Although there is some evidence of the presence of these prayers in the early Church, we had lost them by the fifth century until the revisions of the liturgy in the 1960s.
Justin Martyr (early second century) and half a century later Hippolytus in the Apostolic Tradition (an early document) indicate that the first act of the newly baptized Christians was to join in the common Prayers of the Faithful.
Prior to their Baptism, catechumens were present for the readings and the homily, but were formally dismissed before the prayers of the faithful, according to these same sources. Tertullian (late second century) in North Africa mentions some of the topics of the petitions.
The only remnant that remained, until the '60s, were the solemn prayers on Good Friday in which the presider asks for prayers for a particular group, the faithful kneel in silent prayer for a moment and then rise with the presider praying a collect or a summary collection of the prayers of all.
These prayers are a transition from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We listen first to the Word of God in the readings from Scripture followed by a reflection on these readings. Then we respond with the Creed which expresses our belief in what God has taught us. Since we believe, we also trust that God will care for our needs. So these prayers of petition are rightfully placed at this point in the Mass for they too are a response to God.
They are not meant to be solely for our own needs but are to encompass the needs of all on a broader scale. For example, when we pray for those deceased or those who are suffering in our own community, we include all the faithful departed or all those who are suffering or dying, not just our own.
So too when we pray for our first communicants or our RCIA participants, we pray for all those who will have the privilege of receiving Christ in the Eucharist for the first time or for all those throughout the world who will be received soon into the fullness of Christ's body.
The Prayers of the Faithful at Mass are intercessory prayers. The dictionary meaning of intercede is to plead on behalf of another. That is exactly what we do in these prayers. We bring all peoples with their needs, their weaknesses and failures to the feet of Christ to be healed.
Intercessory prayer has a power of which we may be unaware. It's as if everyone was pulling on the same side in a tug-of-war. Therefore, we should never underestimate our intercessory strength when, gathered as a community, as the Body of Christ, as the people of God, we join together to implore God. "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them," Jesus tells us.
Pray with perseverance
Jesus shows that we should pray with perseverance, keep imploring for our needs. He does this through the stories of the man who assists his neighbour because his repeated cries for help are bothersome (Luke 11:5-8) and the dishonest judge who grants the widow what she wants because she annoys him (Luke 18:1-8), as well as the Canaanite woman who persuades him with her arguments that he should heal her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28).
In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus encourages us to ask for what we need. When someone is sick, most of us, even those with little faith, will tend to say, "I'll pray for you." "Whatever you ask for in prayer, you shall receive" (Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24) and "Ask and it will be given to you" (Luke 11:9).
The Prayers of the Faithful are a unique part of the Mass because they are always changing while most of the Mass remains the same. They express real, tangible needs. Because they deal with whatever is happening in the world, we are expressing our belief in God's presence right here in our midst, providing love and guidance to sustain us in our daily journey towards eternal life.