by Father Bryan P. Babick, SL.L.
After the Creed of the Mass, various petitions are offered. Saint Justin Martyr attests to this established custom in 155 A.D. In his first Apology, or defense, Saint Justin writes to the pagan emperor to explain, in part, what Christians do during their Sunday worship. He explains, "on the day we call the day of the sun [Sunday], the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read; then the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought."
Already in the first century a record of Christian worship much like our own is given: the Scripture Readings are proclaimed, an instruction or sermon is offered, and then all stand and pray before the bread and wine are offered.
The content of what is prayed after the sermon is taken from the encouragement of Saint Paul in first Timothy, which says, "I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority" (1 Timothy 2:1-2). This is why Saint Justin says that these prayers should be offered for the needs of the Church, for peace, for a good harvest, for the country and city, for the sick, poor and needy, for those who have died, for the forgiveness of sins, and for a holy death.
Since the prescribed prayers are so varied and consider needs beyond those held by any one particular individual or community, Saint Justin referred to them as "the Universal Prayers." They had nearly disappeared from the Mass by the time of the Second Vatican Council held in the 1960s, which ordered that the Universal Prayers be restored, at least on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, so all could recall the needs of the universal Church and the world in their prayers.
This is why the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which sets out rules for the proper celebration of Mass, says that the series of Universal Prayers is to be ordered first for the Church, then for public authorities and the salvation of the whole world, then for those burdened by any kind of difficulty, and finally for the local community.
At certain celebrations, such as at Confirmation, funerals, or weddings, the Prayers may be more tailored to that particular occasion. The Universal prayers should certainly not be proposed by individuals to express aloud from the congregation since they are to reflect the universality of their purpose. This is why they are properly called the Universal Prayers instead of the prayers of the faithful. Everyone is given the opportunity to recall the specific intentions of their hearts during the preparation of the altar and the gifts, which is why the instruction to "lift up your hearts" is given.
The Universal Prayers may be a recent recovery of an ancient custom, but their power to move the Church and the whole world to holiness is palpable. Catholics all over the world rise and say in different languages, "Lord, hear our prayer!" In that sense the Universal Prayers are much like an echo of the many languages uttered when the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost.