Understanding and focusing during the prayers before and after the consecration is often difficult for me. How can I understand and appreciate these prayers better?
Thank you for your sincere question, which I will answer from two angles: how to practice focusing on these and other prayers in the Mass (while avoiding distractions), and from the approach of a broader application of active participation in the Mass as a way to learn to focus.
When it comes to focusing on the words of the Eucharistic Prayer that is prayed by the priest, the first key I would offer is the necessity of acknowledging what is actually happening. In this prayer, no matter which formula is being used (from Eucharistic Prayer I, II, III, IV, or any of the other approved versions) it is of first importance to acknowledge that this prayer is an offering to God the Father of the one true sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. Within this offering of Christ to the Father are words that call to mind the saving works of God that have been accomplished, prayers of thanksgiving, and prayers of petition. If I can use the example of Eucharistic Prayer III (seeing I have frequently used this prayer for most Saturday Evening/Sunday Masses during my time here) the prayer opens with an acknowledgement of God’s works and His holiness, leading to our petition that He send the Holy Spirit upon the offerings that they may become the Body and Blood of Christ. Then after the consecration (which is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus), we remember the works of Christ (His passion, death, resurrection, and ascension) while asking, among other prayers, that the Church be more perfectly united to Him, that we might share in the life of the saints, that we might be aided in our continued pilgrimage of faith, and that the faithful departed might be received into the fullness of eternal life.
As each setting of the Eucharistic Prayer contains multiple prayers of praise, thanksgiving, and petition, a practical manner for entering into it more deeply is to concentrate on listening. If I may hearken back to my pre-ordination days (particularly as a seminarian) I used to kneel with my eyes closed for nearly the entire prayer, opening them only for the elevation of the Body and the Blood during the consecration. By closing my eyes, I was more intent on listening to the words of the priest, allowing them to stir in my heart, joining my own prayers to what the priest was saying as is fitting.
My relating of experiences from times at Mass before I was a priest leads me to my second manner of answering this question: from the perspective of active
participation in the Mass. As I have recently taught by way of the “Catechesis for the Masses” series, true active participation is not primarily a matter of outward “doing” but of “being” those whom God calls us to be. To that end, I simply want to reinforce the call to practice meditating upon the spoken words of the prayer. I mention my own past practice of closing my eyes as a way to help me do just that. For others, it may be the use of a printed version of the prayer to read along. In addition to such meditation and listening, practice inserting your own silent prayers with the priest’s prayers, especially when he prays such words as praying for the Church or the faithful departed, as these are moments where those people or related intentions of your own which may come to mind can be offered with those of the whole Church. For what is of central importance here is to realize that your true participation in the Mass in this moment is to seek to unite yourself with the priest and the offering that is being made to God the Father. Silently adding your own prayer intentions, your own sentiments of praise, and your own thanksgiving are powerful ways to join in this prayer.
Though I have presented a couple of particular examples of how to focus, do not be afraid to prayerfully ask the Lord to help you to focus – as He Himself can help you to discover what is the most effective way to enter more deeply into the Mass, learning to more fully offer yourself to Him.