Previous Missal Moments here have focused on explaining the changes made in the English version of the third edition of the Roman Missal that came into use at the end of 2011 in Britain. The focus today is not any change as such, but on an element of the post-conciliar Roman Missal that has always been there, but too often poorly practised: the bidding prayers after the Homily (and Creed if there is one).
When they are poorly done, it can be excruciating. When they are abused, they can be infuriating. No wonder many, even laity, often wish they might be omitted altogether.
You have probably been exposed to this poor practice. There are the long, rambling, incoherent monologues that seek to tell the congregation (or even God sometimes if the reader is truly abysmal) the whole story behind the prayer. Sometimes they are so long an actual prayer is never made. Then there are the political manifestos, laden with editorial comment, in which the reader effectively preaches rather than intercedes. Even here I have heard diatribes against the authority of the Church and invectives against bankers, masquerading as intercessions. Then there is the often laudably brief intercession, which states the person/s being prayed for, but not the grace being sought for them. Some of the worst can be the spontaneous ones, in which the pray-er gets so muddled in his or her spontaneity that grammar ceases to function; or those which become sentimental addresses to God about nothing in particular.
What’s in a name?
In England, they tend to be called bidding prayers. In Australia the favoured term is prayer of the faithful. In some places I have heard them termed general intercessions. In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal or GIRM (2008) the phrase is Universal Prayer (though it mentions Prayer of the Faithful too).
The name is important in revealing the true nature of this part of the Mass. Universal Prayer and General Intercessions are closest to the essence of this optional rite. (And yes, it is optional, though GIRM does say it is “desirable”.) It is a period of intercession for all beyond the confines of that small community at worship. It is when the congregation looks out of itself to embrace the wider community and intercede for the rest of the Church, and indeed for the world. This is it universal in scope, and general in context. We are not praying for ourselves, but for others.
The nature of the beast
So what is this Universal Prayer? GIRM is quite succinct:
In the Universal Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful, the people respond in some sense to the Word of God which they have received in faith and, exercising the office of their baptismal priesthood, offer prayers to God for the salvation of all … [in which] petitions may be offered for holy Church, for those who govern with authority over us, for those weighed down by various needs, for all humanity, and for the salvation of the whole world. (GIRM, #69)
The theory is that having heard the Word proclaimed and preached, and on solemn days professed our faith, we are then moved quite naturally to look to the needs of others in response to God’s Word. We are called to move beyond self-absorption, both of the individual and of the congregation as an entity, to embrace the whole Church and the world at large in our prayer and our sacrifice. It is the moment when the baptised can augment their offering of the sacrifice of praise and their own selves with the sacrifice of intercession for others.
Fr Jeremy Driscoll OSB offers good insight into this rite:
The prayers are also called general intercessions, or sometimes even universal prayers, as an indication of the direction in which our prayer ought to go. These petitions should be very broad, all-embracing. Individuals can pray for their particular needs in the the quiet of their hearts. Here the Church is giving voice to her relationship with the whole world. (What Happens at Mass, Gracewing/LTP, 2005, p.59)
Thus, these petitions should never be for ourselves, and usually not even for our own congregation. Normally I allow a short space of time at the end of the petitions for the people to offer their own particular petitions in “the silence of your hearts”, ending with the standard dialogue “Lord in your mercy/Hear our prayer”.
There are two levels of structure to be remembered. The first concerns the subject order of the petitions; the second concerns the structure of the individual petition.
(1) GIRM quite clearly states as normative (not merely recommended, though exceptions are as ever allowed) that:
The series of intercessions is usually 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. (GIRM, #70)
Thus our petitions from the universal to the more particular, from the Church (which as it encompasses the Communion of Saints, is greater in scope than the world), to government, to the world at large, to those in particular need, to the needs of the community in which the congregation is situated. There should no reason at all ever to change this structure, and deacons and laity who lead these intercessions should be properly instructed in how to order them, and how to construct a petition.
(2) Each petition is in fact an invitation to the congregation (bidding them) to pray for those intentions announced. Thus the English bishops in their official commentary on the new Missal spell it out as clearly as they can:
Both the priest’s introduction and the proposed intentions are addressed to the assembly, not to God. (Celebrating the Mass, CTS, 2005, #173)
We should never hear the reader say “Lord, we ask…..” or the like. The reader is not talking to God but to the congregation, inviting them to pray for the announced intentions. Moreover, since it is an invitation, the phrasing should reflect this fact. Thus, “We pray for the….”. The phrase “We pray” is not an invitation but a declaration, and it is wholly inappropriate. How does the reader know that “we pray” for that intention. Rather the proper phrasing should be “Let us pray for…”.
Having announced the person/s being prayed for, the petition should then specify succinctly what is being sought for those persons. Thus a petition should have a structure something like “Let us pray for…, that….”. So an example might be, “Let us pray for the Church under its shepherds Pope Francis and the bishops, that together they might grow ever stronger in faith, hope and charity. Lord in your mercy./Hear our prayer.” The people’s response is their affirmation of the intention or petition and their presenting it to the Lord as the people of God.
Thus the rite of the Universal Prayer should follow the schema given by the English bishops’ Liturgy Office:
- Invitation to Prayer (to the people, by the priest celebrant)
- Intention (“Let us pray for… “)
- Silence for prayer
- Concluding Prayer (to God, as a collect, by the priest celebrant)
The Roman Rite is known for its noble simplicity, and this should be manifested no less in the petitions. They should be as short as possible, succinct and to the point. They should be so phrased that no one in the congregation might feel unable to affirm them. The reader is serving the congregation not him- or herself. The English bishops again:
These intentions should be short, clear, and objective enough for the faithful to understand and respond to them without difficulty. They should express the prayer of the entire community. (Celebrating, #173)
Moreover, they should be strictly intercessory, that is, asking for a grace or graces for the benefit of others. They intercessions cease to be so when they lapse into (usually self-indulgent) praise, gratitude or other sentiments. Again, the English bishops state regarding the petitions,
The response they are to evoke is petition rather than praise, thanksgiving, or repentance. (Ibid.)
When, for example, we use the intercessions to offer thanks to God then we have lapsed into self-absorption again. After all, the Eucharist itself is the great thanksgiving.
To the surprise of many, I am actually a fan of the general intercessions, but only when they are well done. If they cannot be done properly they should not be done at all.
Properly includes the necessity for the petitions to have been drafted beforehand in writing, and approved by the priest celebrating the Mass. Spontaneous intercessions are dangerous, all too often ending in confusion, incoherence, poor grammar and syntax, and so becoming a burden to the congregation, not a help. Certain types of Protestant have a knack for making intercessions, a knack not found as often in Catholics. Therefore, the Catholic should draft the petitions beforehand, and have them approved by the priest.
Brevity is also essential. Otherwise the point of the petition can end up being forgotten, and also there is a danger of lapsing into story telling or editorializing. Likewise, there should be only one reader of the intercessions. Having several readers of intercessors tends to lengthen the rite beyond reasonable bounds, and give it an importance that is not proper to this rite. It also risks reducing the rite to banality. In other words, too many cooks spoil the broth!
Ideally, the intercessions should be announced by the deacon, or a competent layperson. This allows the witness value of having a non-priest offer the congregation’s petitions, since the petitions are meant to express the response of the people to the Word of God and to begin their preparation to take part in offering the Sacrifice.
The Universal Prayer, or whatever name for it your prefer, should be given the same care and attention in preparation as any other part of the Mass. If done properly they can serve as a powerful and effective means of transition from the more passive reception of the Word of God to the more active offering of ourselves as a living sacrifice in union with Christ’s one sacrifice of the Cross made present on the altar. This movement of passive devotion to active devotion addresses the need we have to move from self to others, an evangelical movement that makes us intercessors for the whole world.
There is a strong and lucid argument that holds the Universal Prayer to embody precisely the “useless repetition” that the Vatican Council sought to remove from the liturgy. The Mass itself is one great universal prayer, offered not only for ourselves but for the whole Church and for the salvation of the world. The argument is a powerful one, and it touches me deeply. However it strikes me that the Universal Prayer allows the people of God to articulate and become more conscious of their need to move their focus from self to others, and through others to God. In that sense it can be a fitting preparation for the Eucharist proper.