Praying with the Church

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky (bio - articles - email) | Feb 05, 2016

When I read the works of scholars who suggest, “The early Church placed on the lips of Jesus…” my inner alarm bells go off. The implication is clear. The early Church placed its own words on the lips of Jesus to proclaim a message that is either generally in line with the teachings of Christ or-– more likely-– in line with the “faith” (well, probably polemical) purposes of the early Christian communities. The phrase brings with it a gnawing sense that the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels are not accurate.

But if the early Church largely invented the sayings of Jesus, then what would prevent an up-to-date modern Church from re-inventing the sayings to suit our purposes today, according to the “spirit of the times”? Furthermore, the phrase, “placing on the lips” not only puts the teachings of Christ and the apostolic faith up for grabs, it necessarily threatens the life of prayer.

Years ago I remember reading a monograph (I don’t have the inclination or energy to search for it) on Mary’s Magnificat, the prayer Mary proclaimed during her visitation with her cousin Elizabeth. The prayer is filled with references to the Psalms, as if “cherry picked” for the purpose. The author of the monograph insisted the Magnificat was an attempt by the early Church to “place on the lips of Mary” a prayer that unifies the Old Testament with the New. The Old Testament references of the prayer were clear and the argument was disturbing because it seemed plausible.

But in praying the Magnificat during Vespers, I found myself distracted. I was not praying with Mary; I was praying an early Church invention. I found myself losing confidence in the inspired word of God. And with my loss of confidence, I couldn’t develop a spiritual sense of intimacy praying in union with the Blessed Virgin. The prayer was reduced to a theological construct accessible only to those who have time to read scholarly monographs. It took me some time to consciously reject the premise that the early Church placed the prayer “on the lips of Mary.”

The most reliable of Scripture studies always involves the hard work of study and takes into account cultural conditions, the point of view of the sacred writer, literary differences, historical context, whether a given passage is to be read literally or metaphorically, etc. But presuming the Gospels to be the mere inventions of the early Church, to my eye, goes well beyond the norms of orthodoxy. In any case a conscious and explicit intellectual rejection of the premise restored my love of the Magnificat-– as well as the other Gospel passages.

Mary’s Magificat reveals how Mary prayed. It wasn’t the early Church that “cherry picked” the Psalms of the Old Testament for its purposes; it was Mary herself. Her parents Joachim and Ann must have taught her to pray the Psalms at an early age. The Psalms were so much a part of Mary’s life that when the time came, from Mary’s lips and flowing from her pure heart and the revelation of the Holy Spirit came the masterpiece of spiritual poetry we know as the Magnificat, a masterpiece I can continue to pray with her every evening.

Mary’s pattern of prayer allowed me to understand more deeply a long-neglected (in our day) prayer practice in a new light: prayers to obtain indulgences. The Church teaches, "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions [emphasis added] through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” (Paul VI, apostolic constitution, Indulgentiarum doctrina, Norm 1).

The popular practice of attaining indulgences has fallen on hard times. Perhaps the most serious reason is a pattern of presumption and the practical denial of Purgatory as a pastoral practice. In recent decades during funeral liturgies, priests rarely preach about Purgatory. They rather tend to “celebrate the life” of the deceased and presume an immediate entry into heavenly glory without the need for further purgation of punishment due to sin. (The old country tune comes to mind, “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.”)

But I think there may be another more subtle reason for the neglect of indulgences: a reason having to do with the prejudices of the modern mind. When the Church insists that an indulgence is attained “under certain prescribed conditions,” there is a danger of treating the prescribed prayers and practices as anti-intellectual, even magical: recite this formula, do this and do that, and-– presto!-- God dances to our tune and remits punishment due to sin.

Mary’s Magnificat provides an important clarification. Mary’s spiritual formation was obviously closely connected to the repetition of prayers (Psalms) she was taught by her parents and heard in the synagogue. Jewish faith practices taught Mary how to pray.

Similarly the Church teaches us how to pray and to avoid the pitfalls associated with poor prayer practices. For example, it’s common for us to hear, “It is OK to be angry with God.” But it is blasphemous to make God the object of anger and hate, so sorrow and anger have to be properly directed. Psalm 64 begins, “Hear me, my God, as I voice my complaint….” Christ on the Cross also provides the solution with the prayers He learned on Mary's lap. He does not hate; He prays Psalm 22: “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?”

When the Church directs our attention to certain prayer forms and spiritual practices (Confession and Communion, for example) to obtain an indulgence, the Church continues to teach us how to pray. Not only is the practice of seeking indulgences effective in remitting the punishment due to sin, the repetition of the prayers provides ongoing reliable spiritual formation and spiritual growth. Certainly, some may distort the practices with superficial rote bordering on “magic.” But even superficial rote has the effect of directing a seriously prayerful person to the way of authentic and efficacious prayer. Aiming to take advantage of an indulgence provides specific and orthodox spiritual direction as well as the confidence of “praying God’s way.”

Like Mary’s parents and the prayers of their synagogue, through the teaching of indulgences, Holy Mother Church with ongoing spiritual formation is teaching us to pray. The fruit of allowing the Church to teach us to pray to my eye is easily observable. A pastor of an ordinary parish would not likely find many angry dissident Catholics clamoring to change Church teaching according to the fashions of the day among the faithful who routinely seek partial or plenary indulgences.

We would do well to resist the temptation of “putting on the lips of Jesus” our own words. It is far better that we place upon our lips the word of God as we know it through the teaching Church.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. Father Pokorsky also serves as a director and treasurer of Human Life International.
Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Feb. 06, 2016 7:19 AM ET USA

    Fr. Jerry hits this nail directly on the head. Scholarship is one thing, and can support our prayer, kind of like a pilgrimage (not tour) of the Holy Land. But speculation, such as comes from certain pseudo-scholars, is often injurious of prayer. Think with the Church and pray with the Virgin.