What Every Catechist Needs to Know About Leading Others in Prayer
by Joe Paprocki, D.Min
National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press
Imagine someone going to see a movie starring a famous actor and then telling people that he or she knew the star and could introduce them. How absurd that would be! You need to have a personal relationship with someone in order to introduce him or her to others. The same thing is true when it comes to Jesus. Learning about Jesus from a textbook or a video is a good start. By itself, however, it's not too different from watching a movie about a famous actor . . . you might learn some facts, but you can't claim a relationship.
The goal of catechesis is to invite those we teach into a relationship with Jesus. As catechists, we are not teachers of a subject, but rather, facilitators of an encounter. Reading about Jesus in a book or watching a video about him serve as crucial avenues to put us in touch with Jesus Christ. However, the Church reminds us that our goal is to bring people into "communion and intimacy with Jesus Christ" (General Directory for Catechesis, 80). Perhaps the most powerful way that we catechists facilitate this intimate encounter is by leading others in meaningful experiences of prayer. Since the theme of Catechetical Sunday 2016 is "Prayer: The Faith Prayed," it is fitting that we take a moment to look at the critically important skills needed to lead others in such prayer experiences, so that those we teach may truly encounter Christ in our settings. Let's take a look at three very important ways that catechists can and should lead others in prayer: namely, spontaneous prayer, liturgical prayer, and reflective prayer.
Leading Spontaneous Prayer
For many Catholics, including catechists, the notion of leading spontaneous prayer can be somewhat intimidating. This has a lot to do with the fact that we Catholics are blessed with so many wonderful traditional prayers and formal ways of praying, such as the Rosary or litanies. This doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't know how to lead others in spontaneous prayer. Leading a group in a spontaneous prayer is easier than you might think. The truth is, privately, many of us pray to God spontaneously all the time. St. Ignatius of Loyola explained in hisSpiritual Exercises
that prayer should resemble one friend speaking to another. When we speak to a friend, we do so informally and spontaneously, without a prepared script. We can and do (or at least should) approach God that way in our personal prayer. What we are not accustomed to doing is praying spontaneously on behalf of a whole group of people. So, how do we lead spontaneous prayer? Here are some key tips:
- It's always good to invite others into the prayer by saying something like, "Let's take a moment to place ourselves in God's presence and bring our needs before him."
- Pause for a few seconds to allow a transition to take place, enabling people to lift their hearts and minds to God.
- Even in spontaneous prayer, Catholics should begin with the Sign of the Cross, saying, "Let us pray, in the name of the Father, etc."
- Next, we should name God, to whom this prayer is addressed. God has many divine titles that we can use to address him. And so we can begin a prayer by saying things like, "Good and gracious God," or "Almighty and ever-living God," or "God of all creation," or simply, "Dear God." You can address God in a different way each time you lead a spontaneous prayer, or you can rely on a favorite way of addressing God and use that each time you begin a spontaneous prayer.
- Next, we give thanks and praise to God, as we recall some of God's great deeds as a way of reminding ourselves that God has acted first, and that our prayer—all prayer—is in response to what God has done and who God has been for us. Let's say for example that you've been called upon to lead a spontaneous prayer for the Confirmation class. You might think of saying something like the following: "We thank you and praise you for pouring out your Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and Mary on that first Pentecost, setting them afire with your grace."
- Having offered thanks and praise for God's great deeds in the past, we move into the present, asking that God continue to act in the lives of his people. At this point, we pray specifically for what we confidently hope God will do for the people gathered at this moment. Going back to the example of praying for that Confirmation class, you might say something like: "Send forth that same Holy Spirit upon this Confirmation class, that they may be filled with the gifts and fruits of the Spirit and go forth to love and serve others in your name." At this point, you might also invite the group, depending on its size, to offer petitions out loud. You can extend this invitation by saying something like, "Guided by the Holy Spirit, we bring our needs before God. What needs do we bring today? Please share them out loud." Patiently pause and allow the Spirit to guide individuals to share aloud. When it appears that the sharing of intercessions is winding down, you can say, "Lord, you hear all of our prayers . . . those spoken and those that remain in the silence of our hearts."
- Finally, we acknowledge that we come to the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And so, our prayers end by saying as much: "Grant this through our Lord, Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen." There are also shorter ways of saying this, such as, "we make this prayer in Jesus' name," or "we ask this through Christ our Lord," or even just the words, "through Christ our Lord." Once again, as Catholics, we end our prayer with the Sign of the Cross.
While the words of a spontaneous prayer are indeed spontaneous, the format of spontaneous prayer follows a formula:
- Address/name God.
- Offer thanks and praise for God's wonderful deeds of the past.
- Call upon the Lord for what is needed in the present.
- Conclude the prayer in communion with the Trinity.
A good way to remember the above four steps are the words You, Who, Do, and Through: God the Father is the YOU we are addressing; God is the one WHO has done great things; we are asking God to DO something for us; we ask this THROUGH Jesus, in the Holy Spirit.
Leading Liturgical Prayer
Liturgical prayer is a more formal prayer, in that it has a structure to it and assigned parts and roles. It also has certain elements that are typically present to some extent. We may be more familiar with the phrase "prayer service," which is what we are talking about when we say liturgical prayer. When leading liturgical prayer, the first place to turn to for clues is the liturgy of the Mass. Since the Eucharist is our central form of liturgical prayer, all of our other forms of liturgical prayer are called to resemble it. What this means is that we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time we are called upon to create or lead a prayer service. We can and should draw from a structure that can be found in the liturgy of the Mass, as well as in the Liturgy of the Hours.
So, for example, a prayer service on a weekday can draw some of its prayers from the previous Sunday's Mass or from that day's Liturgy of the Hours. That's not being lazy; it's acknowledging the centrality of the Sunday Eucharist. Suffice it to say that our liturgical prayers can and should resemble the liturgy of the Mass. This means the following:
- Liturgical prayer has assigned roles. In addition to the role of the assembly, there may be readers, a leader of song, a leader of the prayer, and others who have specific responsibilities within the prayer experience such as leading a procession, lighting a candle, and so on.
- The job of the catechist is to make sure that everyone, including the assembly, knows their parts and has had an opportunity to prepare to do their parts. The catechist does not necessarily have to assume the role of leader for a prayer service. That role can be assigned to a mature, confident participant with whom the catechist can prepare ahead of time.
- Liturgical prayer requires a prayerful environment: preferably something that resembles certain aspects of the Eucharistic Liturgy. A prayer table can include a cloth with the color of the liturgical season, a Bible, holy water, a candle, sacred images or icons, a Cross, and so on. The seating arrangement of the assembly—for most catechists, this will be in a classroom—is also something to take into consideration. If possible, arrange seating in a circle or semi-circle with the prayer table in the center.
- The order of the liturgical prayer should resemble in some way the liturgy of the Mass. Here are a few basics to consider:
- Consult the Church's liturgical calendar to identify the season, feast, etc. that the Church is celebrating (or will be celebrating that week or that coming Sunday) (see www.usccb.org/about/divine-worship/liturgical-calendar/).
- Begin with a call to prayer. If needed, introduce yourself, and warmly welcome the assembly to join in an opportunity to pray. Say something about the season, or feast, or day of the liturgical calendar. Go over any directions needed for the prayer and assign any roles. Invite the assembly to place themselves in God's presence.
- Pause for ten or fifteen seconds of silence to enable the group to make a transition.
- Begin with the Sign of the Cross.
- Offer a ritual greeting: a priest or deacon will begin with, "The Lord be with you," to which people respond, "And with your spirit." A lay leader of prayer may select from a variety of greetings, such as the following:
Leader: This is the day the Lord has made!
All: Let us rejoice and be glad!
Leader: O Lord, open my lips . . .
All: And my mouth will proclaim your praise.
- Invite praise and thanksgiving: play a recording or sing a song of praise/thanksgiving. If no music is available, invite the assembly to pray a Psalm and alternate the verses (side A/side B, left side/right side, male/female, etc.).
- A reading from Scripture should be non-negotiable. You or a reader can proclaim a Scripture reading either from the day (www.usccb.org/bible/), or from an upcoming feast or Sunday (http://www.usccb.org/about/divine-worship/liturgical-calendar/), or simply read a passage that is appropriate for that particular gathering.
- Invite another silent pause, perhaps 15-20 seconds long, after the Scripture reading, or consider playing a song of meditation/reflection.
- As with spontaneous prayer, it is always good to invite intercessions. Offer several intercessions that you have prepared. If you have no access to prepared intercessions, offer intercessions for the following (going from general to specific): church, world, nation, local community, the sick, those who have died.
- Invite the assembly to add their intentions as described above, under Leading Spontaneous Prayer.
- Offer a closing prayer that could be any of the following: a traditional prayer, a prayer from the saint of the day, or the "Collect" from that day's Mass.
- Conclude with the Sign of the Cross.
- Consider the following options: music and singing are an important part of Catholic prayer and worship, and opportunities to incorporate these include an opening song, a responsorial, a reflection after Scripture, and a closing song; ritual gestures and movements can be incorporated, such as processing to "dress" the prayer space/enthrone the Bible, sprinkling holy water, offering the sign of peace, lighting candle(s), etc.
Another source that you can and should draw from for liturgical prayer is the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office. You can find the entire Liturgy of the Hours on websites such as Divine Office, Universalis, or eBreviary.
Leading Reflective Prayer
In the Catholic Tradition, there is a long history of praying in such a way as to invite Jesus to speak to us through our imaginations. This type of prayer is called reflective prayer. Of course one of the great champions of reflective prayer was St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius possessed an incredible imagination, which played a central role in his conversion and continued to shape his prayer life. He advocated imaginative or reflective prayer, something that is recognized as one of the hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality.
St. Ignatius' approach to imaginative prayer encourages us to place ourselves fully into a story from the Gospels and to use all of our senses to participate in that story, paying attention to what we feel, hear, see, smell, notice, and even taste. Above all, we should pay attention to what Jesus says in the Gospel story, but then allow our imaginations to enable us to hear what Jesus might be speaking to us personally. This type of prayer enables us to encounter Jesus in a very personal and intimate way, bringing him into our hearts.
Reflective prayer can and should be taught to people of all ages. For children, a good rule of thumb is to allot one minute for each year of age, so as to fit their attention spans. Leading reflective prayer involves three stages:
- Getting ready. Young people especially need a transition from their very noisy and fast-paced lives into reflective prayer. The first step is to help them get ready to pray. Invite them to find comfortable postures that will help them to be relaxed and yet alert. Next, play some instrumental music quietly in the background to create a soothing and prayerful climate. Finally, have them do some deep breathing to slow down their metabolisms and to invite God into their midst.
- Leading the Reflective Prayer. Speaking slowly and pausing often, invite your pray-ers to use their imaginations to enter into a place: a Scripture story (such as the birth of Jesus, the wedding at Cana, Jesus calming the storm on the lake, or any Scripture story), or just a favorite place such as a field, or a park, or a lake, or even a backyard. Slowly invite them to see, hear, smell, and feel the surroundings and then invite them to initiate conversations between themselves and Jesus, talking to him as one friend talks to another. Leave pauses of silence so they can talk with Jesus. The conversation should cover what they are happy or excited about, as well as what they are sad or worried about. Invite them to share their thoughts and feelings with Jesus and be sure to invite them to listen to Jesus responding to them.
- Allowing Quiet Time with God. During the last part of a reflective prayer, wean yourself from a speaking role after inviting the young people to spend some quiet time with the Lord, either speaking with him about whatever they wish or just enjoying being in his presence. You can now slowly fade out the instrumental music that has been playing in the background. Enjoy the silence! After an appropriate period of time, invite them to slowly begin returning to the present and gently transition them to the next task.
Many catechists find this time of following a guided reflection to be an excellent opportunity to invite young people to journal about their experiences with Jesus. Be sure to respect the privacy of your students. Their journals should be private, and no student should be required to share his or her experience of talking with Jesus during the reflection, although you may invite those who are comfortable sharing to do so.
An Affective Relationship with Jesus
All too often, we sadly see our young people walk away from Catholic life after Confirmation. This happens more easily and frequently when they have gone through their religious education experiences without developing affective relationships with Jesus. If Jesus is presented as a subject, he is easy to walk away from, just as young people will walk away from many of the other subjects they have learned in grade school. It is much harder (and less desirable) to walk away from a relationship. The key to developing this affective, intimate relationship with Jesus is a life of prayer. As catechists, may we dedicate ourselves this year and always to making sure that the Catholic faith is a faith prayed!
2016, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights
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Excerpts from the General Directory for Catechesis © 1971, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City. Used with permission. All rights reserved.