Mass Without the Words of Consecration?

Fr Frank O’Dea SSS

This article concerns two churches of the Eastern Rite: the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church.

The Assyrian Church of the East

The Assyrian Church of the East is one of the many Eastern Churches. It is not in full communion with the Catholic church because it refused to attend the Council of Ephesus in the fifth century. However, the Roman church recognises it has preserved full Eucharist faith in the presence of Christ in the blessed bread and wine.

This church has three different Eucharistic prayers. One is called the Eucharistic prayer of Addai and Mari. This prayer does not have the story of the Last Supper, hence does not have what we call the words of consecration.

‘Scholars are unanimous that it is one of the most ancient anaphoras [Eucharistic prayers] extant, a prayer believed to have been in continuous use in the age-old East Syrian Christendom from time immemorial. As such, it merited the respect Rome has always had for Tradition with a capital “T”.’ (Robert F. Taft, ‘Mass Without the Consecration? The Historic Agreement between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, Promulgated 26 October 2001,’ Worship, November 2003, p. 484).

Vatican II’s decree on ecumenism acknowledges that this church has ‘true sacraments and, above all, by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist.’ (Unitatis redintegratio, no. 125)

The Eucharistic prayer of Addai and Mari contains references to the Last Supper and to the sacrifice of Jesus even though it doesn’t describe literally the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. This indicates the prayer heeds the command of Jesus, ‘Do this in memory of me,’ and it has prayers of praise, thanksgiving and intercession.

‘From an historical and ecumenical point of view, on what legitimate and ecclesiological basis could Rome argue that an Apostolic Church whose Urancient principal anaphora had been in continuous use since time immemorial without ever being condemned by anyone, not by any Father of the church, nor by any local or provincial synod, nor by ecumenical council nor catholicos, nor patriarch nor pope – on what basis would one dare to infer, even implicitly, that such an ancient apostolic church did not and never had a valid Eucharistic sacrifice?’ (Taft, p. 489)

Some scholars in the past have said it is impossible to have a Eucharistic prayer without the narrative of the Last Supper and the words of consecration, so they say the original narrative must have been lost. Today’s scholars reject this argument. ‘Today’s scholar starts with what is, and attempts to explain it – not explain it away. So scholarly opinion tends to respect a text as it is, and presumes that to be its pristine form until the contrary is proven.’ (Taft, p. 489). Moreover all the manuscripts that we have omit the institution account.

Other Ancient Eucharistic Prayers

The Eucharistic prayer of Addai and Mari is not the only ancient Eucharistic prayer lacking the institution narrative. Taft says there are several other ancient prayers that lack those words. He quotes Cyrille Vogel who lists six Eucharistic prayers in the apocrypha that don’t have the words of institution, and twenty one later Syriac prayers that either lack completely or partly the institution narrative.

‘So there is not a single extant pre-Nicene [325AD] Eucharistic prayer that one can prove contained the words of Institution, and today many scholars maintain that the most primitive, original eucharistic prayers were short self-contained benedictions [blessings] without Institution Narrative or Epiclesis [calling on the Holy Spirit] comparable to the Didache 10 and the papyrus Strasbourg.’ (Taft, p. 493, italics in the original).

What does this mean for Catholics? Now comes the surprising part.

The Chaldean Catholic Church

‘Contact with Latin Church, via the Crusades, led to the official establishment of the Chaldean Catholic Church in 1553 although it wasn’t until 1830 that final communion between Rome and Chaldean Churches was achieved.’ (Tom Knowles SSS, The Vineyard, September 2007)

An historic agreement was reached in 2001 to say that Catholics could receive communion at the Assyrian Church of the East when the Eucharistic Prayer for Addai and Mari is used. This decision was approved by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and by Pope John Paul II. The agreement says that Catholics who receive communion under the stated conditions when the Eucharistic prayer of Addai and Mari is used, are receiving the true presence of Christ as they would in their parish church.

Taft says, ‘This is the most remarkable magisterial document since Vatican II.’ (p. 483).

Both the Assyrian Church of the East and the Catholic Chaldean Church have suffered devastating persecution in this century, resulting in many of the adherents of these churches going overseas to more peaceful countries. This means that many of the faithful of these churches are scattered and don’t have easy access to a church of their own. The historic agreement enables the faithful of these churches to attend the Eucharist in the other church when the other is nearby. This is the pastoral reason for the agreement. The Assyrian church of the East and the Chaldean church are two ‘Sister Churches’.

Words of Institution not Used in Early Church

‘I know of not one single reputable contemporary scholar on the topic, Catholic or non, who would hold it as certain that the Words of Institution were an integral part of the earliest Eucharistic prayers over the gifts.’ (Taft, p.494) The wording of the Eucharistic prayer was not fixed until the beginning of the third century and there is no tradition of the words that Jesus used at the Last Supper included in these Eucharistic prayers. ‘What was done in remembrance of Jesus was the offering of thanks, but not according to a fixed formula.’ (Taft, p. 494)

Moment of Consecration

Some of the eucharistic prayers speak of the bread and wine as consecrated before the words of the institution. Likewise some of the wording after the consecration speak of the words of institution as if the bread and wine had not already been blessed.

As Catholics we’ve always understood that the bread and wine were transformed when the priest said the words of consecration during the narrative of the Last Supper. The Eastern churches considered the change occurred when the Holy Spirit was invoked (epiclesis).

However, ‘Before the Middle Ages no one tried to identify the ‘moment of consecration’ apart from the anaphoral prayer [Eucharistic prayer] over the gifts in its entirety.’ (Taft p. 496).  The anaphoral prayer begins after the preface and ends with the Lord’s prayer. This was the teaching of the theologians before the Middle Ages and extending into the early Middle Ages.

The notable liturgical historian, Joseph A. Jungmann SJ, said, ‘In general Christian antiquity, even until way into the Middle Ages, manifested no particular interest regarding the determination of the precise moment of consecration. Often reference was made merely to the entire eucharistic prayer’. (Taft, p. 497)

Taft quotes Bossuet (1627-1704) who said, ‘The intent of liturgies, and, in general, of consecratory prayers, is not to focus our intention on precise moments, but to have us attend to the action in its entirety and to its complete effect . . . It is to render more vivid what is being done that the Church speaks at each moment as though it were accomplishing the entire action then and there, without asking whether the action has already been accomplished or is perhaps still to be accomplished.’ (Taft, pp. 497-498)

Change of Thought

In the later Middle Ages scholars began to assert that the change in the bread and wine occurred when the narrative of the Last Supper was recited, particularly at the words ‘this is my body . . . this is my blood’. This belief was endorsed by Pope Pius VII (1800 – 1823) who condemned the ‘new opinion proposed by schismatic men.’ (Taft, p. 499)

In more modern times scholars have reverted to the ancient idea that the transformation of the bread and wine occurs during the whole Eucharistic prayer, not just at one particular moment in that prayer.

In his conclusion Taft says, ‘The Words of Institution are not some isolated formula, but a prayer of the church operative only within its worship context. In East and West this context was and still is and will remain diverse within the parameters of our common faith that Jesus, through the ministers of his church, nourishes us with the mystery of his Body and Blood.’ (Taft, p. 508)

What Does all this Mean to Us Today?

‘As the Roman church moves beyond its medieval pre-occupation with the formula of consecration . . . it draws closer to the Eastern tradition that upholds the role of the epiclesis and the Holy Spirit . . . The decision invites the presider to see and pray the prayer as a connected whole, without singling out the institution narrative for special emphasis.’ (Tom Knowles SSS)

So we could drop out the gestures of the priest such as holding up the bread and the chalice and ringing the bells, and give more emphasis to the elevation of these at the end of the Eucharistic prayer.

I can remember when the priest had to say the ‘words of consecration’ in a hushed tone, bending low over the gifts. I knew a priest who used to recite the words many times or start again part way through to ensure he got the words right. What a strain it must have been for him!

‘Shifting the focus away from the institution narrative would allow the whole assembly not only to maintain a uniform posture throughout the eucharistic prayer but also to recognise the integrity of the whole prayer and to experience it as the prayer of the whole community.’ (Tom Knowles SSS)


Let’s look at the Eucharistic prayer of Addai and Mari from after the Holy, Holy.

Do you, O my Lord, in your manifold mercies make a good remembrance for all the upright and just fathers, the prophets and apostles and martyrs and confessors, in the commemoration of the Body and Blood of your Christ, which we offer to you on the pure and holy altar, as you have taught us in his life-giving gospel . . .

And we also, O my Lord, your servants who are gathered and stand before you, and have received by tradition the example which is from you, rejoicing and glorifying and exalting and commemorating this mystery of the passion and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And let your Holy Spirit come, O my Lord, and rest upon this offering of your servants, that it may be for us for the pardon of sins and for the forgiveness of shortcomings, and for the resurrection from the dead, and for new life in the kingdom of heaven.

And for your dispensation which is towards us we give you thanks and glorify you in your Church redeemed by the precious Blood of your Christ, with open mouths and unveiled faces offering glory and honor and thanksgiving and adoration to your holy name, now and at all times, and for ever and ever. Amen!