Non solum: A Creative Way to Pray the Intercessions

This is something I’ve seen at Protestant and Episcopal worship and we’ve recently introduced to our weekly ecumenical Midday Prayer (based on the Office) at Saint John’s grad School of Theology and Seminary. The members of the assembly are invited to voice out loud their petitions for a particular intention.

It works like this. The presider says something introductory to call us to prayer, noting briefly that all are invited to voice their prayers aloud. (The wording has to be worked out ahead of time). Then each petition is worded something like this:

“For all with a ministry in the church, whose names we now say out loud, for the spirit’s strength and support for them.”

Then during the pause people say aloud, all at the same time, loudly or softly, those for whom they wish to prayer – Pope Francis, one’s home pastor, lay ministers in Campus Ministry, RCIA sponsors, and so forth.

Catholics (the vast majority in our grad school) tend to be a bit more passive and reserved than Protestants, in my experience. It did not come naturally to our community members to be brave and speak up. We had a few ringers, the first couple times, ready to speak intentions to get it going. The response, already from the first time, has been positive. It has drawn people into earnest prayer.

Sometimes we have, after the spoken invitation and community’s speak-up, a sung intercession – a short Taize refrain, the tri-lingual setting by Michael Hay, etc. One must take care that the sung response isn’t too long, or the intercessions take forever.

Sometimes there is soft music during the spoken invitation and community’s response, leading into the sung response. This has been well-received and set up a nice, prayerful atmosphere – although one monk was a bit concerned about sentimentality and ‘mood music.’

Sometimes a response is sung only at the beginning and at the end. This too has flowed well.

What do you think – could something like this be done with smaller congregations at daily Mass, perhaps without the singing? Or could it be done at large Sunday Masses?

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33 comments

  1. In my experience, the heyday of of voicing of “particular intentions” (not quite what you describe, as I will explain below) was a generation ago and it has since markedly faded in my neck of the woods (the Northeast generally).

    The General Intercessions are conceived to be general or universal in quality, not only particular. Certainly, what you describe helps bridge the ideas by the (proper) announcement of a general intention, with an invitation for particulars to be joined to it. Though I would revise the general intention form as follows:

    “For all with a ministry in the church, *including those* whose names we now say *aloud*, for the *Holy* Spirit’s strength and support for them.”

    (The flip-side to this is for urgent intercessions of a local nature: remember to at least widen the prayer to include all others similarly situated.)

    It is different. The General Intercessions should not be an inward-focused ritual moment about the particular community’s concerns alone, but an outward-reaching one. We need ritual language that helps us remember that.

    Now, as to why open-floor invitation for particular intentions faded: because not everyone in a parish or oratory congregation has the sensibility of a conventual community. They are not necessarily mindful of the need not to hijack a ritual moment for a personal rant or concern that invites ridicule, offends others or worse (and that can sure happen: I have virtual t-shirts, as it were).

  2. At our celebration of morning and evening prayer we open it up for additional petitions after the leader has read the ‘official’ petitions. It works well for this small, stable group of people. I can’t imagine doing it at Sunday Mass for all the reasons in the previous comment. What will you do when someone prays, “For [insert favored political candidate], that they may win the upcoming election and restore [whatever] to [whomever], let us pray…

  3. We have been doing this at the weekday liturgies at Holy Family for at least 3 years since I have been attending. Pretty sure much longer than this. We have about 40+ in attendance and it is working quite well. The people know when to invoke their intentions. Of course there are times when 2 will speak at the same time but it is taken in stride. We do have our “regular intentions” done by the same people “for the poor souls in purgatory”; “for vocations” and even “for the intentions of the blessed mother” BUT the vast majority are personal such as a family member who is sick or dying. We also have intentions dealing with current events, the persecution of Christians, loss of faith, parish needs, etc.
    There is usually about 15-20 seconds of silence before the first intention is said but after that, the flood gates open. I would say we have about 10 intentions lasting about 2 minutes. Its never rushed and the priest himself may add his own intentions.
    Add to this the singing of an entrance/closing song(the same one); a brief homily; the presentation of the bread and wine, 2 cup ministers and you have a pretty good weekday liturgy. Not bad at all.
    This can be done anywhere.

  4. Let me clarify:

    What I’m describing is not people saying, one at a time (working out timing collisions as they arise) a petition for everyone to hear. It is 5 or 25 people speaking at the same time in cacophony.

    As for the first, I think that did peak some decades ago. What I’m describing in this post, however, is not something I’ve ever experienced at Catholic liturgy.

    I’ve revised the original post to make this clearer.

    awr

  5. No experience with this. All I can say is that I predict it would not appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities, which, I admit, should count for little unless lots of others agree with me.

  6. I once worked with a pastor who wanted to do something like this at the daily morning Mass. Together we worked out something similar to what you describe here: specific names, specific places (war, poverty, natural disasters), the sick, the deceased. Since the attendees at that Mass were “regulars” for the first few days (maybe the whole first week) he described/reminded folks about the new approach. I incorporated into seasonal/festival Vesper services later on, since a number of the daily Mass attendees also came to those services.
    In my experience, if you give folks a good introduction to it at the get-go, and do it consistently, the response will actually be favorable. It also weaned people off the notion that you had to pay to have beloved departed ones remembered at Mass (though one woman would name deceased pets; oh well, God is perfectly capable of filtering what needs to be).

  7. Our last intention is always something along the lines of, “… and for those personal intentions we now pray for in silence.” I guess this is the same thing, only louder :-). Probably it amounts to the same thing in God’s eyes.

    And maybe what is proposed in this post is a little subversive, not necessarily in a bad way. If there is a deacon at the mass, the deacon is supposed to be proclaiming the petitions of the universal prayer; the line of thought there is that the deacon is supposed to be living his life among the people, knows there needs, and brings them to this ritual moment. In point of fact, nobody has ever asked me to actually compose one, which weakens the sign value, at least in my eyes. 🙂 And I don’t think many people understand that line of thought; I am sure it sounds to them as though the parish leadership is imposing their own prayers, priorities and preferences on everyone else. On the other hand, it’s an orderly way to do it.

  8. As others have said “spontaneous intercessions” started in the early 70s.

    The simultaneous response phenomenon started in the early 90s, and has waxed and waned since then. I think Catholics are very polite. They often don’t like speaking at the same time as someone else! The simultaneous called-out response seems to work at conferences, where people are more ready to participate in general, but not at everyday parish liturgies, particularly those with large attendances at weekends.

    Many people have said to me that it’s pointless asking people to pray for something or someone if they can’t hear what or who it is they’re being asked to pray for. Many people mumble or grunt what they want others to pray for, instead of raising their voice and speaking clearly and audibly. I have even heard people exclaim “Pardon?” or “Excuse me?” in their frustration at this.

    But a monastic community seems to me to be the ideal environment in which to do what Anthony is describing. It draws people even closer to the focus of the action. People probably all know each other. The community is at prayer. But in the larger, more anonymous communities that we find in many parishes, in churches with indifferent acoustics — that’s a different story.

  9. I’ve only seen it work well in small settings where all the congregants are of a similar mind, such as a Mass for a group of Cursillistas. The Grad School of Theology and Seminary probably fits that bill as well. I am not confident it would work well in a larger setting with a more disparate congregation (and I am talking about what people expect from Mass, not their ethnic heritage), but I guess you won’t know until you try.

  10. I remember many years ago attending occasionally a small liturgy that Henri Nouwen presided over which had a bunch of regular attendees whom I didn’t know. There were open intercessions. At that time, people would say things like “For Betsy… Chad…” then start crying. I didn’t know whether we were praying for someone who was sick, had died, someone they wanted to forgive who had injured them, a country in Africa, or what. It created an insider-outsider dynamic, as I assume the other people all knew Betsy, and why it brought her to tears to mention Betsy’s name.

    Would it have been better if we just all spoke at once? Well, maybe. The key is in the intro, as in the example in the original post. If the minister says let us pray for the sick, and a lot of names are spoken simultaneously, that’s fine: I know I am praying for sick people. Let us pray for places in the world that need water (or peace, or reconciliation) and then people name all sorts of neighborhoods, countries, etc – fine too. We just need some clue so that, as Paul says above, we know what we are praying for.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Rita’s comment is interesting. Who are the spontaneous intercessions directed to ? If it is to the Lord, then it is not important that everyone should be able to hear them. If the intention is to engender a ‘prayerful’ atmosphere, then you want people to hear and empathise. Surely directing prayers to the Lord is more important than trying, no doubt with good intentions, to manipulate the community ethos.

      AG

      1. @Alan Griffiths:
        AG, I am not sure I follow your line of thinking here. Is the argument that our intercessions ought to be silent if they are directed to the Lord? But many of our other prayers directed to the Lord in the liturgy are voiced.

        Or are you suggesting that if we speak aloud our intentions and the Lord hears, it does not matter if others around us hear or mishear the words we speak because they are not spoken to us in any case? But in this case, it seems that the common or shared quality of the prayer would be compromised — at worst, we would experience ourselves as a collection of disparate individuals overhearing one another’s prayer, willy nilly, rather than praying together for one another’s intentions. I don’t see audible intercessions as necessarily “manipulating the community ethos” unless there is something manipulative in the speech itself (although I think my example illustrated an unfortunate pitfall). Perhaps I am missing your point. Please elucidate!

      2. @Rita Ferrone:
        I am in general sympathy with you, Rita, (as I often am on this site) though as you remark, your example was not the best.

        I usually explain my dinosaur views by saying that perhaps I am suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, having lived through the liturgical chaos of the post 1965 years. My experience of ‘spontaneous’ intercessions has left me with a negative sensitivity to such things.

        Having had ‘meaningful liturgies’ forced upon one in Seminary (1968-1975) and then suffered criticism for daring to voice unease at the whole idea later, I may be forgiven for a few qualms here, I think.

        I’m not saying that prayers should be silent if they are directed to the Lord. I was thinking that if indeed they are, then cacophony does not matter that much. God hears through it all.

        The Parish I serve has a minister who is responsible for the General Intercession week by week. She is a treasure, she has a fine ear for prosody, she is always up to date (even to last minute amendments on Sunday morning) and never sentimental. I really appreciate this, and so do the congregation.

        AG.

      3. @Alan Griffiths:
        It’s true that “creative” is for many (obviously, not all) not a selling point but more likely to produce a case of hives. And not just in liturgical traditionalists or conservatives.

      4. @Alan Griffiths:

        But Alan, surely these are not prayers addressed to the Lord but intentions for prayer directed to the assembly, just like they ought to be in a normal set of intercessions. We are naming people that we want others to pray for. God already knows who they are.

  11. I have seen it work in a large Sunday Mass, but only for the specific intention of praying for the sick. As in your example, there is a general intercession for all who are sick, then the invitation to mention specific names. For the most part it consists of barely-audible muttering. I like it for the lesson it gives of how to make our personal prayer interlock with the ritual prayer.

  12. I’ve seen it, mostly at weekday Masses: Besides prayers for the sick and prayers for the dead, it’s sort of tough. However, at *THE* largest parishes in our diocese (a gigantic suburban parish) they do it at all Sunday Masses, too, but they have years of experience. The cacophony of names is actually beautiful.

    I disagree with Jim’s suggestion, and I think we’ve discussed it at length here before: Prayers in silence aren’t *general* intercessions. Plus, I remember reading somewhere, about the possibility of not-so-Christian prayers being made in silence (revenge, coveting, etc.). Thus (“forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…”) when I hear this invite at other parishes nowadays, my mind races through all sort of sinful things I’m afraid people are praying for in silence.

  13. I’m basically not a fan of this practice, which actually just came up for discussion at a Liturgy Committee meeting at my parish. I suppose my aversion is foremost rooted in pastoral reasons: 1) the world is ever-more inhabited by snippets of incomprehensible noise, cacophonous rasps, tweets, creeks, groans, screeches, and scrapes; 2) the Roman Missal 3 has its own share of unintelligible parts. Do we really want our liturgical practices to reinforce either of these factors?

    But, as with anything like this, of course it should be asked whether it is full, conscious, and active? It may certainly be active, but I don’t think it measures up to being full (e.g, what if I am uncomfortable mentioning someone or something?) or being fully conscious (i.e., if I cannot understand at all what is being stated out loud).

    In smaller liturgies or intentional communities, I suppose this might work if individuals can mention their individual intentions one after another, but I’m still not so convinced the Universal Prayer within Mass is the place for these.

  14. We do this at my parish, at all Masses. At High Mass specifically, the deacon reads the petition, the priest then gives specific intentions which go along with that petition, then the people are invited, in unison, aloud or silently, to voice names. This is primarily done on petitions relating to the sick, immediate needs, thanksgivings/prayers answered, and for the faithful departed. There is also a lot of silence involved.

  15. Got it fr anthony….
    I assist at a ELCA Lutheran Church on Sundays and they do exactly what you are describing. After the written intentions, the people are invited to “offer your prayers of concern aloud or in the silence of your heart”. It lasts about 30 seconds in this congregation of about 250 and then the presider offers the concluding prayer. Works quite well. Whether 20 or 1500, I think it can work in any parish.

  16. This reminds me of the practice in our community on All Souls’ Day when during the intention for the deceased I invite all who choose to to say aloud the souls who they have come to commend to God. It’s a very beautiful sound. It also instructs those who are attentive that it is not necessary–though laudable–to obtain a Mass intention.

  17. “I disagree with Jim’s suggestion, and I think we’ve discussed it at length here before: Prayers in silence aren’t *general* intercessions. Plus, I remember reading somewhere, about the possibility of not-so-Christian prayers being made in silence (revenge, coveting, etc.). ”

    Hi Chuck – what I described isn’t my suggestion per se, just a description of what we actually do at my parish (and I doubt we’re unique). I agree it may not pass a purity test of what constitutes a universal prayer. Think of it as a pastoral provision, to allow people to voice, even silently, the things that are in their hearts.

    Perhaps some people do pray for things from time to time that seem unseemly or unworthy to us, especially if they’re in the grip of a powerful emotion like anger or grief. I wouldn’t want to be too judgmental about other people’s prayers. On the other hand, the person charged with composing the universal prayer intercessions does need to be on top of his/her game. “That the Republicans’ health care initiative fails, we pray to the Lord” may express what’s in the author’s heart, but probably needs to be wordsmithed. 🙂

    1. @Jim Pauwels:
      Something I witnessed in Oakland in the prior decade: a spontaneous intercession, at a packed Sunday Mass, essentially calling the wrath of God down on President Bush and for mercy upon Saddam Hussein, definitely made even the uber-progressive congregation uncomfortable.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        “a spontaneous intercession, at a packed Sunday Mass, essentially calling the wrath of God down on President Bush and for mercy upon Saddam Hussein”

        This is something that I find very difficult to get right in preaching, and I think that it’s hard to hit just the right note in an intercession, too. On the one hand, there are things happening in the world for which the church’s moral or social teaching clearly has some applicability; sometimes, it seems so starkly applicable that it would be wrong *not* to make the connection, to shine the church’s light somehow on the situation. On the other hand, if the thing happening in the world is of a political nature or has a political dimension to it (and what doesn’t these days), anything spoken from the pulpit will immediately be put through the listeners’ partisan filters, and any non-partisan content (like church teaching) will be filtered out. And so we end up saying something, or offering a prayer intention for something, that is so anodyne that the connection to real life isn’t made.

      2. @Jim Pauwels:
        The key is straining to avoid lapsing into the typical framing of it. Like Jesus did.

        It’s hard. Requires detachment and a self-critical understanding of one’s own assumptions and cognitive biases. Which would normally require one to spend a great deal of time engaging folks who don’t share them – something human beings are not normally inclined to do, being social creatures who tend to flock with the like-minded. One good place to start is to recognize how I/you are more like what I/you oppose (even if by mirroring or reaction-formation) than we’d care to normally be aware of. Solidarity of sinners and all that.

  18. Our intercessions are always the same form, very general and consistent. No one makes them up every week. And there is not a cover all “make your prayer to God in the silence of your heart” type of petition at the end before the collect, where people can pray for anything. They’re invited at the prayers for the sick, those with immediate needs, thanksgivings, and for the faithful departed, to add names aloud or silently. I think that cacophony is an over-dramatization. Most people whisper the names they are praying for sotto voce.

  19. Our former pastor would offer this type of prayer opportunity on Memorial Day. After the General Intercession, he invited parishioners to quietly speak the names of those we knew or knew of who were killed in battle, followed by a period of silence. It was always moving and solemn, and seemed fitting.

  20. I’ve done this both during a Prayer Service, which really works OK; as well as the Divine Service where I have had mixed experience with this practice. I usually do it spontaneously, especially when I am the visiting presider, which in my retirement I often am. Very few polite Lutherans speak aloud, but enough that I have been told it enhances participation in the prayers of the Church, usually prayed by the Deacon and myself.

  21. Just for discussion sake: Just what “general intercessions” do the General Intercessions cover that the Eucharistic Prayer and orations do not?

  22. When I was at Fordham, some celebrants of daily Masses had occasionally practiced sequentially voiced assembly intercessions, with what I consider mixed results. Some people seized upon the occasion to release a two minute monologue, complete with implausible statements such as a passionate call for worldwide ICBM disarmament. Okay, thanks for giving me some license for humor 🙂 Seriously, a handful were always less than succinct.

    I can see how some might advocate “at once” voiced petitions of the intercessions. Nevertheless, self-infatuation can also appear here. Someone might drown out everyone else, or recite a litany of a excessive number of people past even the conclusion of intercessions. I do not consider this second option any more or less prone to abuse.

    Perhaps it would be wise for a lay minister to lead the intercessions with a few frequently mentioned petitions, and then remind the assembly that a Mass for the the names and intentions written in the remembrance book will be celebrated at one Mass a week at least (with the book on the altar to emphasize that the Mass is for these people). In this way, the Mass, and not egos, shine through.

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