What is the history & theology behind the prayers of the faithful?

The faith that leads us at Mass to ask God to fill our needs must lead us to alleviate human need outside of Mass


Q. I prepare the Sunday and holy day prayers of the faithful for my parish Masses. I use several published resources for this, including your own “Collegeville Prayer of the Faithful” for years A, B and C, but I would like to know more about the history and theology of these prayers. Thank you.

18frmichaelA. The author of the First Letter to Timothy urged the early Christians to devote themselves to prayer for all people, with particular mention of civil rulers (1 Tim 2:1-8).

They took this recommendation to heart.

Justin Martyr, in presenting an explanation of Christian faith and practices in Rome around the year 150, twice mentions intercessory prayer explicitly. He refers to it when describing the Eucharist that follows the baptismal liturgy: after receiving baptism, the new Christians are brought into the assembly and then all “offer prayers in common for ourselves, for those who have just been enlightened and for all people everywhere.”

The intercessions also are a regular part of the Sunday Liturgy of the Word: After the Scripture readings and the homily, “we all stand and pray.”

Change over time

As the liturgical practice of the church in the East and the West developed and differed, so did the form of the intercessions.

In the East the intercessions took the form of a litany before the procession with the gifts of bread and wine. The bishop invited the assembly to pray and spoke the petitions, to each of which the assembly responded. By the end of the fourth century the deacon made the invitation to prayer and spoke the petitions of the litany; the people responded to each petition and the presiding priest concluded the litany with a prayer.

In the ancient Roman liturgy the intercessions took the form that has been preserved in the Good Friday liturgy: the priest invited the assembly to pray and stated the intention; the people then prayed in silence (while kneeling during the penitential seasons); finally, the priest prayed a “collect,” or summing-up prayer.

This form of the intercessions was rather lengthy, and Pope Gelasius (492-96) implemented a change, moving the intercessions to a place before the Liturgy of the Word and recasting them in the form of the shorter Eastern litany: multiple intentions announced by the deacon and a response by the assembly, “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”).

By the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) the deacon’s calls to prayer, or “biddings” (intentions), were omitted on weekdays, leaving only the assembly’s response, “Kyrie eleison.”

Soon Gregory or one of his immediate successors omitted the deacon’s part in the intercessions on Sundays also. Thus in the pre-Vatican II Mass all that remained of the ancient intercessions were the repeated “Kyries” and “Christes” at the beginning. This reflected the general decline in participation in the Eucharist on the part of the people.

Restored by Vatican II

At the Second Vatican Council the fathers noted in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that some things had “suffered loss through the accidents of history” and called for their restoration.

In the new Order of Mass, contained in the Missal of Pope Paul VI (1970), the intercessions were reintroduced at the place they held in the ancient Roman liturgy: They are once again said or sung at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word.

But in place of their ancient Roman form (as glimpsed on Good Friday) a simpler, litanic form is suggested: a deacon (or cantor or other person) announces the intentions, and the assembly responds to each intention with an unvarying response (though the response itself may vary from one Eucharist to another).

By the “Universal Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful,” (as the Missal calls it) worshipers of our day are one with their ancestors in faith.

The intercessory prayer of the church, the body of Christ, also makes it one with the prayer of Jesus Christ, its head.

Jesus Christ is a most powerful intercessor for believers in all the daily struggles, large and small, of human life. We confess him to be “seated at the right hand of the Father,” which is a fitting description of his unique status as Lord.

But the reformer John Calvin preferred to describe Christ as “standing” before the Father’s throne in heaven, fully aware of our needs, interceding for us and pleading our cause. That, too, is a fitting description of Christ’s present status and activity.

‘With’ and ‘through’ Christ

In the prayer of the faithful, we claim for all people in need the salvation that Jesus came to give them by his life, death and resurrection. This is why this prayer is called “universal.” We join our prayers to the powerful prayers of Christ; we pray “with” Christ and “through” Christ.

The Spirit of God prays in our spirit as we offer prayers of intercession for ourselves and for others in need.

Intercessory prayer helps us forgetful human beings to remember that God is the source of all that we are and all that we have. We do not need to pray in order to remind God of what we need; we need to pray in order to remind ourselves of who alone provides for our needs.

As we remember God’s goodness, we dare to ask God for even more expressions of that goodness in our lives, in our world.

Thus in our intercessory prayer we must seek God’s will, not our own. Intercessory prayer is not our means to coax something out of God. Rather, such prayer can change our sometimes self-centered and narrow attitudes, so that there is more room in our hearts for those in need.

Our prayer for others can enlarge our spirits and enlighten our minds, so that we may see more of God’s will for this world. And when we pray for others, we are asking that by God’s grace they may open themselves to God’s will. Intercessory prayer helps us to embody and promote reign-of-God values (peace, justice, equality, service) by conforming our wills to God’s will.

Faith is a requirement for this kind of prayer, and also active cooperation with God. God’s purposes for this world will not be magically accomplished, quite apart from us. Our “praying” for God’s salvation must be joined to our “working” for it.

As St. Augustine said, “Work as if everything depended on you; pray as if everything depended on God.”

Or as St. Mechthild of Magdeburg, a 13th-century mystic, said of the church, “The louder she calls, the greater wonders she works with God’s power and her might.”

The church dares to lift its voice in intercessory prayer because it knows itself to be a priestly people.

The clearest indicator of the theological significance of the general intercessions is found in who is entitled to pray them: those whom baptism has made “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9), a “royal nation of priests in the service of [Christ’s] God and Father” (Revelations 1:6).

Catechumens (those preparing for baptism) were regularly dismissed from the liturgical assembly before what came to be called “the prayer of the faithful,” since it was regarded as a prayer of the priestly people of God. Such prayer is a privilege that comes from God’s free gift of baptism but also is a duty that sets a seal on the many expressions of baptismal faith in the life of a Christian.

Just as sharing the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion is the conclusion and climax of the people’s participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, so praying for the church and the world in the prayer of the faithful is the conclusion and climax of their participation in the Liturgy of the Word.

Herein lies the close union between liturgical prayer and daily life, for the prayer of the faithful commits us to action in accord with our prayer. The faith that leads us into intercessory prayer at the liturgy must lead us to alleviate human need outside it.

Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at mkwatera@csbsju.edu or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015. Father Michael enjoys giving workshops and presentations on liturgical topics to parish groups. Reach him at the email or postal addresses listed here.