Liturgical Boundaries: Praying for the World, Communing the Faithful

The question is sometimes asked: “Who may the Church pray for in its Liturgy?” What are proper subjects for the Church’s ministry of intercession? For example, may we pray for the repose of non-Orthodox and intone the “Memory eternal” for them? May we commemorate them at the Proskomedia? Should we differentiate between Orthodox and non-Orthodox in the Litany of Fervent Supplication—perhaps by using two separate columns for the names? What boundaries should be observed in our Liturgy?

For some people the notion of any boundaries at all is abhorrent, and the question itself is stupid and evidence of a narrowed mind and heart. Some suggest that the Church should erect no boundaries whatsoever anywhere, that it should treat everyone who comes through its doors identically, praying for all, giving Holy Communion to all, regardless of their faith, life-style, or moral choices. They emblazon the verse from the Sermon on the Mount “Judge not” over the doors to the church, and any attempt to differentiate between persons they consider a violation of this Dominical precept.

One is sometimes tempted to test this generosity, such as by asking if the unrepentant child molester is also welcome at their Chalice, or if the anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic White Supremacist is similarly safe from censure after they enter their nave. But it is not necessary to shoot every fish in every barrel. We pass on.

Historically, the Church has always erected boundaries. St. Paul taught that though we leave the final judgment of outsiders to God, we have a divinely-given responsibility to judge those who identify themselves with us and hold them to account (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). The Master Himself told us not to give what is holy to dogs, presuming that we could identify a canine when we saw one (Matthew 7:6). The Church has always taken care to distinguish light from darkness, faith from unbelief, righteousness from unrighteousness.

It has also taken care to distinguish between insiders and outsiders, and has guarded the door of entry carefully. How carefully? Well, in the early Church, the normal length of a catechumenate was three years, and before finally being allowed on the liturgical launching pad for baptism at the beginning of Lent, the candidate was subjected to a series of scrutinies in which he and his sponsor were grilled by the bishop about the candidate’s quality of life and repentance. Now that is a boundary!

The question is hard to answer if we base our answer solely on the service books, for although our liturgical Tradition constitutes one of our sources of authority, the service books themselves sometimes reflect that Tradition imperfectly. One sees this most clearly when rubrics and texts in the service books are corrected from time to time. These corrections reveal that though our liturgical tradition reveals our faith, the service books are not always reliable conduits of that tradition.

Take for example the recent OCA directive for the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts regarding whether or not the priest may drink from the Chalice at Communion. In the older service books of the Russian tradition, the priest did not drink from Chalice when he received Communion, because it was thought that the Chalice contained not the Blood of Christ, but merely blessed wine. Lately this rubric has been overturned, and the priest is now instructed to drink from the Chalice, since it is now considered to contain not mere wine, but Christ’s Blood. The liturgical Tradition has not changed; the service books/ rubrics have, and now more accurately reflect the Tradition. This means that the service books alone cannot provide the full answer to the question when divorced from the wider traditions of the Church.

Our current texts often reflect the life of Byzantium. It is almost as if Constantinople never fell to the Turks and that a Christian Emperor still reigns in his capital on the Bosphorus. Thus, for example, in the proskomedia, when praying for the living, the priest takes a particle for “our God-protected land and its Orthodox people”. When he remembers the departed, he takes a particle for “all Orthodox and God-fearing rulers”. The older service book of the late great Isabel Hapgood also reflects this Byzantine ethos when it bids us pray for “the Christ-loving Army” during the hierarchical intoning of the Many Years.

This is all quite anachronistic, and more recent service books at least tone down the references to the Christ-loving Army. But much of the material (such as the proskomedia) presupposes that Byzantium still stands. This means that in many texts we offer prayer only for Orthodox because in Byzantium most everybody in society there was Orthodox. When the world is Orthodox the question, “May we pray for the non-Orthodox?” cannot arise in the same way as it does in a pluralistic society. It is helpful therefore to go back in time a little further to examine our earlier traditions which arose in a pluralistic society.

The earlier and more fundamental liturgical tradition always prayed for the rulers, even though as persecuting pagans those rulers were not Orthodox or God-fearing ones. The early church also prayed for the army, though the army was officially not Christ-loving, but Christ-hating, since it was the soldiers who were responsible for rounding up and executing the Christians. The apologists took care to stress these facts and to emphasize that the Church prayed for the secular rulers and for all the world in its Liturgy. In the sphere of intercession and love, there were indeed no boundaries, for the Church interceded for all, commending everyone to the mercy of God.

But in one sphere the Church drew its boundary carefully: at the Chalice. The Church took care to give Communion only to its own members, and here they were very careful indeed. Catechumens, though within the Church, could not commune. Those who had been excommunicated could not commune. The church prayed for all, but communed only its own.

This combination of universal intercession and restricted Communion continues in the Orthodox Church today—though the boundary has become a tad more porous than it was in the early church. For in the early church the catechumens could neither exchange the Peace nor participate in the intercessory prayers that the faithful offered for the world. They heard the Scripture lessons, the sermon, were prayed for, and then were told to leave. (There was no coffee hour.) Today we are less strict—catechumens may now share in the Peace, pray the intercessory prayers and stay until the end. And then join in the coffee hour.

Thus there are no boundaries in the Liturgy when it comes to interceding for the world. We pray for our secular rulers, whether or not they are Orthodox. We Canadians pray for Her Majesty the Queen, and you Americans pray for your President, despite the fact that neither our Queen nor your President are Orthodox. The Church’s Liturgy and heart are open to everyone in the world. But our heart does not belong to the world, but to Christ, and so we commune only those who have committed themselves to Him as part of His holy catholic Church. Whatever worldly men might say and however much they may decry this as heartless (such as when it occurs within a mixed marriage), it is a boundary marker that cannot be moved. For the boundary has been placed there by the Lord Himself.




  1. seriously thinking of leaving out the President from the litany and praying just for the country, all CIVIL authorities and those who serve this country, and the armed forces.

    going too far?

    1. That would be a question for your bishop of course. But if Sts. Peter and Paul told their contemporaries to pray for their Emperor (i.e. Nero), it is clear that praying for someone cannot be equated with esteem or approval.

  2. Boundaries: About 11 years ago, I was given a penance by my Bishop that effectively returned me to the rank of catechumen. I attended catechumen classes and could not receive Communion. It was a wonderful thing.
    Without boundaries there is no life.

      1. I must stress that despite what some thought my penance was NOT a punishment. It became a time of renewal and growth.

  3. Praying for all in Authority is a good idea (even for local body officials). We cannot know what state their mind and soul are in. It may not be a good idea to trust in reporters and journalists views on them, they may after all be other than what we have been told. We can always put it down to being obedient and doing as we were instructed.

  4. I like to recall the scene in the movie “Fiddler on the Roof,” when the Jewish man asked his Rabbi if they should pray for the Czar. The Rabbi said, yes asking God to keep the Czar far away from us. In every age, we want our ruler, czar, president, prime minister, etc. to make good decisions in order to preserve peace, keep our streets in our cities, towns, states, etc. free from darkness, danager, war, civil unrest, invading armies, terriorist, etc. Christ’s love and mercy is for everyone . We want our Churches, and our homes to be safe places and we want to be able to continue to worship God freely and not what happened in Eastern Europe in the majority of the 20th Century to the Orthodox Chrisitans, and Orthodox Churches and in the 21st Century in the Middle East and Africa.

  5. Fr Lawrence,

    Bless! I wondered whether you could please direct me to any sources regarding the below quote:

    “In the older service books of the Russian tradition, the priest did not drink from Chalice when he received Communion, because it was thought that the Chalice contained not the Blood of Christ, but merely blessed wine. Lately this rubric has been overturned, and the priest is now instructed to drink from the Chalice, since it is now considered to contain not mere wine, but Christ’s Blood. The liturgical Tradition has not changed; the service books/ rubrics have, and now more accurately reflect the Tradition.”

    1. God bless you!
      The older Russian tradition (which differed from the Greek tradition) as well as expressed being in the priest’s service book, is examined in Uspensky’s Evening Worship in the Orthodox Church.

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