We never had to edit our before-dinner prayers until Jamie, our fourth child, learned to talk. Each night, after we say grace – which is either “Bless Us, O Lord” or a child’s prayer one of the kids learned at school – we go around and pray for our own intentions. One person might pray for Mrs. Pitt across the street, who fell and broke her hip; someone else might pray for the kids in the world who don’t have enough to eat; each person takes a turn. But Jamie, at age 3, wasn’t content to let it go with one petition. When it was her turn to speak, she often had a litany.
It seemed that no one escaped Jamie’s notice in terms of his or her need for prayer. She covered preschool teachers who had colds and people who forgot their jackets on rainy days. She would pray about her own too-frequent nosebleeds, and her great grandma, who needed prayers simply because she was so old. While I recognized that some of Jamie’s prayer monologue came from the fact that – finally – she had center stage in a family of six – I was reluctant to interrupt because truly, everything she listed was worthy of prayer. We eventually decided that before dinner, each person could mention one thing and would save the rest for before bed.
Thinking about how we had to come to manage Jamie’s prayers made me think about how we, as church, manage petitions in Mass. In a church that may have upwards of 700 families, though, how does the liturgy committee know for what to pray? How is it that there are usually five or six petitions, and not 20? And what if Jamie decides someday to join a liturgy committee and write prayers of the faithful – will Mass ever end?
The church offers guidelines for composing prayers of the faithful to help make sure a variety of needs and situations are covered. While the church gives us a lot of leeway in deciding what to pray for each week, there are four general categories that are usually covered. Families can do well to incorporate these categories into their own prayer lives. When it seems that we’re “stuck” praying for the same things each evening, going for the same categories the church has chosen can get us out of our rut:
- The needs of the universal church: Prayers of the faithful start expansive and move toward the local. When we say “church” in this context it refers to the more than a billion men and women who are part of our Catholic church worldwide. Expanding our vision to look for global needs before we focus on ourselves can help us be open to the nudging of the Holy Spirit, who might have bigger plans for us than planning the next block party.
- The needs of the world: News of an earthquake in China or a bombing in Beirut reaches across oceans and time zones and flashes onto our television and computer screens within minutes of the catastrophe. Our response to instant news can be instant prayer. While we may never know if the prayers we say for people across the world will help them in some way – we know that the prayers help us. Prayer, when done right, often moves us to action.
- For those in need: Arguably, this category covers just about anyone, but it is traditionally used to bring to mind those who have a specific need – the hungry, those without homes, those who are ill. Praying for those in need may be the most intuitive prayer of all. Children, especially, can grab onto the concept of praying for those who need help. We grow in compassion when we pray for those who are suffering.
- Local needs: While the earthquake in China may indeed be tragic, prayer can also be a time to reflect on the needs in our own backyard. Families who pray for kids’ tests, safe vacation trips and a quick end to that nasty sore throat teach their children that our God is a personal one – someone who cares deeply about our daily lives.
- For all those prayers we hold in the silence of our hearts: Many parishes end the Prayer of the Faithful with this one, and families can follow suit. We may share the same table and bedroom with our family members, but our heart is ours alone. Taking time for silent prayer shows children that they have a relationship with God that even Mom and Dad aren’t privy to. And in any family, a few moments of silence is its own gift, as well.
(Scobey-Polacheck, her husband Bill and their children, belong to St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Milwaukee and St. Monica Parish, Whitefish Bay. Her book, “Discovering Motherhood,” a compilation of her columns, is available at local bookstores or at www.discoveringmotherhood.com.)