Tuesday, September 07, 2004

10 Principles for Writing General Intercessions

Don't stress! Just count 1 to 10.When writing intercessions for Mass, you don't have to lock yourself up in a room and stress. Just breathe, read this step by step process for writing intercessions, and keep these 10 principles in mind.

1. These are “general” intercessions.
“General” does not mean “generic” in the sense that “pre-packaged” petitions you find in intercession books, homily services, or liturgical calendars might be used word for word. (Any worthy publisher will tell you that their sample intercessions are meant to be exactly that—samples. It’s your job to craft your own.) “General” in this case means that the prayers must be capable of being owned and assented to by the whole assembly. That is, the assembly must be able to fully, consciously, and actively want to pray for the petition being voiced. If they cannot honestly do this, it cannot genuinely be their petition. It might be a portion of the assembly’s or it might be one person’s petition, but it cannot be claimed by everyone, thus it cannot be the “Prayer of the Faithful.” To use an extreme example, the following is not a general intercession: “For our nation; for [name of your favorite candidate] to win the presidential election. We pray to the Lord.” Not everyone in your assembly will agree to this prayer. Yet, praying for the elections is a good thing. Simply word it in such a way that all can honestly take part in and assent to the prayer. For example: “For our nation and the upcoming elections; for integrity and honesty among all the candidates; for the spirit of wisdom upon all who vote. We pray to the Lord.”

Here are more subtle forms of intercessions that are not general (I’ve actually heard petitions similar to these): “For those who kill unborn babies, that they will know the evil of their sin. We pray to the Lord.” “For my uncle Joe who undergoes surgery on Tuesday. We pray to the Lord.” Praying for an end to abortion and for those who are sick are certainly prayers we should make. But in the first example, the wording communicates a negative and almost hateful attitude toward the subject of our prayer. Our prayer must never be used to incite hatred for other people. Word the petition instead this way: “For those in difficult and unexpected pregnancies; for strength and courage to choose the path toward life; for enduring support from family and friends no matter what. We pray to the Lord.” In the second example, it is good to pray for the sick, but at the parish’s Sunday Mass, we cannot single out one person alone and let that be the whole prayer. To make this a general intercession, pray instead: “For the sick, for all undergoing surgery this week, for those waiting for a cure, especially those we now name: [let the assembly name out loud persons they know are sick]. We pray to the Lord.”

2. These are petitions.
As nice as it might be, this is not the time to list the things we are thankful for. For example, at the anniversary Mass of a parish, you might hear, “In thanksgiving for the pastor and staff of this parish and for the good work they do. We pray to the Lord.” The form of these prayers needs to be petitionary—asking God, not thanking God. The above example can easily become petitionary by rewording it: “For the pastor and staff of this parish, for their continued good work and faithful leadership. We pray to the Lord.”

3. Be poetic.
All the prayers in the liturgy are meant to be poetic. That is, the words need to stir our hearts, engage our imagination, and cause us to desire the very thing we think is impossible or unimaginable—the reign of God on earth. Jesus used poetry to describe this reign. He never said, “Heaven is the concrete proleptic manifestation of the salvific action of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, enabled by the Holy Spirit, made real for believers in Christ.” Instead, Jesus used poetry: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field…” (Mt 13:24), or “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” (Mt 13:21). Jesus used these metaphors and images to move people’s hearts (because moving a person's heart is the first step toward conversion). Use the images, phrases, and moods from the scriptures of the day (or from the liturgical season) to inspire the wording of your intercessions. (See How to Write the General Intercessions for step by step help on using images.)

4. Be concise. Don’t be preachy.
Crafting good prayer is a bit like writing good music. It needs rhythm and meter, flow and gracefulness. Basically, long sentences lose rhythm and tend to have a stilted feel. Shorter sentences and phrases, similar to a litany, have a movement and pace that makes the prayer almost like breathing, impelling us to reply: “Lord, hear our prayer.” Longer sentences also have the tendency to become “preachy,” narrowing the “generalness” of the intercession and the ability of the whole assembly to assent to it. Stick with shorter phrases, and speak the words out loud, listening for a smooth rhythm to the words and a fluid transition between sentences.

5. Be consistent.
The structure of the intercessions should be consistent among all the petitions. Petitions usually take one of three forms: 1) “For _____.” 2) “That _____.” 3) “For _____, that _____.” (My preference is the first form because it tends to flow better, be less preachy, and allow for more use of images.) Whichever form you use, use it for all the petitions. Also, don’t change the assembly’s response every week. Changing it too often, or even once in a while, just confuses people. If you want to use a different response, use that response for at least the whole liturgical season.

6. Be musical.
Singing prayer well is usually preferred to simply speaking a prayer. Many parishes already use a seasonal sung response for the intercessions. Consider having the deacon or cantor chant the petitions as well.

7. Do your role and only your role.
The liturgy is like a living body. In a healthy body, each part has a particular function, and only that body part does that function. If the body is healthy, the foot never takes over the hand’s job. It could try, but it wouldn’t be as good as the hand, nor would the body be as efficient or effective. In a similar way, each member of the liturgical assembly has a particular function and should do only that function. So, the presider, though he may be capable of reading the intercessions, should do only his job of presiding. His job is to call the assembly to pray at the beginning of the Prayer of the Faithful and to collect all the petitions into a final concluding prayer. The deacon is the primary reader of the petitions. If there is no deacon, the cantor takes on that function. If the cantor does not do this, then another reader takes on this role. For the same reason that the presider does not read the petitions, the lectors should refrain from leading the petitions and should concentrate only on proclaiming the readings.

8. These are prayers of the “faithful.”
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #69 says, “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” (emphasis added). Only the baptized can genuinely pray the Prayer of the Faithful, and it is their right and responsibility to offer these prayers. Thus, catechumens are dismissed from the assembly before the Creed and the Prayer of the Faithful. Because they are baptized and have a right and duty to pray the Prayer of the Faithful, candidates remain in the assembly. They should never be dismissed from Mass. (Don’t forget to include an intercession for the catechumens.)

9. Follow the sequence.
There are four basic things we pray for, and these are outlined in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #70 as: 1) the needs of the Church; 2) public authorities and the salvation of the whole world; 3) those burdened by any kind of difficulty; 4) the local community. There should be at least one intercession for each of these topics. Feel free to compose more than one intercession for each topic so that you don’t try to cram everything that needs to be prayed for into one petition. For example, have one petition for the nation and another petition for local authorities.

10. Know the world around you.
Like preaching, writing good intercessions requires that you read the newspaper and know what’s going on in your local and global communities. It’s amazing to hear how many parishes simply use the “canned” intercessions from books that were published at least a year ago without incorporating anything that is on the hearts and minds of real people in their parish, city, nation, and world today. No “pre-written” intercession resource could have prepared for September 11, the Florida hurricanes, the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, the Russian school tragedy, Columbine, or the massive unemployment rate in the Silicon Valley. But it is our responsibility and duty as baptized people to pray for these very needs and concerns.


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