Lazarus-like he rises, to rant

No plaintive excuses, no unconvincing avowals of “I would have if I could have”. It has been busy here, in a disconcertingly unspectacular way. So blogging by your correspondent has been passive not active.

One topic in the past few weeks that has grabbed my attention is the matter of the bidding prayers at Mass. My eye settled first on a post at the New Liturgical Movement (NLM), and then more recently on a pastor’s heartfelt reflection by Fr Ray Blake in Brighton.

At NLM, Dr Kwasniewski rightly laments the general standard of bidding prayers/prayers of the faithful/general intercessions/universal prayer – call it what you will. He urges that they should be solidly founded theologically, well and aptly written, and that they should be sung (after all, if the bidding prayers have any real liturgical pedigree, it is to be found in the litany form).

Fr Blake is more forthright. He “hates” bidding prayers! Even when done with some care and attention he feels it to be like “putting lipstick on a pig”. He laments the lack of any detailed binding rubrics for them, the ease with which they can be abused, and the way they actually serve to make the laity into spectators or an audience at the liturgy, rather than participants.

At weekday Mass here at Douai the practice has developed of allowing prayers from the floor, which does allow lay participation but which also can easily develop into a free-for-all. Sometimes we endure the absurdity of, say, a prayer for a specific dead person being made after the celebrant has already prayed for all the dead. Sometimes prayers are made to acknowledge the presence of someone in the congregation that day, to whom the prayer is relevant in some way.

Almost two years ago there was a post here specifically about bidding prayers and how to do them well and in accordance with the guidelines and liturgical common sense. Then, as now, I took great care with bidding prayers: their content, their order and structure, their proper register and vocabulary, their relative brevity. Indeed I professed myself a “fan of bidding prayers, but only when well done”.

No longer. Like Fr Blake, I am learning to hate them even as I am taking even greater care with those that I make myself. But it is not their openness to abuse, to triteness or sentimental vacuousness, to theological dubiousness, to pandering to the audience (and I do not mean God) that is deciding me against them. It is the fact that they are so contrary to the letter and spirit of Vatican II. (Someone pinch me – did I just invoke the “spirit of Vatican II”?)

The Council, in its great document on the sacred liturgy, decreed that

there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing (SC,23)

The introduction of bidding prayers into the new liturgy did not grow organically from forms already existing, and whether their introduction has been “genuinely and certainly required” for “the good of the Church” is precisely the point on which so many are casting doubtful glances.

Yet, perhaps the most striking example of how the innovation of bidding prayers is contrary to the council fathers’ expressed intention is revealed when we remember these same fathers stated as one of the norms of liturgical renewal the principle that the sacred rites should be “free from useless repetitions” (#34). In practice after the Council this norm was used to justify the virtual denuding of the Mass of its traditional elements. Almost perversely, the liturgical reformers intruded an innovation that was one great useless repetition – you’ve got it, the bidding prayers.

Before some of you start foaming at the mouth, consider this. The General Instruction for the latest Missal lists the proper order of the intercessions in the prayer of the faithful:

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. (#70)

Now go read any of the Eucharistic Prayers. In fact, read all of them. What we find is prayer and intercession, made at the altar and united directly to the Sacrifice of the Cross, for the Church, the world, the suffering, the dead. It is all there. The bidding prayers/universal prayer/general intercessions/prayer of the faithful (whatever you prefer to call them) needlessly, and less efficaciously, repeat what the principal prayer of the Mass more than adequately covers. So why must we have them?

Fr Blake justly notes that the prayers mark a downward movement between the high points of the creed and the approach to the altar. They could be seen as a disruption, much as the kiss of peace as generally practised disrupts the movement from the sacrifice to communion. All too often they seem to promote a liturgical love-in. If the prayers seek to promote participation, then they fail miserably as the congregation at nearly any Sunday Mass will just be listening to them, not making them. If someone were to counter that the people should be making the prayers their own as they are read out, then we find ourselves back at the Eucharistic prayer, during which the people should be uniting themselves with the priest as he offers petition at the altar. And then and there it really counts!

Is this constant desire to intrude into the Mass episodes of participation, welcome and sharing an unconscious attempt to remedy the sad fact that the majority of Catholics limit their involvement in their parish to attendance at Sunday Mass (if even that). Thus, we have to cram as much ersatz, compensatory community spirit into the beleaguered liturgy to make up for the lack of it outside the Mass. Gone are the days of general membership in one or other of the many groups for both adults and children that gave parishes their vibrancy, and parishioners their sense of belonging in a worthwhile and meaningful way. The manufactured intimacy and enforced gestures of participation so often to be endured at so many Masses are no substitute for this wider participation in the Catholic community.

Tomorrow I will be in Covent Garden offering lunchtime Mass at the delightful Corpus Christi church. Will I put my money where my mouth is?

Peace, out.

8 thoughts on “Lazarus-like he rises, to rant

  1. When I attend a liturgy at our Russian Orthodox cathedral here in San Francisco, I almost never miss the great litany at the beginning, one of the most beautiful parts of the liturgy in my opinion, chanted antiphonally between deacon and congregation and choir. Whereas at any given Roman liturgy you’ll surely be tortured by what I think of as ‘the orgy of petition’, well-meant but agonizingly inane prayers for anything from the ‘repose of the soul of Ethel Merman’, ‘my little nephew Timmy’s first football game’, ‘the success of Uncle Fester’s Catholic pancake club’, to ‘our youth group cowboy picnic’ and ‘Catholic marriages and lots of kids for our school’–all of which I’ve been tormented with at one time or another. I have noticed, though, that the intercessory prayers provided in the Latin edition of the Liturgy of the Hours for Morning Prayer and Vespers mostly seem to follow the guidelines you describe here, Father. They could surely be a guide for what could be used at Mass. I find them quite useful not only as prayers but as extended meditations.


      1. Thank you Father, I look forward to that. It is better, to my way of thinking to present liturgical arguments in a dispassionate fashion; in this I differ from the new direction being taken at NLM and that for which Rorate Caeli has long been notorious.


  2. Dear Father, while it is true that the prayers can be misused, it has long seemed to me, that after receiving the Gospel Word, the Bidding Prayers allow us to put that Gospel into practise straightway, by opening our hearts and our prayer to include to the needs of others in Church and world. It makes me conscious that the Sacrifice about to take place, is not just for those who present, but “for the many” for whom Christ died. Blessings, Fr Ronan, hermit, Kangaroo Valley NSW Australia.


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