Privacy and Public Prayers

We have all heard Prayer of the Faithful/Universal Prayer petitions aimed at a person or group in the assembly, such as: “For those who do not give their full support to the work of this parish, that they may be more generous with their time and talents”.

Sometimes the Prayer of the Faithful turns into a news bulletin: “We pray for Norah Jones who had a hip replacement yesterday and is recovering well in ward 3B at St Andrew’s Hospital”.

The Prayer of the Faithful is one part of the liturgy which we are encouraged to write ourselves, not take from a book. As the name suggests, it is the prayer of the gathered members of the assembly not of the parish priest, or person who composed them, or an outsider who provides intercessions promoting a particular cause.

The intentions should be sober, be composed with a wise liberty and in few words, and they should be expressive of the prayer of the entire community. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal #71)

The earlier version of the General Instruction used the word ‘discretely’ for ‘wise liberty’ and the importance of using discretion when writing Universal Prayer petitions cannot be overemphasised.

I was startled some years ago to be contacted by several people from another parish wishing me well for my upcoming operation. I had told the parish liturgy co-ordinator in confidence that I would have to postpone a workshop because I was having unplanned minor surgery. This information was then included, without my permission, in the Prayer of the Faithful at Sunday Mass and among those to be prayed for listed in the parish bulletin!

The issue of discretion was given attention when new privacy laws were introduced in Australia in 2002. The Privacy Act makes it clear that, before a person is identified in public prayer as being sick or in trouble, the parish needs to ask itself about the source of the information. If it is public knowledge, then there is no problem. If it derives from private pastoral contacts, then permission should be sought for the disclosure of any personal information in parish prayers of intercession.

The Deputy Commissioner explained that the Privacy Act was about “organisations working within people’s expectations of what will happen with their personal information.
“Many of the current practices in relation to public prayers or printing of personal information in church newsletters will be within people’s reasonable expectations. It is not likely that there will be a breach of the Privacy Act in continuing these practices as long as they are clearly within the reasonable expectations of the individual concerned. If there is any doubt about what the individual’s reasonable expectations are, it is good privacy practice to check with them first, especially where sensitive matters such as health or personal troubles are concerned.”

Those who write Prayer of the Faithful petitions and prepare parish bulletins need to be judicious and discrete.


Elizabeth Harrington