Catholic prayer is a kind of Christian prayer. Christians are people of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus their prayer is necessarily triune. They direct their minds to God the Father, praying with Christ Jesus, the Son, in the Spirit. But to pray with Jesus is to be with the one who is at the heart of a community of brethren, the Church, which means that true Christian prayer is always with the church. Even when we are praying alone in a desert place we are praying with a community of brothers and sisters of all races and colours.
Catholic prayer is a state of mind directed to God in Christ and the Spirit.
A State of Mind.
"O God, please let my team win the championship. I promise that I will go to church regularly." This is not Christian prayer. It seeks to use God as a tool of human purposes, and lacks a spirit of submission to God's will, which is the mark of all true prayer. It prays for me and my selfish purposes, not for us, other people or the human race in general. While I would like my team to win a trophy, my desire is not a need and there is no reason for God to prefer me to other people.
So what can Christians pray for? Prayer is firstly about developing and living a loving relationship with God. Christians must pray not merely as a salutation to the big chief in heaven, but as an expression of their commitment to the first great commandment, which is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Some people say you should pray about heaven, and as we age our final destination becomes more imminent and pressing, but there is a point to be made. Heaven and Hell are not places, but are states of soul, so when you pray properly in a sense you are already in heaven. If in prayer you open your soul to God and welcome His Holy Spirit to indwell you heaven is in you. Maybe not completely, but certainly there.
Prayer contains four broad categories: adoration [recognizing God for what He is] thanksgiving, contrition and repentance for sin, and petition. A listening mind that attempts to harken to God's messages goes along with all forms of prayer.
But for what else can Christians pray? Prayer for guidance and strength to do God's will, is a key element in prayer, especially when you are considering your vocation in life. Don't expect the answer to come in a voice from above or a vision. These are rare, contentious and sometimes suspect. You get the answer in ideas. The answer is not always instantaneous, but can grow on you.
Anything good can be prayed for. "Give us this day our daily bread" we are instructed to pray in the Lord's Prayer. Note that the request is for us, not for just me. This prayer also asks God to forgive us as we forgive others their offences. Sorrow for sin is a major element in prayer, as is prayer for the spiritual and moral strength not to sin, "lead us not into temptation" says the Lord's Prayer, which also has us asking to be delivered from evil, which ultimately is asking for heaven on Earth and in the hereafter. Prayer is other-centred and involves a radical de-centring from the selfish ego.
De-centring from the selfish ego brings us to praying for others. Praying for their spiritual and earthly well-being is an unselfish act which fits in well with the practice of Christian prayer. For Catholics there is also prayer for the deceased, not for those in Heaven [unnecessary] or in Hell [pointless] but for those in the intermediate state of purgatory, which is preparatory to heaven.
Prayer with Others
A truly balanced prayer life involves collective and individual prayer, which is why the Catholic Church insists that those monks and nuns allowed to live as hermits attend mass and collective prayers.
Liturgical prayer is important. This is the official prayer of the church and is composed of mass [Eucharist] and the monastic "hours" of prayer. Liturgy is carefully designed to move through the cycle of the year. Mass is on a three year cycle during which the whole New Testament and much of the Old Testament is read aloud. The section of mass in which the Scriptures are read is known as the liturgy of the word and is intended for teaching. There is always a gospel reading and one or two others from Paul, Acts of the Apostles and the Old Testament. An extract from a psalm is said and there will be a sermon on Sundays. The creed, a statement of belief in Christian doctrine, is said. But the liturgy of the word is preparatory to what follows, the liturgy of the Eucharist, in which worshippers receive the Christ through consecrated bread and wine. While individuals receive these sacred elements their name, communion, reveals that reception is a collective act. The liturgy of the Eucharist is the central act of Catholicism, for it is the act through which Catholics unite as a community with God in and through Christ.
The monastic cycle of prayer is known as the liturgy of the hours. It works on a weekly cycle in which all the psalms are sung over seven days, along with certain prayers from the New Testament and Scripture readings.
There are non-liturgical forms of collective worship, which are optional practices for Catholics. Some may be collective recitals of prayers that can be said individually, such as the rosary, a set of meditations to the accompaniment of rhythmically chanted Hail Maries, through to spontaneous, informal prayer groups in which prayers are generated by individuals inspired to share their prayers. There are also formal services such as benediction, in which the Eucharistic host is displayed as an aid to worship. When this display is extended it is known as exposition. There are also The Stations of the Cross, a set of fourteen pictures of Jesus' journey from sentencing to burial. These pictures arranged around churches are based on the Via Crucis [Way of the Cross] at Jerusalem. While the prayers and short meditations of which they are composed can be performed individually they are the basis of a service held in Lent, often on Good Friday morning. This account is not exhaustive, I have merely given the most common examples. Any group of Catholics may band together for prayer without having to seek permission from the church, though the church reserves the right to disassociate itself from any group where irregularities, e.g moral or doctrinal, are occurring.
Ideally, every action that a Catholic does should be a prayer, because Catholics should be God-centred people who always have God in mind, whether at the forefront or at the back. "Ad majorem Dei gloriam" [AMDG] which means "for the greater honour and glory of God" is a Catholic principle which shapes all that a true Catholic does.
Simply speaking to God is fine, it is what Christ taught us to do in the Lord's Prayer, and what Jesus himself did in Gethsemane, but prayer should not be a one way monologue with humans doing all the communication. When praying we should keep ourselves open to God's influence in our lives. God's influence takes the form of ideas that come to you, maybe as a sense of vocation, being called to some service. In true prayer the worshipper opens themselves to let God's influence into their souls so that God can work his transformative power in the individual person's life.
Catholics are allowed to pray to Mary and the saints. This does not replace prayer to God, but merely asks the holy dead to intercede with God for their intentions. The kind of prayer to be given to God alone is latria, worship. Prayer to saints, of whom Mary is the greatest, is known as dulia.
Catholics have their own form of meditation different from the popular Eastern [Buddhist and Hindu] forms. Like Eastern prayer it is silent, but it often is inspired by spiritual reading of the Bible or other inspiring books, or maybe nature. It involves thinking prayerfully about God. One way of doing this is to take a prayer and reflect on it line by line. The Lord's Prayer is often used for this purpose. You can reflect on a story from Scripture or a religious idea or person. Sometimes I meditate by reflecting on the goodness of God and my need to give him gratitude. A related way of praying is the Jesus prayer in which the worshipper continually repeats the name Jesus. This can be done with the name God.
Yet the highest level of prayer is contemplative prayer, in which worshippers silently and wordlessly open their souls to the presence of God. This kind of prayer is akin to mysticism. It can only be achieved after a long process of spiritual development and needs the support of a spiritual director.
The ideal balance is a life that blends a range of liturgical, collective and private prayer. There should be prayer of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition and petition. Petition for others, particularly your enemies, is characteristically Christian. Christians benefit from a set timetable of prayers, but are not restricted by it, for prayer should be an integral part of how they live.