I mentioned in a comment on another thread that I found the format of the prayer of the faithful in a booklet from a papal Mass interesting. This got me thinking about how we do this part of the Mass. I have been at liturgies where this has been a sublime moment. I have been at other liturgies at which it has been banal at best and cringe-inducing at worst. A lot of variables go into making this part of the Mass “work” — are the intentions locally composed or taken from a book? If locally composed, are they written by the person leading them or by someone else? Are the intentions tied to the Scripture reading and the homily? Are the intentions brief and poetic or lengthy mini-homilies?

Structure is also, I think, an issue. More could be done in terms of the actual format of the prayers to make them the prayer of the entire assembly. What I have generally experienced is something along the lines of this:

  • Celebrant: Spoken introduction.
  • Deacon or Lector: Spoken intentions.
  • Congregation: Spoken response.
  • Celebrant: Spoken concluding collect.

Occasionally, but in my experience rarely, you see this format chanted. Particularly when spoken and particularly when the intentions are lengthy and complicated, this can become one more block of words that the congregation is expected to digest, even though they have just had a heaping helping of words in the readings and homily.

At our parish, we have tried to spice up this basic format up a bit during certain liturgical seasons:

  • Celebrant: Spoken “let us pray.”
  • Congregation: Sung refrain: “Let my prayers rise up like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands as an offering to you” while the lector puts incense on a brazier by the ambo.
  • Deacon or Lector: Spoken intentions.
  • Congregation: Spoken response.
  • (At the end) Congregation: Sung refrain repeated.

The sung refrain at least given a bit of a change of register from the spoken word, and the use of incense engages both sight and smell as well as hearing.

In the papal Mass, the intercessions took this form:

  • Pope: Introduction.
  • Deacon: Invitation to prayer for each intention given (e.g. “Let us pray for the Church”).
  • A period of silence. 
  • Various lay people in various languages: The intentions themselves. 
  • Cantor and Congregation: Sung versicle and response (v: Dominum deprecemur; r: Te rogamus, audi nos.)
  • Pope: concluding collect.
This is reminiscent of the Solemn Prayers on Good Friday, which were likely the original form of the Prayer of the Faithful in Rome. It is interesting because it allows the deacon to fulfill his traditional role while also allowing for the lay leadership and multiple languages that have become the norm in papal Masses. What I particularly like is how it incorporates two things that are often lacking in the prayer of the faithful: silence and song. As I’ve said, too often this part of the Mass becomes a barrage of more words, after which one is left wondering if one has actually prayed.
The form from the papal Mass might seem a bit too elaborate for normal parish use, so perhaps the following might work:
  • Celebrant: Introduction.
  • Deacon or lector: Spoken intention.
  • A period of silence.  
  • Cantor and Congregation: Sung versicle and response.
  • Celebrant: Concluding collect.

This would be briefer, while still having periods of silence that would allow the assembly itself to have “space” to pray, as well as singing, which introduces a different aural register. Perhaps on solemn occasions the whole thing could be sung, though many assemblies would probably find it easier to absorb spoken intentions.

What do others think? In your experience, what has made the prayer of the faithful effective? What has made it ineffective?