And now for something completely different: “illegitimate” prayers?

Granted that Catholics’ minds are focused on Rome right now, I have been pondering a broader question for some months.  And I suddenly realized this morning that my question was not entirely irrelevance to the upcoming conclave.  The question I have pondered is whether there are “illegitimate” prayers, what constitutes them, and how to avoid them.  Two elements had gone into my thinking — that is, before the upcoming conclave raised the specter of a whole new set of issues.  The first element was an experience at a Mass last Fall, where one of the intercessions was “that those who have not yet given to our annual fund will do so this week.”  I cringed (and probably was not alone).  As I reflected on this experience and formed a notion of “illegitimate” (rather than simply plain stupid or inappropriate) prayers, a parable of Jesus came to mind, which provided a second, biblical element for my reflection.  In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus envisions a Pharisee voicing something akin to an illegitimate prayer: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity…” (Lk 18:11).   Based on these two elements, one might identify illegitimate prayers as in some ways doing violence to the encounter with God at the heart of prayer, either by self-aggrandizing or manipulative words, for starters.  I am sure there are other characteristics of illegitimate prayers.  I am also sure that as the conclave nears, possibilities for illegitimate prayers abound.  (I have almost decided to go back to my charismatic practices and pray in tongues until this conclave has concluded).



  1. The first element was an experience at a Mass last Fall, where one of the intercessions was “that those who have not yet given to our annual fund will do so this week.” I cringed (and probably was not alone).

    I would cringe, too.

    There’s a time and a place to ask for more giving; Mass (unless it is private) is almost always a bad place for it.

    Illegitimate? No, but ill-advised.

  2. When I was at Notre Dame, I had an acquaintance who was a huge St. Jude novena participant/advocate, somewhat annoyingly so. I have a very firm rule not to demean other people’s piety, but I snapped one day and asked her why – after my having done the St. Jude Novena TWICE – we still weren’t ordaining women? She basically said my prayer was “illegitimate” and we got into a rather prolonged and heated discussion about what, exactly, you could and couldn’t pray for. I asked if we’d been having the discussion in 1958 (vs. 1988) and I’d been praying to St. Jude for Mass in the vernacular, would that have been an “illegitimate” prayer request?
    This reminds me of “let us pray for all the intentions in our parish book of intentions” intercessions … I’ve read some of those intentions (including one that the pastor would fire me from my job so we could go back to a music-free 7:30 Mass) … and can’t say that I’m willing to put my prayerful assent behind them all.
    But I guess the bottom line is that ultimately only the Spirit gets to decide which prayers are and aren’t legitimate. The rest of us struggle to pray as best we can and try to discern which of our prayers do or do not correspond to God’s will as it continues to be revealed, but finally having to say “Not my will but yours be done.”

  3. Not sure the comparison you offer here works. The idea of asking for the vernacular in 1958 does not correspond to asking for something contrary to the Church’s definitive judgment.
    For example, similar to your prayer for the vernacular liturgy in 1958, many today pray for a wider usage of the EF. How I would love to see it celebrated regularly once again on the altar of St. John’s abbey; it simply does not compute, however, to compare such a prayer to one contrary to Catholic doctrine.

      1. @Alan Hommerding – comment #6:
        A) that’s not the case B) since it wasn’t the case, there was no doubt that the liturgy could be celebrated in other languages it was a disciplinary matter, permission could be given, but hadn’t been.

      2. @Samuel J. Howard – comment #8:

        More to the point, I’m not aware of any bar on saying novenas in the vernacular n 1958. I don’t see why “legitimacy” would be implicated by the tongue used in personal devotions, then or now.

      3. @Richard Malcolm – comment #9:
        It’s not a question of saying the novena in the vernacular, but of saying the novena asking for Mass to be said in the vernacular.

        Amongst the problem here is a superstitious understanding of the novena.

  4. When the Pharisee and tax collector are read on a Sunday, my pastor invariably says something like “don’t pray like the Pharisee.” If I am about to have RCIA discuss prayer, the last thing I want is for the pastor to say ” Don’t pray….” I don’t care what the rest of the sentence is, how accurate it is or how scriptural it is, I do not want to hear “Don’t pray.”

    I guess I am in favor of the Pharisee going to Temple and praying, on the chance that he will recognize his arrogance. Perhaps he will discover that his pity will motivate him to help those who are not like him. Or maybe he will realize that God loves each of us to become like us. All I can do is to tell him to keep praying, listening to God as part of that, and hope that God knows how to answer his prayers.

  5. In the front of the song books you can buy in Taizé there are a couple of pages with ideas for common prayers. On the subject of intercessions it suggests preparing them beforehand but leaving some time for spontaneous ones. It then adds that “these should be brief, and addressed to God; this is not the moment to make speeches to communicate one’s own thoughts or personal opinions to to others.”

  6. I was told when preparing the prayer of the faithful that one ought to pray “for” people, not pray “that” people do something.

  7. So I COULD pray the St. Jude novena for an end to mandatory celibacy, since that’s only a disciplinary matter?

  8. As someone who tries very hard to create meaningful prayers for the intentions, that one made me very uncomfortable. Good Lord.

    Illegitimate prayers – what on earth. Praying for the death of an enemy, praying for someone to be fired so mass could be to their own liking, praying for anything that is not life giving and sustaining… those would be illegitimate prayers as I see it.

  9. What exactly is the point of public intercessory prayer anyway if it goes beyond a general prayer for “everyone and everything”? Otherwise it just becomes an attempt at getting other people to do something you want them to do in the guise of prayer, which to me is downright wrong.

  10. There are certainly illegitimate prayers in terms of public liturgical prayer, precisely because one is impleading the assent of the body of the faithful. The liturgical churches have very carefully regulated who may be invoked as an intercessor in public liturgical prayer, for example, and generally carefully direct prayer in a Trinitarian manner.

    In the era when open-season prayers were the fashion, I certainly witnessed more than I care of prayers that should not have been imposed on fellow congregants. Fortunately, this went out of general fashion, though 10 years ago I remember visiting a parish in Oakland where the fashion was yet alive, and a congregant offered – during the open part of the general intercessions – an imprecatory malediction on President Bush and a benediction on Saddam Hussein (now, I was strongly against the Iraq War before it even started, but this double prayer too the cake, as it were!).

  11. Two thoughts, one less serious and one deeply serious . . .

    Fun first: I detest the “announcement via prayer” petitions. These tend to crop up when someone forgot a parish announcement, and slips in an intercession to cover it. “And we pray for Gladys, who is having knee replacement surgery on Tuesday at 9AM at St Luke’s Hospital and expects to be there for five days afterwards . . .” or (even worse) “And we pray for the parish potluck this Friday, and ask that those with last names between A and H would bring main courses, those with names between I and R would bring side dishes, and those with names between S and Z would bring desserts; and we pray that everyone would bring their own placesettings . . .”

    Yes, I’ve heard both of those. But as was said above, this is ill-advised, not illegitimate.

    Which leads to the deeply serious:

    In a recent adult Sunday School class, the subject of child abuse came up. During the discussion, I brought up Psalm 137, a psalm of lament from the mouths of the exiles in Babylon, which ends like this [NRSV]:

    8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
    Happy shall they be who pay you back
    what you have done to us!
    9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    and dash them against the rock!

    I noted two very related things about this prayer: (1) Scripture does not tell us that God responded by dashing the heads of baby Babylonians into the local pavement, and (2) if this kind of angry prayer was acceptable to the biblical editor who compiled the Psalms, perhaps we can bring even our worst angers before God in prayer — not that God would grant what our anger asks, but that in voicing this deep pain to God, we would be able to begin to cut loose from it.

    As a leader of public prayer, my words need to match both the deepest pains of the community and the highest hopes of heaven. In the face of evil, it is one thing to give voice to our pain, but we dare not leave our plea for hope unvoiced. The former without the latter makes our prayer illegitimate.

  12. Something for which we may give thanks:

    “In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.” (Rom 8:26-27)

  13. I don’t think it’s illegitimate for a church to pray for a successful fund drive, particularly if the church really, really needs the money. Perhaps the prayer could be better crafted …

  14. Well, what is it that makes a prayer legitimate in the first place, and what is legitimacy? I think this is a useful discussion, but perhaps these terms need to be worked out first.

  15. My general advice to people is to not over-think their private prayers; ask for whatever they want, but just be prepared for a “no.”

    Public, common prayer is another matter. You don’t want something completely anodyne, but you also don’t want to polarize the assembly.

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