Liturgical and Personal Prayer
by Fr. Andrew Menke
Secretariat of Divine Worship, USCCB
It's often said that you can't give what you don't already have. Catechists certainly want their students to learn to love the Mass and other liturgical prayers, and also to have a strong personal prayer life. As catechists, we need to do all we can to live a prayerful life first, so that we can share what we've discovered with the students we love.
At times, it can seem like there's a wide gulf between the Church's public prayer and our own private prayer. The former can seem formal and impersonal, while the latter can appear to be exactly the opposite. But in truth, the two should be mutually supportive and complementary.
Here are four observations about the relationship between the Church's liturgical prayer and our own personal prayer. Perhaps a catechist who interiorizes the connections between these two modes of prayer will be able to find ways to help young people come to see the same things. This can make our participation at Mass more fruitful, and can likewise enrich our personal prayer.
Liturgical Prayer Keeps Us on the Right Track
We should pray to God in our own words: we should wonder and ponder and dream and puzzle over all the aspects of our faith. What is God like? Who am I? What is God's plan for me? Why do bad things happen? These questions are mysterious, and we'll never understand them perfectly in this life. But at the same time, while there is mystery, there is also truth, and unfortunately it is possible to develop false ideas about God and about our faith. One of the great things about liturgical prayer is that it can help keep us on the right track. That's because the Church's prayer is theologically very precise, and is based on the clear teachings of the Bible, of Sacred Tradition, and of the saints. The prayers we encounter in the liturgy continually remind us of the truths of our faith, and in this way the liturgy becomes a sturdy framework for genuine personal prayer.
Identifying teachings embedded in liturgical prayer can even be a good catechetical exercise. For example, Catechetical Sunday falls on the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time this year, and the Collect (or "opening prayer") on that day begins like this: "O God, who founded all the commands of your sacred Law upon love of you and of our neighbor. . . ." What truth does that teach? It reminds us that there is such a thing as God's law! There is a difference between good and evil, and God shows us how to discern it through his law. This prayer also reminds us of Jesus' teaching about the two greatest commandments, which are the foundation of the moral life.
Seeing this truth in the liturgical prayer might then influence my own personal prayer. Am I trying to love God with all my heart? Can I be doing more to love my neighbor? When we try to encourage young people to pray, we certainly want to encourage them to use their imagination in their personal prayer, to think, and to ponder. But we can also help them to see that the truths of the faith are an important part of the Church's liturgical prayer.
Liturgical Prayer Helps Us When it's Hard to Pray
It isn't always easy to pray. Sometimes that's the situation for a day or two, perhaps because we're distracted by the events of life. But sometimes it can be a frustrating situation that lasts for years! In fact, every saint who teaches about prayer will tell us that God tests us like that, often for the sake of our purification. God doesn't want us to pray only because we like it, but first and foremost because it is something that we should do and need to do. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that prayer is a "battle" (CCC nos. 2725-2745) and offers guidance in that struggle.
Liturgical prayer can help us when prayer is difficult, because in liturgical prayer we don't have to make decisions. Without any effort on our part, the liturgy gives us texts to pray, and it gives us seasonal themes for prayer, and it gives us Scripture readings, homilies, and the example of the saints. When our personal prayer feels like a blank page, the liturgy provides material to sustain our prayer: all we have to do is to arrive with an open mind and heart.
Liturgical Prayer Connects Us with Our Brothers and Sisters, Near and Far
Isn't it easy to get wrapped up in our own little world, in our own concerns and struggles, and to forget about the rest of our human family? But remember: generally speaking, whenever we go to Mass in our parish, we're going to be praying the same prayers and hearing the same Scripture readings as are our brothers and sisters in twenty-three rites of the Catholic Church all over the world. The Pope himself is praying those same prayers and hearing those same readings! Some of our fellow Catholics are wealthy and some are poor, some have plenty to eat and some are hungry, some are living in peace and others are living amidst conflict. The prayer of the liturgy unites us all together in listening to what God has to say to us and in offering our praise back to him.
The Sacred Liturgy is also a perfect opportunity to offer up prayers for people who need our support. Never forget what Jesus said: "Again, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Mt 18:19-20). Catechists can invite young people to bring to mind the news of the day in prayer for those who suffer, and they can be reminded to think about friends and family members who are in need of prayer.
There are many opportunities to remember the intentions of the world at prayer during Mass. Obviously, the Prayers of the Faithful are a perfect moment. Also, there are any number of prayers said by the priest that invite us to join in mind and heart in petitions of various kinds. Finally, there are many moments of silence in the liturgy, which also invite us to raise our intentions to our heavenly Father.
Liturgical Prayer Gives Us Ideas and Direction for Our Personal Prayer
There's something for everyone in the liturgy, and we can always find a treasure that can be applied to our own circumstances. The prayers are packed full of words and phrases that can be the starting point for contemplation. The Scripture readings are the premier source for prayer. Sometimes the whole story of a reading will inspire us, and sometimes just a short phrase from one line in a reading will be enough to make us ponder. The same thing can be said for the homilies that we hear.
Sometimes, we might even find inspiration "accidentally." Perhaps you've heard the story about the priest who was approached after Mass by a man who had a big smile on his face. "Father, your homily changed my life!" he exclaimed. The priest was very proud of himself for his great eloquence and wisdom, and, out of curiosity, asked the man which part of the sermon was so moving. The man responded: "It was when you said, 'That's the end of the first part of my homily. Now I'll move on to the second part.' And it occurred to me just then that I need to put the past behind me and move on to live the rest of my life. That changes everything: thanks, Father!"
That's how the Holy Spirit works! God speaks to us in strange ways, and when we're listening for his words, we'll often be surprised. He might speak to us in a phrase of a homily, in a request in one of the petitions, or in the lyrics of a hymn. We can take these inspirations from the Sacred Liturgy with us into our personal prayer, and God's words will continue to grow and bear fruit.
Personal prayer and liturgical prayer should go hand-in-hand, building up the spiritual life and providing opportunities for intercession for others. If we who are catechists can come to appreciate this truth more and more, then we can begin to pass this gift on to our students. When we approach the liturgy and our personal prayer with a readiness to hear the voice of Jesus and to praise him in return, we can be sure that great things are happening through prayer!
2016, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights
reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without
adaptation for non-commercial use.
Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.