A Reflection on the”Prayer of the Faithful”at Mass and Why The Intentions Are So Often Disappointing

IntercessionsOne 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.

41 Replies to “A Reflection on the”Prayer of the Faithful”at Mass and Why The Intentions Are So Often Disappointing”

  1. Try making the prayers more specific to the current problems facing the political and spiritual environment of the Church. Call out the public authorities and entities that threaten the salvation of the world as a whole and lives of the faithful. Specify the difficulties burdening the spiritual progess of the faithful in accordance with Catholic teachings and the problems and spiritual needs of the local community. Quit being dull, flaccid, politically correct, spineless sheeples and inspire the faithful by expressing and defending the right to freedom of our religious principles through prayer.

    1. Robert:
      Your suggestion, while having a certain emotional satisfaction, seems to run contrary to Mons. observation that these are to be GENERAL intercession not a medical or political update.

      1. I guess we’re stuck with dull, flaccid and boring. We don’t have a prayer.

  2. I too have always found myself uncomfortable with Prayers of the Faithful in a variety of languages. It’s done at my hometown Cathedral on special feasts, like Christmas Eve, and I have noticed it’s done at liturgies at the Vatican. It seems to me to be one of those things where liturgists are using a part of the Mass as a demonstration of a political ideology or point of view, and in this case, perhaps trying to show how diverse and multicultural the Church is. At those times I wonder, are we at prayer, or are we putting on a show?
    Thank you for bringing clarity to this issue (as you do so often with so many issues!). I had no idea there even was a “Great Litany.” It’s so beautiful and appropriate. Another treasure of the Church that never gets appreciated.

  3. I often find the Prayers of the Faithful disappointing, and sometimes even misguided. It seems like whoever wrote them didn’t pay much attention to what was to be said. I ask the Holy Spirit to correct them and make them as they ought to be.

  4. You should mention in your article that the Roman Missal includes general intercessions for each liturgical season. They are found at the back of the missal.

  5. Several years ago, at a weekday Mass, I served as lector. Before the start of Mass I found out that is was the priests birthday, so after reading the intercessions in the Prayer of the Faithful, I added the petition for a special blessing for Fr.______ on his birthday. Afterward I questioned the appropriateness of having done that. After reading this I am confident that although my intentions were good, what I did was inappropriate. Once again, thank you for your edifying blog posts.

  6. One year when Halloween fell on a Sunday, the lector at my parish concluded the prayers of the faithful with Father’s contribution: “That all scary monsters stay under the bed”. He paused halfway through reading to look more closely at the page like he couldn’t believe he was reading it right. He looked really embarrassed.

  7. Excellent points. The Chrysostom litany is sublime and should be the standard. And on Sunday and feasts at least the Intercessions should be chanted by priest or deacon. They should not be “invented” each time, but rather they should be invariable. – Having several people line up and share the petitions is indeed trite and gimmicky. – But so is the general liturgical style in many places. Reform should begin with restoration of the Ad Orientem position. “Ad Populum only encourages the tendency to the “Ad Hominem” replacement of worship with edification: what Pope Benedict called an “enclosed circle.” It is ironic that the liturgical demolishers who cannot stand any Latin or Greek in the Liturgy, want the Intercessory prayers in Mandarin, Albanian and Swahili. In the late 1960’s, banishment of Latin was accompanied by white suburban congregations compelled to sing “Kumbaya.” It was the beginning of the great exodus of Catholics from the church. All in the name of “increased participation of the people ” which in fact was “increased departure of the people.” The Church is universal in the Catholic sense and not international in the political sense.

  8. One good thing about the Prayers of the Faithful is that they’re a great chance to go to the bathroom. At the Cathedral you can amble to the ladies room and loaf back and still be in the pew again before they finish. At least in parishes that do the shout out method, the prayers of the faithful are concise and to the point:
    “That husbands go home to their wives on payday and not to the track”.
    “For my grandfather in the hospital.”
    “That I get my grades up before next semester and get my X-box back.”
    There are smiles and bit of tittering in the pews but people generally mean it when they bellow back, “We pray to the Lord.”

    1. dymphna: not sure if you’re serious about taking a bathroom break during the Prayers of the Faithful. Maybe you are observing others doing this, or only suggesting it tongue in cheek, but I myself find it quite a trial of patience to watch people parading back and forth during Mass, taking their “breaks.” I’m sure this isn’t you, but it worries me even jokingly give people “permission” to leave Mass, except for an emergency. If the Prayers of the Faithful at your Cathedral are onerous, it would be better to attend somewhere else than react by opting out by leaving the pew during that part.

  9. The Divine Worship form of the Mass (used in the parishes of the Personal Ordinariates in the USA, Canada, England, and Australia–jurisdictions primarily for former Anglicans who convert to the Catholic Church) has a few standard pre-written options for the Prayer of the Faithful; one of which is an adaptation from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (and the rubrics only allow it to be said by the priest alone). They are deeply reverent and reflect what is being encouraged here in this article.

  10. I find that many times the priest does not even prepare the prayers of the faithful, and do not even proofread them. They are created by an administrative assistant who has not liturgy formation, they make up for what they lack with a multitude of words. When they are read at mass, the point of their prayer is lost on those who are listening. Short directed petitions are the best, and if they are pertinent to the mass readings and what is happening in the parish is great.

    1. Absolutely. What I was going to say about who writes them. I don’t know who currently composes them at the local parish but in the past the office staff wrote and/or maybe chose them from suggestions from the diocese. The priest(s) didn’t write them and neither did the deacon(s). The parish staff meaning administrative assistants, perhaps the parish nurse, etc. Not the director of religious education who at least had a master’s degree in the relevant area (some type of religion or religious education).

  11. Well, the “shout out” ones aren’t always so great either. In my previous parish, I recall one guy who prayed for John Something who suffered from alcoholism–without regard to John’s probable wish for anonymity. Another prayed for Bill Something who fell at work and grabbed the edge of a 55-gallon barrel and cut off his thumb and it landed on the factory floor and someone had to put it in a plastic bag but the doctors re-attached it but now he has steel pins and wires in it and can’t go back to work. I’m not making this up. We in the pews were all about to gag.

    1. The last day we had “shout-out” intercessions in my parish was when someone prayed for her colonoscopy.

    2. A couple months ago, we prayed for house plants. Really. House plants that they grow and bring comfort blah, blah, blah.

      1. I wonder if someone specifically requested this be remembered? But its funny to me! LOL

        1. I generally pray for the conversion of those who do evil and convince other people it’s good and for all the people they mislead when we do shout out intentions.

  12. Monsignor Pope, Do you have any information regarding how much ongoing training and reorientation to the rubrics of the mass occurs for already ordained priests? It seems as if there is a high degree of variability in the way the Novus Ordo is carried out and I have heard many, many objections over the years. Why is it so hard to get everyone on the same page about how the NO is celebrated? BTW, our parish just switched the 8:00 AM Sunday mass to one with no music (could never get musicians to participate in that mass). By my rough estimation, attendance has increased by about 33%. Seems as if silence is golden for more than we thought..

  13. These prayers didn’t just disappear into the Kyrie “litany”. They were included in the Canon of the Mass. What better possible prayer setting than the Priest, in persona Christi, praying directly to God the Father can we get for our “petitions”.

    And then there’s the 1070s liturgists’ chant against redundancy. If the prayers are now included in the Canon, then adding them back where they used to be centuries ago is surely a capital crime against redundancy.

  14. I live in the Los Angeles Diocese. Who makes up these intentions? Is it the parish, the part of L.A. I live in (it’s broken up into 5 areas), or what? Yeah, they seem arid and trite? Well, they can’t be eliminated since the mass has been truncated so much from the prior traditional Latin mass. The services I attend are one hour long at tops. My impression is that most tune them out when they are read. I agree with Bill Russell on banishment of the purported unpopular long Latin mass, coincidently coincided with my suburban Los Angeles white flight exodus from the Church.

  15. I saw painting portraying the Expulsion from the Garden and the artist portrayed Adam as having a club foot. I think that was insightful, and as I, as did Adam before me, limp through this life, I haven’t come across too many abuses of “Prayer of the Faithful”, at least not in this century or that I could recognize. Maybe a couple. Haven’t come across one as eloquent or as beautiful as the one that Monsignor Pope put in his fine video, either.

  16. Our parish uses the prayers from Magnificat magazine. They are appropriately reverent.

  17. Too often, instead of the “Prayer of the Faithful,” I hear something that sounds more like “The Prayer of the Pastor” or “The Prayer of the Liturgy Committee.” The intercessions often sound artificial and politically corrected – nothing controversial, like “For an end to abortion and the contraceptive lifestyle.”

    The other gripe is with intercessions that ask God to deny someone’s free will. Anything phrased like “That so-and-so will do such-and-such, we pray to the Lord” is asking God to compel someone, and that’s not what He does. Moreover, it teaches bad prayer habits.

  18. I am chuckling at some of the examples listed here. We stopped attending Novus Ordo Masses completely almost two years ago. The insipid prayer intentions are right up there with holding hands at the Our Father, pre-Mass birthday/anniversary blessings, and pre-dismissal shout-outs to visitors (“So where are you from? Oh, that’s right by xxx, in xxx county. Welcome!”) on our list of reasons not to go back. We do have prayers as a community following the Mass, but they are led by the priest and stay focused on the essentials. No prayers for houseplants, detached fingers, or outing of alcoholics.

  19. I don’t recall these self-absorbed issues when Latin was the lingua franca of our Church.

  20. At our parish, the Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota, this is called the Universal Prayer, not the Prayer of the Faithful or the General Intercessions. I believe this is the correct terminology, but not normally used in most parishes.

  21. It’s true. Dr. Kwasniewski is, sadly, spot on. I stopped attending a certain Mass in my hometown in part due to the “trite, saccharine…political propaganda…and downright heretical propositions.” At first, when I actually listened and noticed (how many do actually listen and notice?!), I just didn’t assent – I said nothing. But it got to the point that it put a pall over the whole Mass – and I stop attending there. Please, yes, just adopt the beautiful, Eastern Great Litany. Or maybe just, to rip from the Leonine prayers, “for the liberty and exaltation of the Holy Mother the Church.” Thanks for highlighting this, Msgr.

    Please, Dear Lord, have mercy on Your people. Guide Your flock to worship You and ask of You in the way that most pleases You. Come, Holy Spirit!

  22. While our prayers of the faithful are generally just okay, every once in a while it sounds as if the Social Justice Committee has inserted a few petitions with a political agenda.

    I have taken part in one of the multilingual prayers of the faithful (as the English reader). Each petition was different, we did not repeat the same one in each language. On the one hand, each language was represented but on the other, each language missed out. Though I’m sure most of the people at Mass can understand English. So why not just read them in English.

    At one time the daily Mass offered people the chance to shout out their own petitions. And Deacon would solicit them at the Sunday Mass when he was assisting. New pastor–no more shout outs. Whew!

  23. Wonderful blog post and required reading for every liturgical committee and all authors or general intercessions. I wince every time I hear petitions for “social justice” and that our fundraising drive for such and such be successful. The observation that God understands all languages so multiple-language petitions are a waste of liturgical real estate is particularly poignant.

  24. At St. Catherine’s, one of our “cluster” parishes in Milwaukee this morning, the deacon goes through the whole church with a microphone, taking about 25 or so particular petitions. This is a prelude to the “sign of peace,” in which priest and deacon and numerous people go through the church saying hello, exchanging pleasantries, etc. Like a neighborhood social. The Mass takes an hour and a half — equivalent to what High Masses in the Latin rite used to take.


  26. In my diocese, I never hear “for the intention of this Mass.” I don’t care about names, etc., but those of us who have masses offered, regularly, would like to know their loved ones–living or dead–are having prayers offered.

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