Authentic Christian Prayer is sorely needed

Father John A. Kiley
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Perhaps it was a religious sister at the parish school or maybe a lay teacher during a catechism lesson that might have outlined the four ends of prayer and even written a handy reminder of these goals on the chalkboard: P A R T — Petition, Adoration, Reparation and Thanksgiving. Maybe this convenient reminder does not list the aims of prayer in order of importance — certainly adoration should come first. But it certainly does give pride of place to the most frequent objective of mankind’s prayers: Petition. Clearly petition is the form of prayer often found on any believer’s lips during any day.

There is a good-natured image of St. Anthony of Padua that pops up on the Internet occasionally with his head held back slightly in disbelief featuring the caption, “Oh, no! Not again?” How common is that exasperated plea, “St. Anthony, St. Anthony! Please look around. Something is lost and cannot be found!” Yes, prayers of petition come readily to the believer’s lips in times of annoyance as well as in times of authentic crisis. Quarterly exams at LaSalle Academy 60 years ago took place over three successive days. There was a 7 a.m. Mass at nearby St. Stanislaus Church in Woonsocket that I could catch (through my mother’s prodding) and then easily get the 8 a.m. bus to Providence. Praise was not my motivation for attending Mass; petition for good grades indeed was. There was, revealingly, no attendance at Mass on the fourth day in thanksgiving.

Yes, everyone prays in a pinch. But in this coming Sunday’s second reading St. Paul instructs his disciple Timothy on the importance and urgency of prayer in its many aspects. “First of all,” the Apostle writes, “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life.” St. Paul understands prayer to be an integral part of the Christian life: “This is good and pleasing to God our savior...” And this instruction to Timothy understands prayer to be a universal occupation of the Church, affecting all members, uniting all intentions: “It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.”

Prayer has been integral to the authentic Christian life clearly since Apostolic times and certainly prayer was central to the Jewish experience for many previous centuries. The Apostles record going up to the Temple at specified times of day for community prayer. The Roman Breviary, the official prayer of the Church, recited by the ordained clergy every day, continues this custom of approaching God at specified hours of the day in praise and homage. The famous painting of the French peasants pausing from their harvesting labors to recite the Angelus in unison with village church bells should remind the present age that formal prayer was very much more a part of our Christian ancestors’ lives than the present secular atmosphere allows. Even a simple regimen of prayer — morning prayer, night prayer, grace before meals, family rosary — would introduce a Divine element into the worldly atmosphere of this 21st century.

St. Paul does not envision prayer to be simply a private devotion; although that and any prayer is laudable. No, the Apostle understands prayer to encompass the needs of all, whether believers of not. He especially recommends prayers for the king and even for authority figures with whom the early Christian community was frequently at odds. A beneficial feeling toward all, generated by prayer, may actually extend the Kingdom of God toward non-believers, attracting them by the concern and consideration that Christian believers foster toward all people. The General Intercessions or Prayer of the Faithful offered during Mass nowadays is testimony to this universal concern St. Paul sees as essential to authentic Christian prayer.

St. Paul is not only concerned with the external benefits of earnest prayer. He is also concern that prayer reflect the internal unity of the Christian faithful. He urges that praying hands be lifted up “without anger or argument.” The universal love of Jesus Christ, “who gave himself as ransom for all,” should be reflected not only by the believers’ concern for outsiders but also through the community’s regard for one another. Internal dissention must not blemish the assembly’s prayer time. “Devotion and dignity” is the proper decorum.

Christ, of course, is the ultimate model for prayer, faithful to the synagogue, at home in the Temple, stealing off by himself in the night. Such abundant prayer was Christ’s testimony to the reality of God, the nearness of God, the power of God — a testimony sorely needed in this present age.