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How long, O Lord? Praying about Pope Francis

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 22, 2020

Before I make some pointed remarks about Pope Francis’ latest demonstration of inadequacy, let me make one thing perfectly clear—for it is important to enter into this discussion somewhat chastened. If we are Catholic but have not prayed regularly for Pope Francis, we have no right to complain. Do we think Satan does not specifically target the successor of Peter? Do we think the prayers of the faithful are powerless against these attacks?

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In the end, everything depends on God, and Our Lord teaches us to ask our Father, simply and directly, for whatever we need, and to trust Him to provide it. That said, there are many kinds of prayer, and the model for one of them is found in no fewer than four different psalms along with a heartfelt question offered by the remarkable prophet Isaiah. The form of this prayer is expressed in the recurring words: “How long, O Lord?”

The latest outrage to Catholic faith, reason and sensibilities is the Pope’s remarks in a new video documentary in which he insists that homosexual persons have the right to a family, and that the important thing is to establish civil union legislation so they are “legally covered”. Phil Lawler effectively demonstrated the uncatholic character of this assertion in yesterday’s commentary, The Pope sows more seeds of confusion. It is not only contrary to the wisdom of the previous two popes as outlined deliberately through the ordinary magisterium of Pope St. John Paul II, but—as Phil amply demonstrated—it is extraordinarily imprudent, based on clear practical evidence.

Civil union legislation has been widely advocated to open the way for gay marriage and, in fact, it has contributed to the rapid legal approval of gay marriage. So even the argument that might have been made years ago—that legalizing civil unions between homosexuals was a prudent tactic for staving off the greater evil of legalizing gay marriage—has proven to be misguided. As John Paul II and Benedict XVI predicted, it has had exactly the opposite result.

Not magisterial but still influential

By now I hope everyone understands that a pope’s remarks in interviews, documentaries, and other means of popular human discourse are not exercises of the Magisterium, and not at all binding, either in doctrine or in discipline. Many popes in history have behaved badly and spoken or written stupidly, though most often this went unnoticed outside small circles owing to the lack of instant and comprehensive media.

Nonetheless, any pope’s comments are widely picked up as “signals” by those who see agreement with the pope as the logical path of promotion, by those who do not understand the difference between personal comments and official acts, and by those who hope erroneous remarks will help them achieve their own goals. It is far harder to work effectively for legitimate Catholic renewal at every level of the Church when those who are resistant to it can cite various remarks by the reigning pontiff to discredit it and stave it off.

I have argued before that, just as the strong pontificates of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI led to substantial improvements in the episcopate and the priesthood around the world, God might well be allowing the disastrous papacy of Francis to prompt those further down in the hierarchy to recognize their own fundamental responsibilities to uphold the Faith and evangelize, rather than simply following the operational procedures laid down in Rome for “branch managers”. It is in this sense that Pope Francis’ own emphasis on the need for a genuine synodality in the Church ought to be understood. We badly need a Church that is committed and active from top to bottom, a Church that is “firing on all cylinders”, so to speak. What we do not need is a Church in which bishops secure promotion by taking their cues from whatever the pope happens to say out loud, or in which priests secure promotion by taking similar cues from their bishops.

No, we need bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity who are rooted in Christ and in the Church as Christ’s authoritative and sacramental presence in the world, and who seek only to extend awareness of Christ and incorporation into the Church as the greatest gift they can pass on to everyone else. And this goal brings us back to prayer.

How long, O Lord?

Though we must pray for the Pope, is it legitimate to use the “How long” form of prayer? In other words, is it legitimate and even good to beg God to remove the scourge of a confused and incompetent papacy for the good of the Church? Always recognizing our own fallible judgment (which ought to go without saying in any prayer), the answer to this question is a resounding “Yes!”

Here is what I mean by the “How long” form of prayer:

Psalm 13:How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” [vv.1-2]

Psalm 35: “Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me of things that I do not know. They repay me evil for good; my soul is forlorn…. How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions…. Let not those rejoice over me who are wrongfully my foes, and let not those wink the eye who hate me without cause. For they do not speak peace, but against those who are quiet in the land they conceive words of deceit.” [vv. 11-12, 17, 19-20]

Psalm 79: “We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those round about us. How long, O Lord? Will you be angry for ever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?...Do not remember against us the iniquities of our forefathers; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake! Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” [vv. 4-5, 8-10]

Psalm 89:How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself for ever?...Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? Remember, O lord, how your servant is scorned; how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples, with which your enemies taunt, O Lord, with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed.” [vv. 46, 49-51]

It is clear, of course, that the “How long” prayer can also be Messianic in character. Particularly in Psalm 89, we see a marked application to Christ. But we need have no qualms about depending on this prayer for all that. Have we not been configured to Christ’s death and resurrection by our baptism? Is not the Church the body of Christ? Should we not cry out as Christ does in the presence of evil? This too is squarely on the path of holiness.

It is right and just.

So, yes, we can and should use the “How long” form of prayer, applied to the vexing question of how long Pope Francis will remain in the Chair of Peter. At the same time, while we should be distressed, we ought not to be surprised if we receive the answer given to Isaiah, when God foretold the punishment of a sinful people to make way for new growth from the stump of Jesse:

“Go, and say to this people: ‘Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men... And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. [Is 6:9-13]

In the twelfth chapter of St. John’s gospel, Christ Himself refers to this prophecy of Isaiah in lamenting the lack of faith He found among the Jews, who would not turn to him and be healed (cf. Jn 12:23-50). So too do we face a colossal lack of faith today, even among those who call themselves “Catholics”. Despite this rejection, Our Lord insisted “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (v. 46). But the majority at that time preferred the darkness, and this experience among the Jews is not without parallels in the ongoing life of Christ’s Church.

No matter what happens, we must remain steadfast. In one way or another, each Christian generation has had to cling to the “How long” prayer. Every great Christian distress has been in some way singular in its place and time. Ours is singular, surely, in that the distress should be so specifically spiritual in the midst of our widespread material comfort.

Still, even as we ask “How long”, we must remain willing to bear the cross. The very fact that we recognize pervasive faithlessness as a heavy cross ought also to be an even deeper secret of our joy, for the very recognition is an incomparable gift. Finally, which of us is entirely without guilt? But while repentance should increase our distress, it should also strengthen our prayer. We need not hold back. Does not the Holy Spirit, present in Scripture, also groan within us: “How long, O Lord?”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 26, 2020 10:37 AM ET USA

    cristovoskresye5324: You raise a good point, but the "How long" prayer is not oriented to anything but a cessation of suffering, of ending a condition in which we experience God as absent. It is a prayer for help and relief from our loving Father. How and when--and, as I indicated, even whether--He resolves the situation is entirely up to Him. Our job is always to remain faithful, no matter what God chooses to do or permit.

  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Oct. 25, 2020 2:11 PM ET USA

    Praying for his conversion is one thing, but this comes distressingly close to praying for his death, which would undoubtedly be an evil and blasphemous prayer. We should likewise pray for the conversions of each of the presidential candidates and their running mates. Conversion is always a miracle, but it is one we are curiously reluctant to pray for, as opposed to lesser and more materialistic ones, like healing, success in courtship, success at work, etc.

  • Posted by: niggleleaf6796 - Oct. 24, 2020 8:09 PM ET USA

    I am thoroughly chastened. Earlier today Iistened to a BabylonBee interview with Diana Glyer, an Inklings scholar. She said that perhaps the greatest influence Tolkien had on Lewis was his continuous fervent prayers that his friend might be brought closer and closer to Christ, prayers which began before the famous Addison’s Walk conversation and continued throughout Lewis’ career as a Christian apologist. I have prayed for our Papa in a desultory manner; I shall to better henceforth.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Oct. 24, 2020 11:49 AM ET USA

    From the very first I have prayed for the Pope's conversion. I mean no disrespect, as I hope others pray for my conversion - - the late Fr. Groeshel always asked his listeners to pray for his conversion, and it stuck with me. I don't pretend to know if the Pope is under spiritual attack, or if he is in company with the attackers, but prayer for his conversion answers both.

  • Posted by: wenner1687 - Oct. 23, 2020 4:54 PM ET USA

    For the spiritual dynamic explaining this disastrous papacy, I take comfort from insights from the excellent book "Unveiling the Apocalypse --the final Passover of the Church" by Emmett O'Reagan. We know the importance of Charity. Our Faith is not shaken; but it is the virtue of Hope we must cultivate in these dire times. Satan's time is short; God and Our Lady will eventually sort this mess out. Persevere in prayer, and encourage the faint-hearted.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Oct. 22, 2020 3:54 PM ET USA

    Do not like to sound pessimistic, but the Pope's packing of the College does not bode particularly well for the future..."How long" may turn out to be longer than we'd like to think. With this latest contradictory statement, publicly following so close to his confusing encyclical, one now faces a choice between whether the Pope is a particularly vulnerable target of evil or something worse.