor, until he there died and was buried at a very advanced age. But is the glory of martyrdom wanting to St. John? By no means. Under the emperor Domitian he was dragged to Rome, and there thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil; but by a miracle he came forth from it purer, fresher and more vigorous than before. He was then banished by the same tyrant to the island of Patmos. St. John is not only an Apostle, martyr and evangelist, he is also a prophet.

St. Thomas, called the Twin, was slow to believe in the resurrection of the Lord; but he afterwards proved himself a fervent advocate and propagator of the faith among the Parthians in the East; on his way thither he is said to have baptized the three Magi. He penetrated as far as India, where, by the command of the king, he was killed by a stroke of the lance, or, according to another account, stoned and clubbed to death.

St. James the Less, being a relative of the Lord, is called His brother. With Sts. Peter and John he is designated by St. Paul as a “Pillar” of the Church. He was raised by St. Peter to be the first Bishop of Jerusalem. Because of his courageous confession of the divinity of Christ, he was thrown down from the battlements of the Temple; he was still able to rise to his knees, but the mob fell upon him with stones, and he was given the death-blow with a club.

St. Philip was the fourth of the fishermen of Bethsaida in Galilee called by the Savior to the Apostolate. He exercised his apostolate in Phrygia, and died in Hierapolis on a cross, stoned to death by the enraged populace.

St. Bartholomew was led to the Lord by Philip. He preached in Arabia Felix, in India and in Greater Armenia, where at Albanopolis he was flayed alive and decapitated. Relics of his holy body are preserved under the high altar of the Church of St. Bartholomew, in the isle of the Tiber, at Rome.

St. Matthew is both Apostle and Evangelist. He was a publican when the Lord called him. Arabia and Ethiopia are specially mentioned as the field of his zeal. According to some authors he was burned alive, according to others he was killed with a spear.

St. Simon, the Zealot, is in the veneration of the Church connected with St. Jude Thaddeus, who was a brother of St. James the Less. Both consumed and sacrificed their lives by their labors in Mesopotamia and Persia, where Simon was cut in two with a sword and Jude was shot to death with arrows.

The Martyrs

Martyrdom of blood is the characteristic trait of the saints of the first four centuries; therefore, twelve martyrs of these ancient times are now mentioned in the Canon. Among them are five Popes, a bishop, a deacon and five laymen. Even at a very early period these saints were held in universal and high esteem in Rome. This explains their insertion in the Canon.

First, five Popes are mentioned. St. Linus was the first successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome and, therefore, the second Pope. He was converted to Christianity by St. Peter. St. Cletus succeeded St. Linus. He adorned the tomb of St. Peter, who had ordained him a priest. St. Clement is reckoned among the Apostolic Fathers; he sat in the chair of Peter from 88 to 97. He was praised by St. Paul, and according to the testimony of ancient writers, St. Clement was endowed with all the qualities of mind and heart that were requisite for the highest ecclesiastical dignities. In the fourth place comes the name of St. Xystus (the Greek form of Sixtus). During the first three centuries there were two Popes of this name. The memory of Sixtus II has been especially celebrated in the Church; the Catacombs prove this by many pictures, inscriptions and prayers. St. Cornelius distinguished himself in all the grades of the Church including the papacy, and eventually died a martyr.

After the Popes in the Canon come a Bishop and a Deacon. St. Cyprian was from Carthage. From the very beginning of his conversion he was adorned with brilliant virtues and uncommon graces. He combated for the unity and discipline of the Church against heretics and schismatics, animated all to cheerful endurance of martyrdom, and consumed himself in the ardor of Christian charity. His life, rich in blessings, was terminated by the glorious death of a martyr in the public square of Carthage. St. Lawrence was a native of Spain but was brought up and educated in Rome. Sixtus II ordained him deacon and made him the first of the seven deacons of the Roman Church. St. Lawrence was scourged, struck with leaden balls, stretched on the rack, and burned with red hot metallic plates. Afterward he was laid on a burning gridiron, upon which his martyrdom was consummated.

Finally, in the Canon five laymen are commemorated. St. Chrysogonus converted many heathens in Rome and, after long imprisonment, was sent to Aquilea where he was beheaded. Sts. John and Paul were brothers. As distinguished Romans, they were entrusted with high positions of honor at the court. The apostate Emperor Julian had them decapitated in their own home in 362. Sts. Cosmas and Damian were also brothers, descended from a distinguished race in Arabia. They practiced medicine in Roman territory pro bono. Their virtues and their acts of benevolence gained for the Christian religion many adherents. After enduring many torments, they were decapitated in Cilicia.


In the Roman Canon only martyrs are named before and after the Consecration; this distinction is justly due to them. They have merited it by the bloody sacrifice of their life; they appear as the ripest and most glorious fruit of the Sacrifice of Christ. They resembled the Savior not in life merely, but also in death. For Christ they lived, for Him they died; in return for the Sacrifice of His love, they offered the sacrifice of the world and of themselves amid untold torments and sufferings. The virtues of fortitude and patience, of faith and of love which they practiced in a heroic degree shone resplendent in them.