Q. Does the church have guidelines for the prayers of the faithful at Mass? It gets wearisome hearing the same ones week after week, and sometimes they are awfully long. Are there suggestions that would help us know what they are supposed to be? (Texas)
A. It appears that most Catholics, including many priests and parish liturgical ministers, would find some good catechesis about these intercessions extremely helpful.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Nos. 55, 69) gives the bare rubrical bones. Of the general intercessions, or prayer of the faithful, it says, the people, "exercising the office of their baptismal priesthood, offer prayers to God for the salvation of all."
It gives a general rule for the sequence of intentions:
a) For the needs of the church;
b) For public authorities and the salvation of the world;
c) For those oppressed by any need; and
d) For the local community. Intentions also may appropriately be related to special occasions such as weddings, funerals, baptism and confirmation.
These brief lines in the GIRM are based on a number of documents about the history and nature of these intercessions and the prominent place they have held in the liturgy nearly from the beginning.
We know that by the year 150 they already held an honored place in the Sunday Christian celebrations.
After the Scriptures were read and reflected upon, the intercessory prayers were seen as the flourishing of that word in the hearts of the faithful, offering their prayers for the church and for the whole world.
Perhaps still the best brief resource is the document "The Universal Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful," issued by the Vatican Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1966. It offers some marvelous insights into how the intercessions fit into the life of the communion of saints.
"The gathered church," it says, in offering this prayer, "stands as the great entreator and advocate appointed for all humanity. The holy people of God exercise their royal priesthood to the fullest above all by sharing in the sacraments, but also by joining in this prayer" (Nos. 1-3).
In a remarkable comparison, the congregation notes an analogy between sacramental Communion, which climaxes the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the intercessions, which the ancient and modern church regards as climaxing the Liturgy of the Word.
There is much more, sometimes surprising, information about the intercessions even in this one document. In particular, it indicates two points relevant to your question and to the rest of us concerned about good and traditional liturgies.
First, the general intercessions deserve serious, thoughtful attention to their majestic purpose in the Mass. Routine lack of reflective care in preparing and presenting them reveals itself in the negative way you describe.
Second, the worldwide and churchwide concerns they are meant to address should keep us from trivializing the intercessions. Masses on weekdays and special occasions may allow for more informal and localized prayer. But even there their primary thrust should be respected.
As a general rule, the church means the prayer of the faithful to be "for all the needs of the people of God," and to place the prayer power of all the baptized members of Christ at the service of those needs.
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.