In his first letter to Timothy, Paul the Apostle offers a list of instructions on how to lead the Christian life. His first instruction has to do with the community’s responsibility to pray for others. He writes, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all goodness and dignity. This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Such prayers of intercession were a part of Jewish patterns of prayer, and so naturally fit into Christian practice from the earliest years of the Church. Such prayers are a way every baptized person exercises his or her share in the priesthood of Christ. The intentions are sometimes called “general intercessions,” describing their character as extending beyond the particular needs and concerns of the local assembly, as well as indicating that they are meant to be prayers of intercession or petition, not prayers of thanksgiving. Sometimes they are called “prayers of the faithful,” harkening back to the days when the liturgy was divided into the “Mass of the Catechumens” and the “Mass of the Faithful.” Catechumens preparing for baptism were dismissed, as they are again today, after the scriptural readings and the preaching, and only the baptized (the “faithful”) were allowed to join in the prayers of intercession that followed.
The intercessions are supposed to follow a particular order. They are directed, first of all, to the needs of 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. Of course in a particular celebration, such as confirmation, marriage or a funeral, the intentions might reflect more closely the particular occasion. The priest introduces the intercessions, and concludes them with a prayer. Current directives for the celebration of the liturgy state that “the intentions announced should be sober, be composed with a wise liberty and in a few words, and they should express the prayer of the entire community.”
The intercessions sometimes suffer from overload. Sometimes there are too many, which can make them seem burdensome. The Missal - the book containing the prayers of the liturgy - contains samples of intercessions for various occasions, but there are only four intercessions in each series, with some variation. Perhaps simplicity is better. Sometimes too many things are crammed into the intercessions. They are not meant to be the community bulletin board. For example, lists of names of sick people should be limited to the parish bulletin. Nor should the intercessions include people’s specific personal intentions. Many parishes have petition books at the entrance to the church, where people are welcome to write their personal intentions. Then one of the prayers of the faithful during the liturgy might read, each Sunday: “For all our personal intentions, and for those written in our parish petition book...we pray to the Lord...”