Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: At the intercessions, should the lay faithful keep their petitions more broad (i.e., for the Church) rather than personal? — L.P., Victoria, British Columbia
A: Norms regarding the prayers of the faithful are found in the Introduction to the Lectionary, Nos. 30-31, and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. The norms apply to clergy and laity alike and not just the “lay faithful.”
No. 30 of the Lectionary states: “In the light of God’s word and in a sense in response to it, the congregation of the faithful prays in the universal prayer as a rule for the needs of the universal Church and the local community, for the salvation of the world and those oppressed by any burden, and for special categories of people.
“The celebrant introduces the prayer; a deacon, another minister, or some of the faithful may propose intentions that are short and phrased with a measure of freedom. In these petitions ‘the people, exercising its priestly function, makes intercession for all men and women,’ with the result that, as the liturgy of the word has its full effects in the faithful, they are better prepared to proceed to the liturgy of the Eucharist.”
No. 31 continues: “For the prayer of the faithful the celebrant presides at the chair and the intentions are announced at the ambo. The assembled congregation takes part in the prayer of the faithful while standing and by saying or singing a common response after each intention or by silent prayer.”
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in Nos. 69-71, states:
“ In the Prayer of the Faithful, the people respond in a certain way to the word of God which they have welcomed in faith and, exercising the office of their baptismal priesthood, offer prayers to God for the salvation of all. It is fitting that such a prayer be included, as a rule, in Masses celebrated with a congregation, so that petitions will be offered for the holy Church, for civil authorities, for those weighed down by various needs, for all men and women, and for the salvation of the whole world.
“ As a rule, the series of intentions is to be: For the needs of the Church; / For public authorities and the salvation of the whole world; / For those burdened by any kind of difficulty; / For the local community. Nevertheless, in a particular celebration, such as Confirmation, Marriage, or a Funeral, the series of intentions may reflect more closely the particular occasion.
“ It is for the priest celebrant to direct this prayer from the chair. He himself begins it with a brief introduction, by which he invites the faithful to pray, and likewise he concludes it with a prayer. The intentions announced should be sober, be composed freely but prudently, and be succinct, and they should express the prayer of the entire community.
“The intentions are announced from the ambo or from another suitable place, by the deacon or by a cantor, a lector, or one of the lay faithful.
“The people, however, stand and give expression to their prayer either by an invocation said together after each intention or by praying in silence.”
As can be seen from these norms there is a certain balance to be struck between being excessively generic and excessively specific as these prayers should reflect the needs of the community.
Expressing the prayer of the entire community means that they should not be too personalized either, by reflecting too closely the spiritual interests of an individual or group within the community or my mentioning very particular individual needs.
Besides, abstract intentions should also be avoided. For example, instead of asking generically for “human rights,” the request should be for those who suffer persecution or injustice.
In order to strike the right balance, many parishes tailor the usual petitions mentioned above to some more specific petition. Thus, for example, the petition for the Pope, bishop and the Church can make reference to some recent activity or event to make them more specific. To wit: “For our Holy Father, Pope Francis, as he undertakes an apostolic pilgrimage to the Church of X ….”
Likewise, some communities include in the prayers of the faithful a general petition for those who are sick, or those who have recently passed away, in which they incorporate the names of some members of the community.
The petitions for those in great need can mention specific recent needs such as the victims of recent natural disasters or other tragedies.
To guarantee this balance, especially on a Sunday, the intentions should always be prepared beforehand and approved by the pastor or celebrant. It is praiseworthy to follow the general order indicated in No. 30: asking for the universal Church, the local community, etc.
There are also many worthy editions of books with formulas for the general intercessions, even some covering every day of the year. These books may be used for the general intercessions themselves or as resources in preparing intercessions tailored to the needs of a particular community.
If the priest wishes to offer the people an opportunity to add their own personal intentions, he could possibly introduce a moment of silence by saying, “Each one of us can add a personal intention in silence.” Following the moment of silence, he recites, with hands extended, the concluding prayer.
An important point to observe here is that the people’s “exercising the priestly function” in the prayer of the faithful is not limited to those who read the intentions.
Indeed, the most important aspect of these petitions are not how they are articulated in the formulas.
The “prayer” of the prayer of the faithful consists above all in the response or silent prayer made by the people after the invitation “Let us pray to the Lord.”
Thus, the exercise of the common priesthood lies in the very fact that each member of the assembly participates in offering intercessory prayer for all men and women. Interceding before God for our fellows is an eminently priestly function in which all baptized Catholics may participate albeit always in communion with the sacred priesthood.
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