The prayer ritual that concludes the Liturgy of the Word at Mass is known by two names: Universal Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful. Both names have significance. These prayers address needs throughout the world, and they come from the mind, heart and voice of the assembly.
Prayers of intercession have their roots in the Hebrew tradition. The Jewish Amidah is a prayer of thanksgiving that also includes petitioning God for aid in personal, community and world needs. Jesus and the apostles likely knew this prayer. Through natural development, petitioning God on behalf of all people became a part of the prayer of the early church in response to the proclamation of God’s Word. There is reference to this as far back as the year 155 in the writings of Justin Martyr.
Over centuries, this prayer took on another form, with a Kyrie response, and was shifted into the gathering rites. With the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the Kyrie remained in the gathering, and the Universal Prayer was restored to its earlier form and placement: expanding upon and concluding the Liturgy of the Word.
“The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” (No.1)
Contemplation on this opening statement from the Vatican II document “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” confirms the universal framework for the Prayer of the Faithful. The intentions are to reflect this understanding of genuine solidarity with all humanity. That authenticity is to be reflected in the manner with which they are presented, too. The interplay between the presider’s one-sentence invitation, the individual intentions voiced by the deacon/reader, the assembly’s affirmative cries for help, and the presider’s direct address to God in the concluding words, all need an honest commitment to prayerfulness.
Brief moments of silence between intentions can afford the assembly the opportunity to respond with a full and conscious connectedness. (The assembly responds as one voice: Lord, hear our prayer — not “prayers” — or similar words.) A sung response to each intention can bring a heightened awareness and fuller participation. Singing the response is especially poignant during the celebration of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.
We are not limited to the four needs as outlined in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (No. 10), but each area of concern is to be included (the Church, public authorities and the salvation of the world, the oppressed, the local community). Church documents recommend five or six intentions, with seven or eight on special occasions. The U.S. Bishops 1979 statement on the Prayer of the Faithful says: “The general intercessions should never be didactic, as though they were announcements … (they) must be concrete and to the point.”
In many parishes, these prayers are not raised to the level of importance that they bear in the liturgy. Too often they are just a religious practice we perform without much thought. Many parishes choose individual intercessions that are provided in books from liturgical publishers. These publishers offer a helpful service, but the intentions they provide are better used as models for this prayer form.
The parish liturgy committee can raise the Prayer of the Faithful to its innate importance by organizing people to write these intercessions. The liturgy committee could identify and call forth individuals in their parish who are involved with the written word in some way in their work or as a personal skill. (As always, personal invitation works best. Bulletin and Sunday announcements serve the purpose of raising awareness about parish ministries, but personal invitation is what really calls people to ministry.) These people could form a Liturgical Writers Group that would meet weekly for Sunday scripture reflection and the writing of intentions that would rise from the heart of that reflection.
To shape these prayers, the writers ask: in this moment in the history of salvation, and considering this specific scripture, where does the light of Christ need to shine? What of importance is happening this week in the parish community, in the church, in their city, in our country and throughout the world. In this way, current events shape these prayers and connect the Word of God to the world today so that the story of God’s saving mystery in the past now takes further and specific shape in the present. It professes our belief that God is still actively saving the world.