How do Catholics Pray?
Is there another public prayer besides the Mass?
Someone once said there are as many ways to pray as there are human souls. The personal relationship with the God of our understanding does translate into a diversity of prayer forms, even within traditions. These varied forms deepen our unique relationship with God and better our understanding of God in our lives. But what about when we pray with others? How do all those personal expressions converse? In other words, how do we pray together?
Common and public prayer represents one of the primary responsibilities of the Church. The word we use to describe our public prayer, “liturgy,” comes from the Greek “Leitourgia.” The word means “the work of the people" or "public work.” Our work is the communal response to and participation in the Divine-human relationship. This collective response is more than idiosyncratic as we often choose to pray together during those circumstances we cannot control or explain because we feel alone.
Although we may rarely reflect on it, our liturgies are always situated in and embody our shared theological beliefs. Everything we believe about God, Humanity, Creation, and the relationship between them is present Sacramentally in our public prayer. In the Catholic tradition, there is an expression lex orandi, lex credendi. It means “what we pray is what we believe.” To give a simple example, if you pray the psalms of lament because you are in distress and feel overwhelmed by life, then you are also expressing a belief that God remains present with you, is your refuge, and that God will bring you through these difficult times. Similarly, Catholic liturgies enrich and expand our images of the Christ we gather around through many gestures, rituals, and Sacraments. One theologian explains that through the ritualization of praise, thanksgiving, repentance, petition and communion, Jesus the Christ becomes present, not as a static tortured figure on the crucifix, but as a uniquely divine-Spirit-filled Person sharing a fierce and tender life-giving love for humanity.
Praying together in and through these bodily forms affirms publicly that we trust God exists and is near enough to hear us. In the Sacraments, God touches us. Liturgy in the Catholic tradition is always dialogical because we believe Christ is both God's Word to humanity and the ultimate example of a faithful human response. So, God does not merely descend to join us in these moments. We ascend in these public forms of prayer.
Participating in the Church’s public prayer joins us to a great chorus of voices and can inform our experience of personal prayer by drawing us out of overly individual concerns. The source and summit of Catholic life, and the tradition’s central form of public prayer, is the Eucharistic liturgy, also known as the Mass. We are encouraged to participate regularly because this liturgy is "the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit" (Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 14). While the Mass is the source and summit of Catholic life, it is not the only official public prayer of the Church. It is not the only liturgy.
Like our Muslim brothers and sisters who pray five times a day, we Catholics also have a rich tradition of daily prayer. The Liturgy of the Hours is, like it sounds, a practice of prayer that joins the rhythm of the day and opens our awareness to the fact that there are no ordinary moments. All is a gift. Each day becomes a life and death. The whole course of the day and night is made holy. When you participate in this common form of prayer, comprised mainly of Psalms and Gospel canticles, somewhere in the Catholic world someone else is praying the same words with you, and for you. Even when you are reciting or singing the prayers alone, you are never alone.
We each know that the nature of our busy and distracted lives can isolate us. Prayer, and praying together, is a powerful way to counteract the isolation and the capacity it brings for forgetting what we believe and how those beliefs ought to transform our daily lives. Our liturgies invite us to be attentive to the worldview and ethos we share as the people of God. When we pray together, it helps us to integrate prayer into everything we do. This is the work of the people.
Or, in other words, our mission.
MISSIO offers themed-quizzes in MissioBot to examine your religious knowledge - and this blog by James Nagle, PhD to reflect on questions of faith.