The Runt of the Litter
ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
53. Especially on Sundays and feasts of obligation there is to be restored, after the Gospel and the homily, "the common prayer" or "the prayer of the faithful." By this prayer, in which the people are to take part, intercession will be made for holy Church, for the civil authorities, for those oppressed by various needs, for all mankind, and for the salvation of the entire world.
As you may have read below, I had completed the original of this post last week and then lost it entirely. This has given me another week to consider the Prayer of the Faithful, from both a historical and a pastoral perspective, and in particular to reflect upon my parish’s POF formula last weekend after the deaths at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School here in our state, which has had significant impact upon Florida school students (among other states), many of whom boycotted schools here in Central Florida calling for a safer educational environment. (The site of the shooting is about a three-hour drive south of Orlando.)
Paragraph 53 calls for the Prayer of the Faithful to be “restored,” meaning that at some point in the Church’s history the POF was a significant rite within a rite. There is evidence that the POF or intercessions developed quite early, such that St. Justin Martyr (c. 150 A.D.) could write a commentary on the practice as possibly a Christian version of the “eighteen prayers” used in Synagogues. Justin’s commentary emphasizes prayers for the Church, for bishops and clergy, for peace in the world, for a good harvest, for country and for city, for the sick, poor, and needy, for the dead, for the forgiveness of sins, and for a holy death.
There are several points to note in Justin’s commentary. The primary thrust of the prayer is universal. Para. 53 mentions “all mankind” and “the salvation of the entire world.” One can imagine that an assembled body of worshippers must have felt moved as it fervently prayed for the betterment of the world in preparation for the coming of Christ at the end of time. Second, the POF of Justin’s time and into the fifth century was solemn and lengthy, which may have something to do with its disappearance. Pope Gelasius I (r. 492-496) began the process of moving the rite to the beginning of Mass and making it a litany, which over time morphed into the “Lord, Have Mercy” or Kyrie Eleison we know today as a penitential rite. There is one surviving model of the solemn Prayer of the Faithful of Gelasius’ day, the General Intercessions of the Good Friday Liturgy of today’s observance, which consists of ten intercessions and a collect or prayer with each. (See Josef Jungmann S.J, The Mass 1976, p. 183-185.)
The Catholic theologian Josef Jungmann, S.J. observed that the Prayer of the Faithful is probably the least detailed in all official liturgical books and directives beyond the general instruction of para. 53. In other words, there is little direction on the format or the words. The format in use in your parish and mine is a modest oral prayer that the vast number of churches have become comfortable with. The POF was one of the first reforms of the Mass to emerge in the rapid-fire procession of piece-meal directives of the 1960’s prior to the new Missal of 1970. I lived with seminary professors at the time, and the tradition of the POF in the early Church was rarely discussed. The prayers of the faithful were improvised at the local level; the popular wisdom of the time regarding the POF was that the prayer was intended to further congregational participation and address local concerns; these goals were some distance from Justin’s template.
Those responsible for the Prayer of the Faithful had only para. 53 to work with, and I doubt that many were familiar with that text. The POF offered opportunities to parish ministers and volunteers to become involved by writing the full text, as none existed. Generally speaking, the products were local in orientation, and for a decade or two, excessively local. The capper may have arrived when celebrants simply opened the floor with the opportunity for worshippers to call forth spontaneous petitions from their seats. This practice had some success in religious community and/or small group Masses, such as those offered by me in my first years as a priest when I presided over “wing Masses” for two dozen or so guys in my dorm. But I wouldn’t recommend it today. It is true, though, that parishioners and staff ministers continue to compose the POF petitions on their own even today, or some parishes subscribe to a petition-writing service. If you search the internet, there is a lot of "formula swapping" going on.
Some of the funniest aberrations of worship in my memory occurred during the Prayer of the Faithful years ago. In a school Mass, a little tyke asked us to pray that his recently deceased dog would get to heaven. In a religious order’s retreat house where I was conducting a retreat, a pious innocent religious brother slowly and solemnly proclaimed, “I would like to pray for all prostitutes [pause], divorcees [pause], and all women. I can only wonder about that train of thought. One of my ugliest scenes at a Mass also occurred during the POF. I was the cantor/guitarist at an old and venerable church in old Alexandria, VA, on Mother’s Day. The POF included a vanilla petition about mothers. Suddenly a guy in fatigues rushed to the microphone and grabbed it. “What about praying for the mothers of all the boys dying in that senseless war in Asia [Viet Nam]?” Before I could even blink, another older gentleman in the back of the Church stood and yelled back, “Get the hell out of here, you lousy commie bastard!” I continued with an Offertory hymn like the four violinists on the sinking Titanic.
With this in my mind, I wondered how my parish’s Saturday Vigil Mass would address the high school shooting. In terms of homiletics, we had no mention—instead, we had the Bishop’s appeal and the dismissal of catechumens for the cathedral Rite of Election. The Prayer of the Faithful, in my church and in nearly every other large church I visit, follows a predictable format—five petitions for Church, country, civil rulers, and peace; three petitions de rigueur (vocations, the unborn, and the second collection charity), when necessary a contemporary inclusion, and the list of the recently deceased. The “necessary inclusion” last week was the high school tragedy, proclaimed matter of fact, an invocation for those impacted and the first providers. It was not cathartic by any stretch.
In the bigger picture of things, the entire Liturgy of the Word in the Roman Missal is not a cathartic event, and the POF suffers in the present format. I have heard the Liturgy of the Word referred to irreverently as the “talking head” portion of the Mass, and there is truth in that. There is no divine writ that the order of the Mass needs to remain in its present arrangement. For example, the Nicene Creed did not become a staple of the Mass till near the end of the first millennium. The ‘opening hymn’ and the Gloria can be consolidated in some fashion, as in eliminating the opening hymn altogether and emphasizing the Gloria with more energy. Even the format of three readings is not a sine qua non to the validity of the Mass. These are suggestions that a Church Council has the power to dispatch at some future time.
To the Prayer of the Faithful, however, by the time of the Mass we arrive there, we are “worded out” and eager to get on with the compelling visuals of the altar. The POF seems an obligation to be dispatched. On a humorous note, some years ago in my present parish the POF included among the faithful departed “Thomas Burns,” which confirmed my worst suspicions about mega-churches and my “presence” to the community. (Not a single gasp.) I might point out here that parishes continue to enjoy the freedom to observe the rite of the prayer of the faithful as they see fit, even with melody and litanies. For the moment, though, I fear that the POF will continue to linger at the end of a train with too many cars. This is unfortunate, and we would do well to reflect upon Justin’s day when the holy writings were proclaimed as time allowed and the faithful rose with an eagerness to commend the whole world to Christ present and Christ to come.
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