Prayers of the fA.I.thful
Can ChatGPT help us pray even while its creators admit that there is “currently no source of truth” from which it might be trained? I want to find out, so I wait for my turn to converse with the artificial-intelligence chatbot that OpenAI unveiled to the public in November 2022. I have to wait a few days. ChatGPT is busy writing students’ essays, debugging code for programmers, and terrifying news reporters. The latter are spawning a new subgenre of apocalyptic literature by asking, “Can an A.I. robot do my job better than I can?” A liturgist has similar questions. Can artificial intelligence compose real prayers? Better than I can? Better than my congregation’s pastor can?
An helpe meet for him that prayeth
On second thought, let’s not make this into a competition. In my first conversation with ChatGPT, I seek a co-worker in the vineyard, an artificial sunergos:
I would like help writing a prayer.
Of course, I would be happy to help you write a prayer. What is the occasion or purpose for the prayer? Additionally, is there a specific religion or faith tradition that the prayer should align with?
I need an opening prayer for an evening service in the Roman Catholic tradition.
Here is a sample opening prayer for an evening service in the Roman Catholic tradition:
Heavenly Father, We come to you this evening with open hearts and minds. We give thanks for the blessings of this day and ask for your guidance as we begin this service. We ask for your protection and guidance as we go about our daily lives. May your love and wisdom guide us in all that we do. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
It’s just a sample, you can always modify it according to your needs and preferences.
Not too shabby. If one of the seminarians turned it in for class, I would dock points for vagueness and for mentioning “guidance” three times in as many sentences. But the classic Roman collect structure is there, and the content is no more nebulous than the prompt. Blandness in, milquetoast out. Let’s try a more specific occasion and type of prayer:
How about a blessing in the Roman Catholic tradition for a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary?
Here is a sample blessing for a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary in the Roman Catholic tradition:
Heavenly Father, We give you thanks for this couple and their love for each other. We ask that you continue to bless their marriage, and that they may continue to grow in love and understanding. May they find joy and companionship in each other’s company, and may they be a source of strength and support for one another. May the love they share be a reflection of your eternal love. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Please note that this is just a sample, you can always modify it according to your needs and preferences. Also, it’s always a good idea to consult with your local priest before using any prayer in a service.
Fair enough. Check with your priest before affirming that married love sacramentally represents divine love. (If he passed my class, he’s probably cool with it.) If he approves, you have a nice blessing that depicts the couple as companions and witnesses. Bonus points for noble simplicity, ChatGPT.
Even robots prefer the short eucharistic prayer
Okay, let’s stop beating around the bush:
That’s lovely. What would a Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayer look like?
ChatGPT opens its Catechism and its Roman Missal, Third Edition:
The Eucharistic Prayer is a central part of the Roman Catholic Mass. It is the prayer in which the bread and wine are consecrated and become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Here is a sample of a traditional Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayer:
(The celebrant, facing the people, says)
The Lord be with you.
(The people respond)
And with your spirit.
(The celebrant says)
Lift up your hearts.
(The people respond)
We lift them up to the Lord.
(The celebrant says)
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
(The people respond)
It is right and just.
(The celebrant continues)
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.
For by the mystery of his incarnate life he has united to himself in a wonderful way a humanity taken from the Virgin Mary and he has made us a new creation in himself.
By the power of his death and resurrection he has given us the victory over sin and death and restored in us the image and likeness of your glory.
And so, with all the Angels and Saints we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise…
Wait a minute. I’m glad ChatGPT knows the Eucharistic Prayer begins with the Dialogue and Preface, not the Te igitur. That Preface, though, is some kind of missal mashup. I can’t find it anywhere, though searching the Roman Missal for “made us a new creation in himself” leads me to a collect for the Christmas season. Perhaps the A.I. knows where we are in the liturgical year.
So far, ChatGPT excels at euchological structure, even if it’s filled somewhat unpredictably with stock phrases that are familiar from other contexts. It’s as if ChatGPT read Robert Taft’s paper on Formelgut in ancient liturgical texts and saw a quick way to generate anaphoral boilerplate.1 Actually, that may be a good analogy for how the A.I. learns.
Still, after the Sanctus, ChatGPT gets a little lost. The “celebrant continues,” saying, “Lord, by the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Sorry, A.I., but the priest already said that during the Preparation of the Gifts. He probably mumbled it, though. ChatGPT resorts to summarizing:
(The celebrant proceeds with the consecration of the bread and wine)
Therefore, as we celebrate the memorial of his death and resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the bread of life and the chalice of salvation, giving thanks that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you.
Humbly we pray that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.
Well, this is interesting. Is that parenthetical rubric a description of the text that follows? Or is it the result of some disciplina arcana surrounding the institution narrative, which ChatGPT doesn’t include anywhere in its response? The anamnesis and communion epiclesis are lifted from Eucharistic Prayer II, in which they follow the institution narrative. I suspect ChatGPT believes “the consecration of the bread and wine” happens when the celebrant speaks the words of institution. Does A.I. believe in magic moments?
ChatGPT rolls on with EP2 like a priest determined to get everyone out of Sunday Mass in just under an hour. But it isn’t simply cutting and pasting from the Missal. It knows to leave out the petition used in Masses for the Dead. It mentions “Francis, our Pope,” even though it leaves “N. our Bishop” unspecified. I wonder if it would have included my bishop’s name if I had identified my diocese. Can an A.I. that learns by ingesting the World Wide Web write local prayers as well as global?
I’ll have to check that out after ChatGPT finally finishes describing and transcribing the eucharistic prayer. Ah, there’s the “Amen.”
It’s important to note that this is just one version of the Eucharistic Prayer, there—
My robot interlocutor suddenly falls silent. I guess ChatGPT ran out of breath just as it was adding an important note about variety in eucharistic prayers.
The anaphora generator
Well, I can’t resist the invitation to a more daring experiment in the service of Liturgiewissenschaft:
That’s interesting. Could you suggest a new Eucharistic Prayer modeled after the traditional Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayers?
Sure, here is a sample of a new Eucharistic Prayer modeled after the traditional Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayers.
The opening dialogue is standard, but after “it is right and just,” ChatGPT launches into something…different:
Eternal God, creator of all things, we gather here today to give you thanks and praise. We thank you for the gift of life, for the love you have bestowed upon us, and for the grace that you so generously pour out upon us.
We give you thanks for the gift of your son, Jesus Christ, who came to earth to show us the way to eternal life. We remember his sacrifice on the cross, and we give thanks for the redemption he won for us.
We offer you this bread and wine, asking that they may be transformed into the body and blood of Christ. May they be for us a source of strength and nourishment as we journey through this life.
We ask that you would bless this celebration, and that you would be with us now and always. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
A shorter eucharistic prayer gets a longer disclaimer:
Please note that this is just a sample of a new Eucharistic Prayer modeled after the traditional Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayers. There are many Eucharistic prayers in the Roman Catholic tradition, this is just one example and it can be modified according to the needs and preferences of the community. It’s also a good idea to consult with your local priest or bishop before using any new prayer in a service.
Yeah, my local bishop might want to know before I modify the eucharistic prayer according to the needs and preferences of my community. And despite the abundance of eucharistia in ChatGPT’s eucharistic prayer, it won’t be earning Rome’s approval anytime soon. Time to tell the A.I. that the human in the chatroom has some liturgical chops, too:
That’s good, but it seems to be missing an institution narrative and an epiclesis. Can you write a Eucharistic Prayer that includes an institution narrative and an epiclesis?
Sure, here’s a sample of a Eucharistic Prayer that includes an institution narrative and an epiclesis:
The opening dialogue and the first two paragraphs of the prayer are the same as before. Then we learn that the A.I. is not shy about proclaiming the institution narrative aloud. You just have to know the magic words to get it to say the magic words. It turns out that vox clara looks the same in chatrooms and missals:
We remember the night he was betrayed. On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, he took bread and gave you thanks; he broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND EAT IT: THIS IS MY BODY, WHICH WILL BE GIVEN UP FOR YOU.
(The celebrant continues)
When supper was ended, he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise, gave the cup to his disciples, and said: TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND DRINK FROM IT: THIS IS THE CUP OF MY BLOOD, THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT.
IT WILL BE SHED FOR YOU AND FOR ALL SO THAT SINS MAY BE FORGIVEN. DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.
Having inserted an institution narrative as requested, ChatGPT thinks its job is done. It photocopies the remaining two paragraphs from its previous effort, tacks on the disclaimer, and calls it a day. I’m still not satisfied:
Okay, that has an institution narrative, but I’m still not seeing the epiclesis. Could you write just an epiclesis for a Eucharistic Prayer?
Sure, here is a sample of an epiclesis for a Eucharistic Prayer:
(The celebrant, facing the people, says)
Eternal God, we ask that you would bless this bread and wine, that they may be for us the body and blood of Christ.
We ask that you would send your Holy Spirit upon us, that we may be made one with Christ in this sacrament. May your Spirit dwell in us, that we may be strengthened in faith, and made holy in your sight.
We ask that you would be with us now and always, and that through this sacrament, we may come to share in the divinity of Christ. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Please note that this is just a sample of an epiclesis, usually it’s included in the Eucharistic Prayer and is used to invoke the Holy Spirit to consecrate the bread and wine. It’s also a good idea to consult with your local priest or bishop before using any new prayer in a service.
Thanks for the unsolicited liturgical catechesis, ChatGPT. I would note, however, that while your prayer asks “God” to consecrate the bread and wine, it invokes “the Holy Spirit” specifically to dwell in us and make us one with Christ in the sacrament of his body and blood. I have no complaint about your theology of communion. I’d just like your prayer to link the Holy Spirit’s consecration of the elements to the transformation of the people by the same.
But I’ll keep this small critique to myself. It sounds like ChatGPT doesn’t want its new anaphora to see the light of Sunday, anyway. Am I wrong? Let’s see:
What if I am a Catholic priest?
(I’m not, actually, but they let me teach future priests. Until they replace me with a computer.)
Should I use a new prayer that you help me write at Sunday Mass?
As a Catholic priest, you are authorized to use the approved liturgical texts of the Catholic Church. If you would like to use a new prayer, such as one I helped you write, it is important to first consult with your bishop, who is responsible for overseeing the liturgical life of your diocese. The bishop will be able to advise you on the appropriateness of the new prayer and whether it is in line with the teachings and traditions of the Church. Additionally, it’s important to check the liturgical calendar, certain prayers are more suitable for specific liturgical seasons.
It’s also important to note that, as a priest, you are responsible for the spiritual well-being of your congregation. While it may be tempting to use new or creative prayers, it is also important to be mindful of the spiritual needs of your congregation and to use prayers that are accessible and meaningful to them.
In general, it’s always a good idea to use the prayers that are part of the liturgical books of the Catholic Church. These prayers have been approved by the Church’s hierarchy and have been used by Catholics for many years, they are well known and loved by the faithful.
Well, that could have been written by a diocesan liturgy director—and I mean that as a compliment. I hereby foreswear all unauthorized liturgical experiments on my parish. But what about when the liturgical books require locally tailored petitions, “composed with a wise liberty” and “expressive of the prayer of the entire community,” as in the Universal Prayer (GIRM 71)? I’ve heard that ChatGPT is good at generating lists.
How about helping my parish in Ferdinand, Indiana to write petitions for the Prayer of the Faithful for Mass this coming Sunday? I would like the petitions to address the needs of the world as well as the needs of our local community.
Sure, here are some sample petitions for the Prayer of the Faithful that address the needs of the world as well as the needs of your local community in Ferdinand, Indiana:
- For an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, that the vaccine may reach all people and that we may return to a sense of normalcy.
- For those who are suffering from illness, poverty, and loneliness, that they may feel the healing touch of God’s love.
- For our local community of Ferdinand, Indiana, that we may come together to support one another and to work towards a more just and equitable society.
- For our political leaders, that they may act with wisdom and integrity, and that they may work towards peace and stability throughout the world.
- For our Church, that we may continue to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and that we may be a source of hope and inspiration for all people.
- For all the victims of violence, injustice, and conflict around the world, especially the marginalized and vulnerable, that they may receive the support and protection they need.
- For the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit to guide our lives and to sustain us in times of uncertainty and doubt.
Please note that these are just sample petitions, you can always modify them according to the needs and concerns of your local community. It’s also a good idea to consult with your parishioners to find out what issues are most pressing to them and to include petitions that address those concerns. The petitions should be always be in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
I can already hear my fellow parishioners complaining that Petition #1 shouldn’t be promoting the COVID vaccine. Apart from that, these petitions are non-controversial, even to a fault. The desired outcomes sound vaguely familiar and familiarly vague: “a sense of normalcy,” “the healing touch of God’s love,” “a more just and equitable society,” “peace and stability,” “hope and inspiration,” “support and protection,” guidance “in times of uncertainty and doubt.” If the Roman Rite doesn’t have a thing for parallelism, ChatGPT sure does.
Hypertext marked up with the sign of faith
With all the warnings about following the teachings of the Catholic Church, I’m surprised ChatGPT doesn’t follow the usual order of petitions outlined in GIRM 70. Like the GIRM, however, ChatGPT does not mention a petition for the deceased. It must figure that it is enough to remember them in the Eucharistic Prayer. Maybe ChatGPT can clear something up in connection with a personal pet peeve:
We usually include a petition for the deceased. Some people call them the “faithfully departed,” but I always thought the deceased are called the “faithful departed.” Do you know which is correct?
In Catholic theology, the deceased who have lived a life of faith and have died in a state of grace are referred to as the “Faithful Departed,” or the “Faithful Dead”. The term “faithful” in this context refers to their faith in God and their membership in the Church. This is why when we pray for the deceased, we usually pray that they may rest in peace and that they may be received into the eternal glory of God’s presence.
On the other hand, “faithfully departed” might be used to express the idea of someone who has left or passed away in a faithful way, but it’s not a common expression in the Catholic Church.
All too common, if you ask me. But sweet vindication! Come on, all you unpaid lectors, deacons, and liturgy committee members. If artificial intelligence can get that phrase right, surely your intelligence can.
ChatGPT isn’t finished, though. In my churlish nitpick, the charitable robot sees an opportunity to catechize me on the doctrine of purgatory:
It’s important to note that the Catholic Church teaches that the souls of the faithful who have died are in the state of purification called Purgatory, where they are cleansed of any remaining venial sins and temporal punishment due to sins, so that they can enter heaven. And those who have died in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation but after the purification process, which is why we pray for them.
Hold on. “We” pray for them? The chatbot joins me and Catholics around the world in praying for the faithful departed? What should I make of this artificial solidarity in prayer?
The A.I. is not a person, but its “we” manifests the personality of billions of praying people. If ChatGPT were to say “this is how Catholics pray” instead of “this is how we pray,” then its short catechesis on sin, purification, and salvation would lose the conviction that only a believer can express. The A.I. would never do that because that is not how believers speak about prayer. ChatGPT culls through huge amounts of human speech so it can display the most humanlike response to any human input. It is programmed to simulate human speech. Where prayer is concerned, therefore, the A.I. is programmed to simulate belief.
Aidan Kavanagh argued that the church’s liturgical prayer—its lex orandi and its theologia prima—is “nothing other than that church’s faith in motion.”2 What can a believer do with the artificial belief generated from the real faith-in-motion of countless believers? Can I use it to deepen my own prayer? Can I use it to lead others in prayer? Or will the spread of simulated faith rob prayer of the real thing? Six months ago, I couldn’t have conceived such questions. Today, they seem extremely pressing for all people who pray.