Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lord, In Your Mercy, Incline Not Your Ear Unto Our Prayer

With apologies to George Weigel, who wrote on this subject some years ago, I feel the need to chime in on what is for me one of the greatest sources of liturgical annoyance possible: the General Intercessions.

What is the source of annoyance, exactly? Well, for one thing I don't like repetitive activities, but that doesn't really account for all of it in this case. I think what really drives me nuts is the fact that the General Intercessions usually do not include the petitions which should be there, but they do include things which do not belong.

Allow me to explain. The General Intercessions are to include prayers for the pope, the local bishop, and the dead, if not some other intentions as well. Moreover, there is a hierarchical order in these petitions which is to be followed. In the typical parish, however, none of this is observed. The one aspect of this which might be employed is the prayer for the dead at the end of the intercessions. Beyond that, nothing.

But it gets worse. What is done instead of what should be done is often downright appalling. The General Intercessions are turned into the "specific intercessions" which are premised in ways that will inevitably exclude the thinking of at least some of the members of the congregation. For example, I have heard petitions that baldy advocate for a "redistribution of the world's resources" on behalf of the poor by national and even world leaders. This is ill-advised, to say the least, because, instead of simply praying for the poor, we're being asked to pray that the poor be helped through particular means, which some (or most) may find to be impractical or even downright reprehensible. It's all quite enough at times to get me to mumble under my breath, "Lord, don't hear our prayer." I'm all for helping the poor, but not through the use of coercion. Leave Robin Hood in the story books.

I could pile on other stories, but they would be unnecessary to make this point: the General Intercessions are not a vehicle for cramming any one particular judgment down the throats of the people in the pews.

What to do about this problem? It is quite apparent that one could write guidelines ad infinitum, but this will do no good: Some will still use this liturgical moment to promote their own agenda--whatever ideological platform it may come from. I've often thought that the General Intercessions should simply be removed from the liturgy, and I still wouldn't be opposed to this. As one priest has pointed out to me, everything that's supposed to be in the General Intercessions is already in the Roman Canon.

A compromise, however, would be enough to get me to sit down and be quiet. Here's what I have in mind: a fixed formula (such as is used in many Anglican churches) which is based upon the form of the Intercessions of Good Friday, which use the form of the Western intercessory prayers from centuries ago. In fact, they've stood the test of time and always been there. (I will delete comments that try to sidetrack us onto the boring subject of the Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews.)

The Intercessions of Good Friday are solemn, and not just because of the day on which they are said. Much of this solemnity comes from the form employed. This is a vast improvement over the banality which often reigns during the General Intercessions in typical liturgical praxis. Using a fixed form will have the benefits of making sure that all the right intercessions are there, that they are phrased in a way appropriate for a religious rather than a political function, that heightened language is used, and even that a sense of ritual prevails over arbitrariness. Of course, besides all of this, solemnity can be added by singing the intercessions.

And so, for the intention that this may be accomplished, I say, "Lord, hear our prayer."

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