A: The Universal Prayer is an ancient element of the celebration of Mass, and in keeping with the tradition of the Church no one should modify the prayer. We should, rather, endeavor to understand why the prayer is structured the way it is.
The liturgical prayer of the Mass has its own, proper structure. The Church jealously guards that structure and retains the right to change or modify it, insisting that no one is “permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of the Mass” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), 24.).
The Fathers of the Church have always seen the liturgy as a kind of symphony (in fact, ‘symphonia’ is the word that St. John Chrysostom uses to describe it [PG 55, 522]) in which each part contributes to the whole and each person fulfills his or her role fully. The Church today still maintains this ancient principle and is thus explicit in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, that all, ministers and “lay Christian Faithful, in fulfilling their function or their duty, should carry out solely but totally that which pertains to them” (GIRM, 91, emphasis added).
There are distinct roles for each member of the liturgical assembly, and each one must fulfill that role as well as possible. The Universal Prayer, or Prayer of the Faithful, is a particularly good example of this. While to some extent the prayer is flexible—especially in its content—the Church makes no provision for changing its structure or ministers.
The Universal Prayer has a very long history. The first indication of such a prayer in the early Church comes to us from Saint Paul’s first letter to Timothy (2:1-2). This practice is repeated in the instructions given by the Didache (end of the first century) and in the Letter of Pope Clement I, who says, “Let us entreat the Creator of all things with urgent petition and supplication….”
The most exquisite model for this prayer is provided in the Good Friday liturgy. Notice how the intercessions constitute a kind of crowning of the Liturgy of the Word: the Holy Week celebration calls them “The Solemn Intercessions.” It gives this pattern: the deacon expresses the intention. “Then all pray in silence for a while,” after which the priest delivers a prayer which acts to gather or “collect” the silent prayers. Then the faithful respond, “Amen.”
At Mass the prayer’s structure is described by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. “It is for the priest celebrant to regulate this prayer” (GIRM, 71). He begins by inviting the people to pray. The deacon or another minister announces the intercessions. For their part, the whole faithful express their participation internally by joining their hearts to the petition announced by the deacon and then affirm their participation externally by some form of response or by silent prayer (GIRM, 71).
The priest celebrant offers the “concluding prayer, which should always be brief, [and] is always addressed to God the Father…,” since the liturgical prayer of Christ’s body is always joined to the prayer of Christ the Head who prays to his Father (Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter, 11:3, 468).
In this symphony of prayer, the parts and the roles are distinct: the priest celebrant invites, the deacon (or other minister) announces the petitions, the faithful respond, the priest celebrant concludes, and the faithful respond again.
Baptism equips Christians to participate in the priestly office of Christ: to offer prayer on behalf of others and to offer sacrifice. Thus, historically only the baptized were allowed to participate in the Prayer of the Faithful. A great dignity is assigned to this task. The faithful intercede on behalf of others for the needs of the world. In line with the vision of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, in the General Intercessions the Church expresses “its permanent role as a sign of Christ on Earth. The Church made present…assumes its role as advocate of the human family” (BCL Newsletter, 11:3, 467).
—Answered by Father Douglas Martis
Father Eusebius Martis, OSB, a monk of Marmion Abbey, has been a priest for more than three decades. He is former director of the Liturgical Institute at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, where he was also a professor at Mundelein Seminary from 1996 to 2015. He is a former director of liturgy at the Pontifical College Josephinum. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at Sant’Anselmo, Rome.