I confess that I find the Prayers of the Faithful to be the least important and the least inspiring part of the Mass, just as I find the intercessory prayers to be in the Divine Office. To some extent, that’s a personal problem, and I’m working on it. After all, it is a very good thing for all of us, in common or individually, to offer petitions for the Church, for civil government, for particular special needs, for those who are ill, and for the dead (that is, the souls in purgatory).
But sometimes these specific petitionary prayers can be ill-conceived—perhaps trivial, offered for the wrong things, influenced by contemporary fashions, spiritually shallow, or even an apparent effort to instruct God. This can occur even in the Church’s official versions of these prayers, and perhaps it is not surprising, with the emphasis on coming up with petitions appropriate for each occasion.
I don’t want to make too much of this, and I am confident that even badly worded prayers, if offered with a sincere Christian heart, will bring blessings. But after a few years of running across a particularly glaring example in Evening Prayer in the Divine Office, I can’t help offering it as an object lesson in what not to do at prayer. This clinker came up once again in the petitions for Evening Prayer on February 1st. It falls in the category of prayers for those who govern:
Do not direct world leaders to give attention only to the needs of their own nations,
But give them, above all, a respect and a deep concern for all peoples.
Now this prayer is hogwash from start to finish: It begins by telling God what not to do (as if He needs our instruction), and it ends by asking for something that will cause any government official to do his job badly.
The first point should be obvious to the meanest intelligence. The prayer begins by telling God what He must at all costs avoid. Does our Heavenly Father really need our guidance to avoid mistakes? Is He likely to attempt to inspire government leaders with the wrong attitudes and the wrong priorities?
The second point is somewhat more subtle (though not by much). The prayer asks God to give world leaders a deep concern for all peoples above all. But as a rule, a “world leader” is simply a person who holds a high position in government in a particular nation state, especially in one of the more powerful nation states. Certainly such a person should have a genuine respect for all peoples, and sufficient concern to avoid harming peoples other than his own. But if this is his top concern, to be cherished above all, the leader in question will never fulfill his primary responsibility to the people in his own country, over whom he has been called to exercise some measure of governmental control, precisely for the common good of those under his jurisdiction.
Now this is not the only instance of silliness found in what we might call ersatz prayers—prayers that have not been well-considered, have not been carefully developed, and have not stood the test of time, but rather prayers which are too easily influenced by the fuzzy rhetoric which so often expresses fashionable ideas. A spontaneous prayer may be worded badly or well depending on the rhetorical skills of the one who prays, and even its substance may not be as good as it should be. But a prayer officially adopted for the Church’s ongoing use ought at least to be free of human arrogance, and full of trust in God.
To put this another way, prayer is not for exalting ourselves but for glorifying God. It is not for slapping our own backs, but for beating our own breasts.
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