The great distinction in the prayer life of the Church is between her public prayer — the Liturgy — and all forms of private prayer.  Liturgical prayer is the prayer of the whole Church, of the family of God, united with Christ.  The sacred liturgy is the public worship which our Savior as head of the Church renders to our heavenly Father.  The Second Vatican Council reminds us in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that in the Liturgy full public worship is performed by the mystical body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the head and his members.  No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy to the same degree.  (cf. SC 7).

The Mass, the other sacraments, the divine office and public ritual are all part of the Church’s Liturgy.  Here, regardless of how many are present, it is the Church that prays.  At Mass, for example, whether celebrated in a cathedral overflowing with people or in a small mission outpost with perhaps just the priest and a few faithful, it is the whole Church at worship.  The Stations of the Cross, the rosary, prayer services and many other forms of prayer, even when said together by a group of people, are private devotions distinct from the liturgical or public prayer of the Church.

Traditionally the Church has referred to four general types of prayer, according to the reasons or purposes for which one prays:  adoration, thanksgiving, petition and contrition.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses a slightly expanded list as it treats this subject.  Included as the forms of prayer are adoration, thanksgiving, petition, intercession and praise.  As we make our way through the Catechism we will look at each of these manifestations of prayer.

These various expressions of prayer find articulation in the liturgy as well as in the public and private devotions of the faithful.  Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament provides us a time of adoration and praise.  Novenas are usually an occasion of petition and intercession.  The public or private recitation of the rosary may include all of the elements, perhaps even mingled together as we move from decade to decade recognizing our love of God, our sorrow for sin, prayers for our loved ones and praise and adoration for the God who makes all of this possible.

In the Church’s great public prayer, her Liturgy, we find moments of adoration, petition, intercession, contrition, thanksgiving and praise reflected in the preface, the prayers of the faithful, the liturgical prayers of the day, the very canon of the Mass itself and the hymns and responsorial psalms.

One of the reasons the Church uses the Psalter (the collection of Psalms) so extensively is because its many forms of prayer “take shape both in the liturgy of the Temple and in the human heart” (2588).  The range of human emotions from exhilaration and joy to depression and sorrow are magnificently expressed in the Book of Psalms.  Whether we pray psalm 51 in humble recognition of our sinfulness or Psalm 23 for the consolation of God’s presence in difficulty or Psalm 150 in a spirit of exultant praise we find a reflection of our own multi-faceted relationship with God — and inspired words in which to express that communion.

The prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture itself is also a form of prayer.  The apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini (The Word of the Lord) published by Pope Benedict XVI following the 2008 Synod on the Word of God sets before us the particular style of prayer — not well enough known today — called lectio divina.  This type of prayer is described as a quiet and attentive reflection on some particular passage in Scripture.  The Catechism tells us that lectio divina is where the Word of God is so real and mediated that it becomes a prayer (1177).  The U.S. Catechism highlights that “this is a centuries-old practice of prayer which relies on the guidance of the Holy Spirit within the heart as the person praying reads a Scripture passage…” (Ch 35).

One of the great advantages of lectio divina is that what is required is nothing more than the Word of God and our quiet pausing to allow it to speak to us.  No wonder that the Synod on the Word of God and Pope Benedict XVI both remind us of its value in our busy lives.