I don´t remember how this conversation got started. Somehow my mom got stuck trying to explain the difference between rezar and orar to my husband. They both mean to pray. Growing up as a Spanish speaker (Mexican), I never ever heard the word orar used outside of Mass. In conversation, if we were talking about praying, it was always rezar. In Mass, when in English they say "let us pray" (which happens really often in Mass), in Spanish they say "oremos" in that kind of chanty-Mass-like way. And that´s the only time I ever heard it used.
Except the noun prayer is oración. No two ways about it. I never thought about the verb orar and the noun oración as being linked. That is, I never wondered why the verb was rezar and the noun wasn´t something similiar, like reza-cion or something. That should have turned on the lightbulb in my mind. Becuase reza-cion sounds a lot like recitation...
Now, it should stand to reason that, being Mexican, my family is really Catholic. And to be honest, they´re a little snobby about their Catholicism. They don´t look down on non-Catholics explicitly, but they make it very clear that they don´t understand Protestants, or any other non-Catholics. And maybe this is just a linguistic mistake my family has made, but they would refer to the kind of free-style praying that Protestants do (as opposed to the set, recited praying that Catholics do) as orar. That strange, unfamiliar thing they do.
So in my mind--not due to etymological analysis, but due to pure exposure--I thought rezar was recited (Catholic) prayer and orar was (Protestant) free-style prayer. Turns out, I was right--basically.
According to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy* (it´s so convenient that they have this), oración means prayer (no dispute there); orar means pray to God vocally or mentally; rezar means pray to God or holy people, or recite prayers. Not too much difference after all.
Does this mean they can be used interchangably?? No!! I mean, only if you want to sound like a n00b. They might be used differently in different Spanish-speaking cultures, but they are not interchagable ever, to the best of my understanding. I happened to read that in Spain and Argentina, rezar is used colloquially, and orar formally. Having only ever heard orar in Mass, I too, thought it was more formal. This would make sense if they are all Catholics--and I thought surely no country is as Catholic as Mexico--but I was wrong! In Spain, about 94% of the population is Catholic; 92% in Argentina, and by comparsion, Mexico is only about 83% Catholic, according to a quick CIA World Factbook search. So this could be, that the more Catholic the country, the more commonly is the word rezar used over orar.
I also dug into the Bible a little bit. On www.bible.com I searched all the Spanish translations they had for the verb rezar and came up with 17 hits. When I searched for orar, 910 hits.
Draw your own conclusions.
I think it´s not so much a Catholic versus Protestant thing as much as it´s a recited prayer versus free-style prayer thing.
I will make one final note. When I was googling around here, the book/movie Eat Pray Love kept coming up. In Spanish, the work was translated as Come Reza Ama; in Portuguese it was translated to Comer Orar Amar. Spanish and Portuguese are so similar, of course rezar and orar exist in the same way in Portuguese. I wonder why they chose the latter for the title in Portuguese but the former in Spanish. Portugal is about 85% Catholic.
(Del lat. recitāre, recitar).
1. tr. Dirigir a Dios o a personas santas oraciones de contenido religioso.
2. tr. Dicho del clérigo obligado a ello: Recitar el oficio divino vocal u oralmente.
3. tr. Rel. Recitar la misa, una oración, etc., en contraposición a cantarla.
4. tr. coloq. En un escrito, decir o decirse algo. El calendario reza agua. El libro lo reza.
5. intr. coloq. Dicho de una cosa: Tocar o pertenecer a alguien, ser de su obligación o conocimiento. Eso no reza CON tus alumnos.
6. intr. coloq. Gruñir, refunfuñar.
(Del lat. orāre).
1. intr. Hacer oración a Dios, vocal o mentalmente.
2. intr. Hablar en público para persuadir y convencer a los oyentes o mover su ánimo.
3. tr. Rogar, pedir, suplicar.
(Del lat. oratĭo, -ōnis).
1. f. Obra de elocuencia, razonamiento pronunciado en público a fin de persuadir a los oyentes o mover su ánimo. Oración deprecatoria, fúnebre, inaugural.
2. f. Súplica, deprecación, ruego que se hace a Dios o a los santos.
3. f. Elevación de la mente a Dios para alabarlo o pedirle mercedes.
4. f. Hora de las oraciones.
5. f. Gram. Palabra o conjunto de palabras con que se expresa un sentido gramatical completo.
6. f. Rel. En la misa, en el rezo eclesiástico y rogaciones públicas, deprecación particular que incluye la conmemoración del santo o de la festividad del día.
7. f. pl. Primera parte de la doctrina cristiana que se enseña a los niños, donde se incluye el padrenuestro, el avemaría, etc.
8. (Porque en ese momento se tocaba en las iglesias la campana para que los fieles rezaran el avemaría). f. pl. Punto del día en que está anocheciendo.
9. f. pl. El mismo toque de la campana, que en algunas partes se repetía al amanecer y al mediodía.