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We Pray to the Lord
One part of the Mass that is not generally well-understood and celebrated is the Prayer of the Faithful, or the Universal Prayer/Bidding Prayers as it is also called in the new Missal.
According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal the people exercise the office of their baptismal priesthood by offering prayers to God for the salvation of all in the General Intercessions (# 69). The early Church took this so seriously that only the baptised were allowed to be present for this part of Mass.
The General Instruction also sets out the sequence of intentions: the needs of the church, public authorities and the salvation of the world, those burdened by any difficulty, the local community (# 70). In particular celebrations such as weddings and funerals the intentions can refer more specifically to the occasion.
Often the petitions are too long, poorly constructed and hard to comprehend. Sometimes they are more like news bulletins or mini-homilies which admonish the assembly and give advice to God.
The pattern of the Prayer of the Faithful is this:
1. The presider begins by addressing the faithful and inviting them to pray.
2. The intentions are announced by a reader, using a form of words such as "Let us pray for/ that…". They are petitions, not prayers, so the words "you", "your", or any form of address to God is quite out of place. The prayers also do not use an imperative (command) verb construction such as "Guide the Pope…", "Give peace to our world...", "Bring them eternal life...".
3. The faithful pray about the announced intentions in the pause that follows each one.
4. After a time of silence comes the cue (eg "Lord, hear us") and the community responds together (eg "Lord, hear our prayer").
5. The presider concludes with a collect that sums up the prayer of the assembly.
The petitions only become the "Prayer of the Faithful" when the people respond to the invitation, formulate their own prayer in their hearts and bring their prayers together in the "Lord, hear our prayer". If there is no silence, there is no prayer - just a list of statements.
If a parish is to improve the way this part of Mass is celebrated, several steps need to be taken.
Firstly, those who write the petitions need to understand the nature of the Prayer, current concerns in the Church and the world, and the needs of the local community. Petitions should be brief, few in number and simply constructed.
The Universal Prayer makes a connection between the Eucharist and the daily life of Christians. The prayers must be relevant to the concrete needs and concerns that the people are facing at a particular time, as well as stretching their compassion to include the whole world.
Secondly, those who announce the intentions must do so clearly and observe a deliberate pause after each one (counting silently to 10 is a good guide).
But it is the whole assembly that celebrates the liturgy, so it is essential that any change is explained carefully and often so that worshippers can use the times of silence to pray instead of worrying that someone has forgotten their lines or missed their cue!