Prayer and/as Political Speech

Maybe my mind just works in odd ways, but the prayer offered at the Democratic Convention by the Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale put me in mind of an issue that often gets raised in the debate over the orientation of the priest in the celebration of the Eucharist.

I won’t spend any time on the content of Dr. Hale’s prayer, but what does interest me is the way in which a prayer that is, grammatically speaking, addressed to God, can come across as an address to the assembled crowd instead. Without in any way judging the intention of Dr. Hale’s heart, I would point to the remarkable moment that occurs late in the prayer, when she mentions the party nominee by name and elicits a mixture of cheers and boos from the crowd, which seems to indicate that at least some of those present took her words to be just another political speech intended to gin up the crowd, and so they responded in what they thought was an appropriate way. This phenomenon, in which a prayer comes across as just another speech, is hardly unique to Dr. Hale’s prayer, or to political conventions; anyone who has been to a graduation ceremony is probably familiar with it. At least in some cases, these sorts of prayers can come across as inauthentic, intended not as entering into communion with God, but as attempts to instruct or affirm or manipulate the audience. What presents itself as a prayer is really a political speech in disguise.

In the controversy over the celebrant’s orientation at Mass, I have heard some proponents of the ad orientem posture say that it has the advantage of making clear that the priest’s words are addressed to God, not the people. In essence, the criticism is that a position versus populum at least runs the risk of confusing whom it is that is being spoken to. And on one level any sane person would want to say, “Well, of course that’s correct. God is the addressee of our prayers.”

But public, liturgical prayer is an odd thing. By its very public, communal nature it is in a sense addressed both to God and to the assembly. The celebrant not only prays on behalf of and in the name of the people (which is something that he can also do in his private prayers), but he is leading them in prayer. His prayers are intended to be heard by the assembly, to affect and move them, to—if you will—gin them up and form them into a body united in their worship of God. As Thomas Aquinas put it:

Common prayer is that which is offered to God by the ministers of the Church representing the body of the faithful: wherefore such prayer should come to the knowledge of the whole people for whom it is offered: and this would not be possible unless it were vocal prayer. Therefore it is reasonably ordained that the ministers of the Church should say these prayers even in a loud voice, so that they may come to the knowledge of all (Summa theologiae 2-2 q. 83 a. 12).

So it is too simple to say that the celebrant’s prayers are addressed only to God. Perhaps we might say that they are addressed to God, but with the knowledge that the people are overhearing them. But even this is not quite right. One of the oddities of liturgical prayer is that, even though God is the addressee, the ones upon whom the words are intended to have an impact are the members of the assembly. After all, God knows our hearts and desires better than we know them ourselves; the point of audible prayer in the liturgical assembly is not to inform God of our needs and intentions, but to elicit the common prayer of the people of God. In liturgical prayer, what we pray, and how we pray it, must be shaped—dare I say it—primarily with an eye to how it affects the assembly who hears it.

I do not think that this settles any questions about the orientation of the celebrant at Mass. One might reasonably argue that the stance of the priest ad orientem better conveys the fact that his vocal prayer is meant to lead the assembly in their prayer. One might also reasonably argue that a stance versus populum allows the celebrant better to engage the people with his words, so as to help them pray together. (I myself think there are merits to both arguments; thus my agnosticism regarding which orientation is better.) But what you cannot do is say that it is obvious that the priest should stand ad orientem because he is not speaking to the people but to God. Rather, he is speaking to them, even when, both grammatically and existentially, he is also addressing God.

These considerations are also relevant to discussions of Latin versus the vernacular, or “exalted” language versus “plain” language. Of course, the words of the celebrant are not only information-conveying, so words spoken in Latin or the meaning of which are not immediately apparent very well might incite the assembly to deeper and more unified prayer. But these discussions can never ignore the fact that it, provided their content is in accord with the faith of the Church, is precisely by their impact on the listening and praying assembly that these prayers are to be judged.

One way to put all of this would be to say that public prayer in a sense is political speech. In its role of forming a crowd into a genuine assembly, liturgical prayer is an activity that is constitutive of the heavenly city in its earthly pilgrimage. At the same time, I think we can distinguish between speeches disguised as prayers and genuine prayers that through their words activate and actualize the praying assembly. We might say that oratio, words that are not only grammatically but also existentially addressed to God, is the true oratory of the pilgrim city of God, the speech that forms and informs the people of God.

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3 comments

  1. While visiting a relative out-of-state, I attended the local parish on a Saturday evening. This parish was trying to fund building upgrades and renovations including, I think, a new roof. As part of the fundraising process, the pastor had the congregation recite together at the end of the General Intercessions a prayer that, most blatantly, was a call to give more money. There was very little attempt to camouflage the intent and the language was such that I did not participate, as I felt that this prayer was being used to beat people over the head rather than direct their thoughts toward God and the prayers of the faithful.

    Since that time, I have experienced similar prayers in various parishes, one of them just last week. Based on the OPs comments about political speech disguised as prayer, I wonder how often this type of thinly-veiled language happens at Mass and how many people have experienced the same type of scenario. How prevalent is this and what has been the response of the congregation to this type of prayer?

  2. If the orientation is changed (even temporarily) then something else will be next, and so on until the current Ordinary Mass is gone. Inch by inch (or brick by brick as some say).

  3. Many thanks.

    A timely and eternal reflection, I think, to which I expect to return regularly given current circumstances.

    A question, though, on the assertion that (all?) public prayer is, “in a sense,” political. I’d agree to the extent that all “politics” is about power, but aren’t there distinctions to be made — at least in Catholic tradition — between the power of the State and the power of God?

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