Authenticity in Communal Prayer

Does our communal prayer dare to reflect the reality of the people of God?

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between personal and communal prayer. While personal prayer affords opportunities to grow in relationship with God through our own favorite pathways or practices, communal prayer invites us to gather as a community and join our hearts and voices together. In many ways, communal prayer is much more difficult than personal prayer. When we pray by ourselves, we can choose the words and actions we use. We can set the time and place ourselves. We can pray at our own pace. When we pray communally, however, we must embody a certain selflessness and humility.

Music in Catholic Worship (1972), written by the now United States Conference of Catholic Bishops writes,

“Each Christian must keep in mind that to live and worship in community often demands a personal sacrifice” (17).

While we understand that personal sacrifice is necessary in our relationships with our parents, spouses, siblings and friends, we do not always immediately think the same way in terms of our Christian community. So often I find myself being critical of liturgical celebrations. I thought that homily was extremely boring. I hated today’s closing hymn. I don’t like when that person serves as a lector because she is too dramatic. I wish this whole thing could just move at a faster pace. While certainly normal to have personal reactions to our common prayer, I must remind myself that liturgy is not about me. Liturgy – the work of the people – is about all of us.

Our liturgy must express the prayer of the entire Christian community. Liturgy must express the prayer of the young children just as it expresses the prayer of those who have more life experience. Liturgy must express the prayer of newly married young adults, as well as recent widows. Liturgy must express the hopeful prayer of people who are joyously celebrating, as well as the painful prayer of people who are sick and suffering. Liturgy must express the prayer of the underemployed worker just as much as it expresses the prayer of the those who live with abundance. Liturgy must express the prayers of the single mother, members of our LGBTQ community, those who live without a home, and every person in between.

I have wondered, especially recently, if our communal prayer is doing enough to embody the hurt, pain, frustration, and anger of so many members of our community. I have personally heard pastors refusing to address the recent abuse charges. I have heard parish liturgists say that these gruesome testimonies are too heavy for Sunday worship. I have walked in to churches where one would never know that the Church is in the middle of an ecclesial and pastoral crisis. These realities sadden me. I understand that it is not easy to pray these realities. It is difficult to find words to express our feelings, and even when we do find the “right” words, they can seem empty and meaningless. Even so, we must try. If we simply refuse, our liturgical prayer is inauthentic.

I am especially grateful to the leaders at GIA Publications and World Library Publications for their efforts to help communities pray these challenging realities. Both publishers have offered text and music free of charge that can be used in the coming weeks and months. GIA has several options, including powerful texts by Mary Louise Bringle, John Bell, Ruth Duck and Adam Tice, and WLP offers a stunning text by Jesuit physicist Paul Nienaber.*

As we work to celebrate liturgy, we pray that we may be transformed not only as individuals, but as a community. We pray that liturgy can be an authentic representation of each of us. We pray that we can have the courage to express the needs and realities of the people of God.

* Here are some additional musical selections that I have found particularly helpful in praying difficult realities:

A Place Called Home (Michael Joncas, GIA)

Be Still, And Know that I Am God (Steven C. Warner, WLP)

Coventry Litany of Reconciliation (Steven C. Warner, WLP)

Take from My Heart (Karen Schneider Kirner and John T. Kyler, WLP)

The Lord Is My Shepherd (Gary Daigle, GIA)

One comment

  1. View from the Pew
    Regarding: “When we pray communally, however, we must embody a certain selflessness and humility.”
    – Somewhat an indicator of the presence selflessness and humility, is the union of voices in spoken prayer. That is, the cadence is melodic and the pace justified to the speakers, be they native and or non-native speakers of the language used in communal prayer, or be the accents other-regional, local, or foreign.
    – A contrary indicator; a community at prayer that struggles is when the the sound of prayer reminds one of Babel. This also indicates a failure of the leader of the prayer for not setting a pace appropriate to the community.
    – The prayer leader ought not to force the community into his / her own speech modality but rather adjust his / her own spoken pace to that of the community. Often a new pastor forgets this as evidence by the apparent desire to make the parish in his / her own image. The Babel effect caused by such a pastor or prayer leader clearly is apparent during the recitation of the creed, or the Our Father prayer.

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