Do this in memory of me
A Study Day on the Eucharistic Prayer
with Dr Peter Coughlan
Margaret Beaufort Theological Institute, Cambridge, 3 May 2024
Review by Ann Blackett

It’s worth keeping an eye of the website of the Margaret Beaufort Theological Institute, a lay Catholic institute in Cambridge and a member of the Cambridge Theological Federation.  As well as academic courses and research, there is a steady stream of study days, evening courses via Zoom, synod discussions and other events, some free of charge.

A Saturday in early May saw an in-person study day on the eucharistic prayer led by Dr Peter Coughlan, Emeritus fellow of the Margaret Beaufort Theological Institute, but who was in Rome at the time of the Second Vatican Council.  He specialised in liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgy Institute at Sant’ Anselmo, and after the Council worked in the Consilium for the implementation of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, where he supported the work of revision and development of texts for the eucharistic prayers we use today.  He also worked for the Secretariat for Christian Unity in the areas of liturgical worship and theological reflection, ecumenism and ministry.  All this experience, scholarship and inside-knowledge promised a fascinating day and we were not disappointed.

Beginning with the scriptural accounts of the last supper, Dr Coughlan drew out the two traditions: Mark/Matthew and Luke/Paul.  Although there are differences, it is clear that the blessings (in words and actions) of Jesus became the model for our eucharistic prayers, and were handed on within Christian communities from the earliest times.  There were no set texts; early presiders prayed ‘as they were able’ and each local community might have variations, although they all intended to carry out the Lord’s command.

However, there were also early differences in context and meaning: Mark, Matthew and Luke have the Last Supper as the Passover meal, John’s Gospel sets it on the night before the Passover (so that Jesus would have been being crucified on the day of Passover, at the time when lambs were being sacrificed).  Rather than describe the words and gestures of Jesus at table, John concentrates on the meaning of the Eucharist, leading to permanent union with Christ (in John 6 when Jesus teaches the disciples about what it means to eat and drink the flesh and blood of the Son of Man).  A new relationship becomes possible through the new covenant drawing all people to God brought about through the sacrifice of Jesus.

Two of the earliest eucharistic texts (the Didache c85-120 and the writing of Justin Martyr c150), are more description than set text and even as written texts began to emerge from C2-3, still some elements we would expect are not included: no epiclesis, no institution narrative.  More settled eucharistic prayers, still subject to development, were used in the North African patriarchate of Alexandria, the Syrian/Antiochene church and Rome and more local variations were based around these depending on their sphere of influence.  The Roman rite influenced Mozarabic, Gallican and Celtic prayers.

The day’s second session moved away from history and covered the theological meaning and the structure of the eucharistic prayer in Christian life and worship, a participation in the life and love between the Father and the Son (cf John 17), a flourishing of God’s love in us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And not just the human family – all of creation is called into God’s love.  As Pope Francis say, “In the eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God, Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love.” (Laudato Si n.236)

The structure of the eucharistic prayer was examined, referencing scriptural and historic sources. Dr Coughlan noted that the whole of the prayer is consecratory, from the preface dialogue (a call to action) to the doxology (a word of praise); it is the prayer of the whole Church, although addressed to the Father by the priest. Moreover, as proclaimed, we join our prayer with the hosts of heaven as one liturgy is celebrated in heaven and earth, with the heart of the prayer being epiclesis/invocation > anamnesis/memorial > institution narrative. The eucharistic prayer is how we respond to the invitation of God.  We remember but we present to God the reality of Christ’s one and unrepeated sacrifice in sacramental form.

In the final session, Dr Coughlan shared some of his experiences of working with Group 10, the scholars and liturgists charged by Pope Paul VI to develop suggestions for the development of eucharistic prayers for the post-conciliar Church, following the recommendations of the liturgy Consilium.  An initial question was how far the vernacular would be used, but as people began to experience the liturgy in their own languages, requests for translation flooded in; a problem ‘solved by experience’.  Working with the Roman Canon (now EP 1), historic texts from the eastern and western churches, the group revised the Roman Canon, prepared texts for Eucharistic Prayers 2, 3 and 4 and the prefaces for EPs 2 and 3, and laid the foundations for further prayers to be created.

We then had an opportunity to examine newer eucharistic prayers – the two for reconciliation, the four for various needs and occasions and the three prayers for celebrations with children, which were unfamiliar to many of the participants.  ‘Why don’t we know about these in the parishes?’ was the heartfelt cry.  The group was also intrigued to learn of a signed eucharistic prayer for the deaf, approved by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

This was a day well worth the journey and the £15 cost.  Dr Coughlan’s talk was scholarly but completely accessible, self-deprecating but leaving us wanting more.  Personally, I am fascinated by hearing the witness of those who were connected with the work of the Council, and we should hear more of their stories.

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