Theologians make an important distinction between what they call “devotional” and “liturgical” prayer. Devotional prayer, they tell us, is private in nature and is meant to help sustain us personally on the spiritual journey.
Liturgical prayer, by contrast, is public by nature, is the Church’s prayer (not our own), is universal in scope, and is intended for the needs of the world.
Perhaps we might understand this better if we put different names to these. What helps clarify things for me are the terms “affective” and “priestly” prayer. “Affective” prayer refers to private prayer, prayer that’s about us, focused precisely on bringing us and our feelings to God.
“Priestly” prayer, on the other hand, is not about us; it is about the world and for the world.
Unfortunately, we often confuse these two kinds of prayer. For example, five hundred people might be sitting in meditation together in a church or praying the rosary together at a shrine and this is still private or devotional prayer.
Conversely, someone might be praying the Office of the Church alone at home in an armchair, or a priest might be celebrating the Eucharist alone at a kitchen table, and this is still public, liturgical prayer.
The distinction, as we see from these examples, is not dependent upon the number of people participating, or whether the prayer is taking place in a church, or even whether the prayer is being prayed in a group or privately.
What is priestly prayer, then? Priestly prayer is the prayer of Christ through the Church for the world. Our Christian belief is that Christ is still gathering us together around his Word and is still offering an eternal act of love for the world.
As an extension of that, we believe that whenever we meet together, in a church or elsewhere, to gather around the Scriptures or to celebrate the Eucharist, we are entering into that prayer and sacrifice of Christ. This is liturgical prayer, and it is Christ’s prayer, not ours.
We also pray liturgically whenever we pray, in community or privately, something called the Office of the Church.
This kind of prayer is not restricted to the ordained clergy. We are all priests by virtue of our baptism, and part of the implicit covenant we make with the community at our baptism is the commitment, when we reach adulthood, to pray habitually for the world through the liturgical prayer of the Church.
What needs also to be highlighted here, because we easily miss this aspect, is that the Church’s liturgical prayer is for the world, not for itself.
The Church does not exist for its own sake, but as an instrument of salvation for the world. Its function is to save the world, not itself.
In liturgical prayer we pray with Christ, through the Church, but for the world.
An analogy might be helpful: Imagine you’re part of a symphony orchestra, playing an instrument that contributes to an overall musical score. Night in and night out, you’re playing the same piece in the same theater, helping to create a beautiful symphony for the audience.