Tuesday, September 07, 2004

A Brief History of the Prayer of the Faithful

Prayer of the FaithfulThe General Intercessions, also called the Prayer of the Faithful, have been part of the Christian liturgy since the early church. Their origins likely come from Jewish synagogue prayer. In the first few centuries of the church, the Sunday liturgy was divided into two parts: the Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful. In the first part, the catechumens (those preparing to be baptized) with the faithful (those already baptized) listened to readings from scripture. The bishop (the normative presider) then instructed the catechumens on those readings and the rites they were to celebrate. Then, the catechumens were dismissed from the liturgy, because only those who were baptized could celebrate the Mass of the Faithful. This second part of the liturgy began with the Prayers of the Faithful.

The original form of these prayers looked like this:

  • The presider invited all the faithful to pray on a particular topic.
  • The assembly prayed in silence. If it were a penitential day, the deacon directed all to kneel during this silence.
  • After a long silence, if the assembly had been kneeling, the deacon directed all to stand. The presider then prays a “collect” prayer that collects the silent prayer of the assembly into a concluding spoken prayer to God. The assembly assents to this prayer by saying “Amen.”
  • The process is repeated with the next topic.

We still use this original structure of intercessions on Good Friday. As you know from that liturgy, this form can get pretty lengthy. Pope Gelasius I, at the end of the 5th century, wanted to shorten the lengthening liturgy. So he adopted for Rome the style of intercessions used in the East. The Eastern church used a litany form in which the presider invited all to pray and the assembly responded with a short acclamation. (This response was usually “Kyrie eleison.”) Pope Gelasius replaced the long form of intercessions with this shorter form and moved the Prayers of the Faithful to the beginning of the Mass of the Catechumens. (By this time, most of the people being baptized were infants and the adult catechumenate was beginning to be lost.) In the next century, Pope Gregory the Great shortened these intercessions even more by removing the presider’s invitation to pray, leaving only the repeated “Kyrie eleison” response. (Sound familiar? This eventually becomes our penitential rite.)

Basically, from the 6th century onward, the Prayers of the Faithful disappear from the Roman liturgy, but they remain every year in the Good Friday liturgy. But what is lost is more than just prayers. For 1400 years, the church lost:

  • the pregnant silence of the assembly actively praying together;
  • the distinction between the catechumens and the baptized, diminishing the dignity of baptism; and
  • the ability of the liturgy to address and reflect the current-day needs and situations of the church.

Fortunately, Vatican II restored the rightful place of the Prayers of the Faithful, encouraged silence as an active form of communal prayer, and reclaimed the role of the baptized in the praying for the needs of the world.


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