Liturgy Lines: Privacy and Public Prayers

by Elizabeth Harrington. This article originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on Aug 16th, 2017.

We have all heard Prayer of the Faithful/Universal Prayer petitions aimed at a person or group in the assembly, such as: “For those who do not give their full support to the work of this parish, that they may be more generous with their time and talents”.

Sometimes the Prayer of the Faithful turns into a news bulletin: “We pray for Norah Jones who had a hip replacement yesterday and is recovering well in ward 3B at St Andrew’s Hospital”.

The Prayer of the Faithful is one part of the liturgy which we are encouraged to write ourselves, not take from a book. As the name suggests, it is the prayer of the gathered members of the assembly not of the parish priest, or person who composed them, or an outsider who provides intercessions promoting a particular cause.

The intentions should be sober, be composed with a wise liberty and in few words, and they should be expressive of the prayer of the entire community. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal #71)

The earlier version of the General Instruction used the word ‘discretely’ for ‘wise liberty’ and the importance of using discretion when writing Universal Prayer petitions cannot be overemphasised.

I was startled some years ago to be contacted by several people from another parish wishing me well for my upcoming operation. I had told the parish liturgy co-ordinator in confidence that I would have to postpone a workshop because I was having unplanned minor surgery. This information was then included, without my permission, in the Prayer of the Faithful at Sunday Mass and among those to be prayed for listed in the parish bulletin!

The issue of discretion was given attention when new privacy laws were introduced in Australia in 2002. The Privacy Act makes it clear that, before a person is identified in public prayer as being sick or in trouble, the parish needs to ask itself about the source of the information. If it is public knowledge, then there is no problem. If it derives from private pastoral contacts, then permission should be sought for the disclosure of any personal information in parish prayers of intercession.

The Deputy Commissioner explained that the Privacy Act was about “organisations working within people’s expectations of what will happen with their personal information.
“Many of the current practices in relation to public prayers or printing of personal information in church newsletters will be within people’s reasonable expectations. It is not likely that there will be a breach of the Privacy Act in continuing these practices as long as they are clearly within the reasonable expectations of the individual concerned. If there is any doubt about what the individual’s reasonable expectations are, it is good privacy practice to check with them first, especially where sensitive matters such as health or personal troubles are concerned.”

Those who write Prayer of the Faithful petitions and prepare parish bulletins need to be judicious and discrete.

© Liturgy Brisbane. Liturgy Lines columns are accessible on the Liturgy Brisbane website.


  1. This is an interesting topics. We do pray for those who are ill, and provide their names, but no details regarding their specific illness or condition. Then, after mass, some parishioners will ask me, “I hear that we prayed today for Bob Allen. What is wrong with Bob?” Ministers need to bear in mind healthcare privacy laws as well.

    Even apart from liturgy, hospitals in this area will not inform a parish that a parishioner has been admitted unless the parishioner provides express permission (previously, the local hospitals would ‘proactively’ send this info to local churches, based on information the patient provided on her/his registration form).

    1. Hospitals across the USA can’t do that, because of HIPAA (1996). But our federal law doesn’t go as far as Australian law in terms of entities covered.

  2. I assume she means ‘discreet’, not ‘discrete’.
    Yes, confidentiality should be respected, but what is the Australian Parliament doing legislating on prayer? Politicians have no business telling religious bodies how to conduct their public worship.
    In my parish we rarely pray for the sick by name, and then only if requested by the family.

  3. We only put names on the public list when we get a request from an immediate family member and we don’t just take names from the “grapevine.” On the other hand, even the “immediate family member” could be an issue; what if the family member is overruling the desire of the patient?

    1. Robert – I agree it’s a difficult question. On the other hand, if we require express permission from the patient, and the patient is unable to express that permission, what then? At some level, don’t we need to trust that the immediate family is representing the patient’s wishes?

  4. In Australia, Robert, the law of the land applies to everyone, including the Church – a lesson that some have learned the hard way in recent years. I would have thought the same would apply in the US.
    And yes, I’m sorry, she did mean discreet’, not ‘discrete’.

    1. Constitutional (federal and state) protections against governmental regulation of freedom of speech and religious exercise means that US laws that restrict speech have to be narrow/specific in ways that sustained highest levels of judicial scrutiny. Hence, HIPAA only applies to defined covered entities for specific reasons.

      1. I agree that HIPAA and related regulatory requirements and their applicability to churches is a technical legal subject. At the same time, whether or not churches are exempt from those requirements, I’d like to think that the “spirit” of respecting patient confidentiality is consonant in some way with our Christian notion of human dignity, and we’d wish to acknowledge that dignity with an appropriate respect for patient privacy, even if the law doesn’t require us to do so.

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