One of the parts of the Ordinary Form of the Mass that was “restored” from antiquity is the “Prayer of the Faithful.” However, there is (in this author’s mind) a certain disappointing quality to the intentions as they are used today. They are either overly particular and ideological or, at the other end of the spectrum, perfunctory and flat. Peter Kwasniewski, writing at New Liturgical Movement, summarizes the problem very well:
It is surely no exaggeration to say that throughout the world the quality of these intercessions has tended to be deplorable, ranging from trite and saccharine sentiments to political propaganda, from progressivist daydreams to downright heretical propositions to which no one could assent without offending God. Even when the content is doctrinally unobjectionable, all too often the literary style is dull, flaccid, rambling, or vague. … [There is] problematic content, poor writing, and [a] monotonous manner of delivery.
Additional problems set up when there are different language groups present and it is felt necessary to have the petitions read in several different languages. The impression is given that the intentions are directed more to the congregation than to God, who knows all languages and thoughts. I have been at the Basilica here in D.C. when as many as nine different languages were used in the Prayer of the Faithful. The vast majority of those present speak English and/or Spanish. I seriously doubt that there are more than five people in attendance who speak German, Mandarin, etc. It gets very tedious, very quickly, and the time is elongated as a line of people go back and forth to the microphone.
It is so different in the Eastern Liturgies where the Great Litany is so beautifully woven into the liturgical experience and beautifully sung as well. I have memorized the Great Litany from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. (See video below.)
In his article, Peter Kwasniewski offers a variety of intercessions and I have downloaded them for use. You may wish to do the same by finding the links in his article to the PDF Documents.
I would also like to add that St. Peter Canisius composed intercessions for use in his time; Saints are certainly reputable sources of such things! Here is an article by Mark Woodruff (with a tip of the hat to Rev. James Bradley) that details those prayers.
The point is that MUCH can be done to improve the quality of the Prayer of the Faithful, which has remained an amateur outing at best and an ideological hornet’s nest at worst.
Perhaps a little benefit can be obtained from reviewing the norms and the history of this portion of the Mass.
The General Instruction in the Roman Missal (GIRM) has this to say about the Prayer of the Faithful:
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
1. For the needs of the Church;
2. For public authorities and the salvation of the whole world;
3. For those burdened by any kind of difficulty;
4. 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 (GIRM 69-71).
History – These intentions were very common in the early Church, at about the same point in the Mass that we have them today. They followed the Homily (note that in earlier days, as a rule, the Creed was not said). All the Fathers of the Church make mention of them. In the beginning, this prayer was recited antiphonally by the priest and the assembly. Over time the deacon took a more prominent role; he announced all the intentions and then the faithful responded, Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) or some other acclamation. You can read the Kyrie Litany of Pope Gelasius HERE.
These intercessions endured well past the close of the patristic period (until about the 9th century). Their disappearance seems to coincide with their evolution into a Kyrie Litany and their transfer to the beginning of the Mass. Here, they eventually came to be regarded as an unnecessary appendage and were phased out. In the West they were retained only on Good Friday, though they endured in certain areas longer. In the East they were never dropped. Today they have been restored to their original place in the Mass.
Further pastoral reflections – These are called “general intercessions” since they extend beyond the needs and concerns of the local assembly. Please note, that they are NOT called the particular intercessions. What sometimes happens in more extemporaneous settings is that certain very particular needs get expressed and the list can become endless. Thus it is not appropriate here to pray, “For my Uncle Joe’s friend, who is recovering from hip surgery and having a hard time due to her diabetes.” It is more appropriate to pray, “For all who are sick or struggling in at this time.” The point is to keep it general; this is not the time for a full medical update on everyone’s cousin or sister.
Calling it the “Prayer of the Faithful” has some historical merit, since catechumens and others were dismissed before the proclaiming of the intentions. Today, however, it is also common to call them “general intercessions” since the whole Mass is really the prayer of the faithful. Through his opening prayer, the priest may link the intercessions to the reading, and through his closing prayer may summarize them. This can help to place them in a clear context. Singing the intercessions is a beautiful option and is surely of ancient practice (Cf Music in Catholic Worship # 74).
In the end, I think these intentions deserve better than we have given them. I realize that enthusiasts of the Traditional Latin Mass (of which I am one) may say, “Just lose them entirely.” But that is not realistic; they are here to stay, at least in our lifetime. Maybe we can do better and make use of multiple sources: ancient, Eastern, and new, though elegant. I am interested in your thoughts and also any references to good additional sources.