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The Names in the Roman Canon

Date: January 2, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Why are the apostles and specific martyrs listed in the Roman Canon and not others? Is there any rationale for the order in which they are listed? -- P.S., Littleton, Colorado

A: Until St. John XXIII added St. Joseph to the Roman Canon (or Eucharistic Prayer I), the list traditionally consisted of the first list of 24 saints (12 apostles and 12 martyrs) and a second list of St. John the Baptist, last and greatest of the prophets, followed by two groups of martyrs (seven men and seven women).

These lists may now be shortened to seven by omitting the saints following St. Andrew in the first group and after St. Barnabas in the second. According to liturgist Joseph Jungmann, these lists, so to speak, form a double choir of saints arrayed in much the same way as represented in Christian art.

The full list is:

First group: Peter and Paul, Andrew, James, John, Thomas, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon and Jude (apostles); Linus, Cletus, Clement (first three Popes after St. Peter); Sixtus (Pope, +258); Cornelius (Pope, +253); Cyprian (bishop of Carthage, +258); Lawrence (deacon, +258); and Chrysogonus (+304?), John and Paul (+361-363?), Cosmas and Damian (+303 or 287) (five laymen).

Second group: John the Baptist; Stephen (deacon protomartyr); Matthias, Barnabas (apostles); Ignatius (bishop of Antioch, +107); Alexander (Roman priest, +113; sometimes confused with Pope St. Alexander I, seventh bishop of Rome, martyred in 115); Marcellinus (priest); and Peter (exorcist, +304); Felicity, Perpetua (two married laywomen of Carthage, +203); Agatha (+251, Catania, Sicily), Lucy, (+304, Syracuse, Sicily), Agnes, (+304, Rome), Cecilia (+230, Rome) (four virgin martyrs); Anastasia (+304, married Roman laywoman whose feast is celebrated on Christmas Day).

The list is quite ancient as the non-biblical saints’ names included are all martyrs who enjoyed a certain devotion in Rome. Devotion to saintly confessors is a slightly later phenomenon, with St. Martin of Tours (316-397) generally being credited as the first such saint to receive liturgical recognition.

The list would, hence, seem to have developed in the early fifth century. Since there are early manuscripts that omit some of the current names, it probably was not established in a single moment but grew in stages before finally being systemized.

In its definitive form, it is a well-balanced list with the saints listed in hierarchical and generally chronological order. In some cases, the chronology is deliberately altered, as when Cyprian is tied to Cornelius, since they are celebrated together on the same feast day.

The list of the apostles (including St. Paul) is an intriguing one in that it is dissimilar to other biblical and extra-biblical lists of the apostles with respect to the order of names. This is probably due to the fact that initially only the apostles particularly venerated in Rome were mentioned and the others added later to complete the list.

Although the other saints were originally included due to their being the object of devotion in early Christian Rome, the way they are carefully balanced and their grouping in lists of 12 and seven saints is highly significant. In ancient times 12 and 7 along with their multiples were considered as perfect numbers representing a certain infinity.

Thus, these lists represent the whole Church united in offering the most holy sacrifice of the altar insofar as Christians of both sexes and pertaining to all social levels and vocations have been deemed worthy of martyrdom, the ultimate sacrifice for Christ. In this way, the use of the full list, at least occasionally, can be very useful, in part, for illustrating the universal call to holiness.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.            

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