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Composing the Prayer of the Faithful

Date: May 29, 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.

Question: Please, would you say something about the "Prayer of the Faithful," the prayers of petition prayed by a reader after the Creed on Sundays? Is there a rule or tradition about who composes them? As they are "of the Faithful," it seems logical that the faithful should write them as well as pray them. In my parish a team of three or four people take turns every month to prepare these prayers. I volunteered when there was an appeal for more involvement in the parish. We have a new parish priest and he often does his own prayers or edits the ones from the team. – R.K., South West London

Answer: Although the general intercessions (or universal prayer or Prayer of the Faithful) received their present format with the reform following the Second Vatican Council, they are of very ancient origin as Catholic tradition has always given an important place to intercessory prayer.

For example, St. Paul exhorts to the offering of "prayers, petitions, intercessions and thanksgiving for all: for rulers and all in authority, so that we may be able to live quiet and peaceful lives in the full practice of religion and of morality" (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We see similar forms in the witnesses to the early liturgy, such as St. Justin Martyr (circa 155), who wrote that “on the Lord’s Day, after the reading of Scripture and the homily, all stand and offer the prayers” (First Apology, 67).

As the structure of the liturgy developed, the Prayer of the Faithful formed the link between the two principal parts of the celebration: the “Mass of the Catechumens” and the “Mass of the Faithful.” Thus, after the homily, and before the Prayer of the Faithful, those who were still preparing for baptism, and, in some places, those who were doing public penance were dismissed from the celebration as they were not yet in full communication with the Church.

The Prayer of the Faithful at this time took on the form similar to that which has survived in the liturgy as the universal prayer on Good Friday:

The deacon or the celebrant invites all the faithful to pray on a particular topic. The assembly prays in silence. The deacon may invite all to kneel during this silence.

After a pause for silence, the assembly is directed to stand if it had been kneeling. The celebrant then prays a “collect” prayer addressed to God that gathers the people’s silent prayer. The assembly assents to this prayer by saying, “Amen.” After this, the next subject for prayer is addressed.

After the sixth century, with the prevalence of infant baptism and the advent of private, rather than public, penance, the different dismissals tended to disappear as there were few adult catechumens and no public penitents. Thus, Pope Gelasius I (492-496), moved the Prayer of the Faithful to the beginning of the Mass and adopted a simpler form similar to a litany whose response was usually “Kyrie, eleison.” Later, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) shortened these intercessions even more, leaving only the repeated “Kyrie, eleison” response which we still use today.

Vatican II's constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, in No. 53 called for the restoration of the general intercessions and so they were reintroduced into the Roman Missal.

Thus, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM):

“69. In the Prayer of the Faithful, the people respond in a certain way to the word of God which they have welcomed in faith and, exercising the office of their baptismal priesthood, offer prayers to God for the salvation of all. It is fitting that such a prayer be included, as a rule, in Masses celebrated with a congregation, so that petitions will be offered for the holy Church, for civil authorities, for those weighed down by various needs, for all men and women, and for the salvation of the whole world.

“70. As a rule, the series of intentions is to be:

“a. for the needs of the Church;

“b. for public authorities and the salvation of the whole world;

“c. for those burdened by any kind of difficulty;

“d. for the local community.

“Nevertheless, in a particular celebration, such as Confirmation, Marriage, or a Funeral, the series of intentions may reflect more closely the particular occasion.

“71. It is for the priest celebrant to direct this prayer from the chair. He himself begins it with a brief introduction, by which he invites the faithful to pray, and likewise, he concludes it with a prayer. The intentions announced should be sober, be composed freely but prudently, and be succinct, and they should express the prayer of the entire community.

“The intentions are announced from the ambo or from another suitable place, by the deacon or by a cantor, a lector, or one of the lay faithful. The people, however, stand and give expression to their prayer either by an invocation said together after each intention or by praying in silence.”

Although the above norms give no indication as to who composes the prayers, it does say that they are composed freely but prudently and that they are sober and succinct.

This gives a great range of freedom with the respect to the general guidelines. There is no difficulty whatsoever in having a team of lay volunteers composing the Prayer of the Faithful, and indeed, most parish priests would welcome the assistance. At the same time, the pastor might prefer to review the prayers beforehand so as to ensure their theological precision; a lay volunteer should also be grateful for his positive interest and input.

There are multiple resources available with suggested prayers of the faithful for all occasions. There are even some bishop’s conferences that have published entire books with formulas for the liturgical year and adapted them to the readings of the day. These may be used freely either as they are, or selectively, adapting these prayers to address the concerns of the local community.

Finally, it should perhaps be mentioned that the Prayer of the Faithful is not so much the formula read out by a deacon or a reader but the silence or the response with which the assembly answers the invitation to pray for that particular intention.

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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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