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We are often asked to pray for various needs and people but do we know what we’re doing when we pray?

There are two main categories of prayer but many Catholics are often unaware of the differences and the importance of knowing the difference between the two categories for our personal spiritual lives and our mission in the world.

The two main areas of prayer are liturgical prayer or the public prayer of the church, and private or devotional prayer. Within these two main forms are numerous “ways” to pray. Unfortunately, we often confuse these two main categories 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 Divine Office of the Church alone at home in an armchair or a priest might be celebrating the Eucharist alone and this is 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. The distinction is based upon something else. 

What is liturgical prayer? It 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; it's Christ's prayer, not ours. We pray liturgically whenever we gather to celebrate the scriptures, the sacraments, or when we pray, in community or privately, something that is called the Prayer of the Church or the Divine Office (Lauds and Vespers).

This kind of prayer is not restricted to the ordained clergy. 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, since we easily miss this aspect, is that the church's liturgical prayer is for the world, not for itself. The church, in this world, 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.
Private or devotional prayer has a different intent. Though it has many forms (meditation, praying the rosary, devotional prayers of all kinds), it has a single aim, to draw us and our loved ones into deeper intimacy with Christ. In the end, whatever its particular form, all non-liturgical prayer ultimately aims at personal intimacy with God and is, ultimately, private, even when it is done publicly or in a large group. All private and devotional prayer can be defined in this way: It is prayer that tries, in myriad ways, to open us or our loved ones up in such a way that we can hear God say to us: "I love you!"

It is important to know this distinction when we go to pray: Which kind of prayer are we entering? To confuse the two is to risk doing both poorly. For example, the person who feels frustrated because the liturgical ritual and interaction of a congregation inside a church service are felt as a hindrance and distraction to the private devotional prayers she would like to be saying is confusing the two forms of prayer and is consequently doing both poorly. The function of liturgical prayer is not first of all devotional.

Or sometimes the confusion leads someone to abandon one form of liturgical prayer altogether. Someone, after years of praying the Office of the Church may decide to stop and do his own private prayer in its place because he doesn't find the ritual prayers personally meaningful. His private meditations now might well be wonderfully effective prayer, but he is no longer praying the liturgical prayer of Christ when he is praying in this way. We see this sometimes too in well-intentioned, but badly planned, church and school services where what is intended to be a liturgical service ends up being a guided private meditation, however well-done and powerful, which neither properly uses scripture nor prays for the world.
So, when we are about to enter into a time of prayer it’s important to be very aware of which type of prayer we are entering into before we begin: Liturgical Prayer or Private Devotional Prayer – because it really can make a huge difference about how we approach our prayer times and how effective they will be.

Deacon Anthony Curran is Director of the Catechetical Support Team & CCRS at the Diocese of Westminster