The Old Testament
A distinction is commonly made between the prayer of praise, petition and thanksgiving. Praise and thanksgiving are frequently united in the same movement of the soul. Since God is revealed as worthy of praise in all his good deeds towards man, praise quite naturally becomes thanks and blessing, and is expressed with joy,especially in common worship.
Petition or intercession, on the other hand, is more related to the salvific plan of God: one prays to ask that the salvation of God may be granted to the earth. Many great moments in the history of Israel are punctuated by the prayer of the mediators and by the entire people!
Moses predominates among all the OT men of prayer. His prayer of intercession harbingers that of Jesus. It is out of consideration for him that God saved the people, as the Book of Exodus reveals: "This very thing you have spoken I will do; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name"(33:17). This prayer is dramatic (32:32) and its arguments follow the scheme of every supplication: call upon the love of God, "this nation is your people"(33:13); appeal to his justice and fidelity, "that we may thank you, recall your actions of the past"; consideration of the glory of God, "what will others say if you abandon us"(32:11-14).
It is because of his intercessory power (Gen.18:22-32) that Abra-ham deserves to be called a prophet (20:7). The prophets were men of prayer (Elijah: 1Kg.18:36ff); and like Samuel (Jer.15:1), Amos (Am.7:1-6), but especially Jeremiah, they were intercessors. Jew-ish Tradition remembers Jeremiah as "him who prayed much for the people" (2Mac.15:14).
The prayer of the Psalms starts from the diverse situations of life. If one calls upon God with loud cries (69:4;6:7;22:2), it is because everything is at stake; one needs him with all one's being, body and soul (63:2). The psalmist seeks all good things, and he expects them only from God.
The New Testament
By the incarnation, the Son of God is placed squarely in the midst of men's incessant petitioning. He nourishes hope by answering it. At the same time, he praises, encourages, or leads to faith (Lk.7:9; Mt.9:22,29; 15:28). Thus, at life's very center, it is first the manner of praying that Jesus teaches: "When you pray, say..." (Lk.11:2ff).
The Father is the center of this teaching. From the appeal to God as Father, which extends the intimacy of the psalms while eleva-ting it as well (Ps.27:10; 103:13), flows the whole attitude of one who prays. This appeal is an act of faith and already a gift of oneself which puts one on the path of love.
Hence it follows that at the very center of Christian prayer, the believer first of all starts considering the purposefulness of the plan of God: His name, His kingdom, the carrying out of his will. But one also asks for bread; then one seeks pardon, after being reconciled with the children of that same Father; finally one pleads for the grace not to be overcome by future trials.
The other guidelines enclose or complete the Our Father, and often name the Father. The predominant impression is that the certainty of being heard is the source and condition of the prayer (Mt.18:19; 21:22; Lk.8:50). Mark expresses this in the most direct way: "if a man does not hesitate in his heart, but believes that what he says will happen, that will be granted him" (11:23; also Jm.1:5-8). But if a man is certain, it is because he prays to the Father (Lk.11:13; Mt.7:11). This interiority is founded on the presence of the Father who sees what is hidden (Mt.6:6); not on the piling up of words or endless repetition of speeches (Mt.6:7) as if God were far from us.
We are commanded to pardon (Mt.11:25; 6:14), to pray in fraternal union (Mt.18:19), to recall our faults in a contrite prayer (Lk. 18:9-14). We must pray without ceasing (Lk.18:1; 11:5-8). Our perseverance must be tested and proved, our vigilance of heart must be manifested. The absolute necessity of prayer is taught in the context of the final times (Lk.18:1-7), made proximate by the passion. Without this, one would be overcome by "all that which must happen" (Lk.21:36; 22:39-46).
On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus' teaching about praying "in my name" (Jn.16:24) opens up new perspectives. It supposes more than a formula, just as to do something in the name of ano-ther person supposes a real relationship with that person. Thus to pray does not at all mean to ask only for the things of God, but rather to want what Jesus wants: that his unity with the Father become the foundation of the unity among those who are called. "That all be one, as you Father are in me, and I in you" (Jn.17:22f).
To be in his name and to want what he wants is thus to walk in his commandments, the first of which commands this charity or love which one asks for. Therefore charity is prayer's condition and its end-result. The Father gives all for the sake of this unity. Jesus' prayer (Jn.17:24) expresses his intercession (eternal according to Heb.7:25) and reveals the interior content of the passion as well as of the eucharistic supper.
The prayer of the early Church (Ac.1:14) prepares for Pentecost and for all the other great moments in the Acts of the Apostles: the replacement of Judas (1:24-26), the institution of the seven deacons (6:6); the liberation of Peter (4:24-30); the confirmation of those baptised by Philip in Samaria (8:15).
St.Paul adds to the words which define prayer by the mention of "unceasing", "at every moment" (Rom.8:10; Eph.6:18; 2Th.1:3,11; 2:13; Col.1:9) or "night and day" (1Th.3:10; 1Tm.5:5). He calls prayer a struggle: "Strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf" (Rom.15:30; Col.4:12).
Except for 2Cor.12:8 (the thorn in his flesh), Paul's prayer is indissolubly linked to the divine plan, and all his pleas concern the advancement of the kingdom of God. This entails concrete desires: the quest of Jerusalem to be won over (Rom.15:30f), the end of tribulation (2Cor.1:11), his own freedom (Phm.22).
For this and for other things, he asks the prayer of others, just as he indicates to the Colossians (4:12) that Epaphras struggles in his prayer for them. We also constantly note in Paul the traditional balance between petition and praise: "prayers and petitions, with thanksgiving" (Phil.4:6: ITh.5:17; 1Tm.2:1).
For Paul, what makes us pray "through Christ" (in his name) is precisely the Spirit of adoption (Rom.8:15). Through the Holy Spirit, like Jesus, we say "Father" under the familiar form "Abba": "God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son who cries Abba, Father" (Gal.4:6). Much more profound than a filial attitude, sonship is at the heart of our prayer.
Thus, throughout our gropings (Rom.8:26), the Spirit who prays in us gives to our prayer (Heb.4:14ff; Jm.4:3ff) the assurance of reaching the depths of God's love. In the Spirit, prayer is not an escape, but a call hurrying the Second Coming: "The Spirit and the bride say `Come... Come, Lord Jesus!'" (Ap.22:17,20).
The history of the Church over these 2000 years is replete with examples of men and women, canonised saints or others, who have interceded for their fellowmen and brought many blessings to our world. As the poet Wordsworth put it, "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of!" The contemplative orders of religious, and the lay movements embracing millions of youth and adults, join with the prayer of the Divine Office recited several times each day by priests and others and, most important-ly, with the repeated offering of Holy Mass in every corner of the world, to constitute an unending ministry of intercession.
The Apostleship of Prayer, which is part of the widespread Devotion to the Sacred Heart, can also be considered truly a "ministry of intercession". It is the Holy Father himself who proposes the intentions to be prayed for each month, and these are wide-ranging, including general and missionary intentions for the whole world.
A final point, about the word "ministry" - it cannot be used of intercessory prayer if it is made casually, only as and when one feels like it. To be a ministry, it must be a service rendered to the People of God on a stable, regular, and organised basis. One must also be called to such a responsibility, and be accountable for it to the Lord and to his Church.
The Church in turn has the responsibility to provide ongoing for-mation to such people, to ensure that they develop a Catholic breadth of mind and heart. Intercession must flow not from a petty, narrow (and sometimes fundamentalist) outlook on life (and salvation history), but from an orientation that is steeped in the wisdom and teachings of the Church. May we in the Charismatic Renewal engage in such Catholic, Spirit-filled intercession!