Vibrant Catholicism, 2: A life of constant prayer
I suspect this series on “vibrant Catholicism” will be the most difficult series I have ever written. There is almost no conceivable topic which could not be taken up and dissected to help us understand the nature of an effectively Catholic response. It is hard to know where to begin, or what should be emphasized as most important. It is hard to decide what is absolutely foundational.
Synonyms for “vibrant” include spirited, lively, energetic, vigorous, vital, animated, sparkling, vivacious, dynamic, stimulating, exciting, and passionate. In my context, these must be taken as descriptions of our whole being, not mere exterior manifestations. But no matter how you slice it, the antonyms of “vibrant” include “listless” and “dull”. So how do we become vibrant Catholics? The answer is pretty obvious: Left to ourselves, we are spiritually listless and dull. It is when the Holy Spirit acts through us that we become vibrant, because only then do we embody the life of God.
This insight enables us to find a starting point. We can reach it by learning from the deficiencies of the pre- and post-conciliar generations, which I outlined in the last installment. Let me illustrate the relevance of that discussion by making use of something Pope Francis said last Friday to the mothers and fathers of children who are seriously ill: “Do not be afraid,” he said, “to ask the Lord, even to challenge the Lord: Why?”
This simple statement contains two key elements. The first contradicts the general attitude of the pre-conciliar generation; the second contradicts the general attitude of the post-conciliar generation. Given the ground I have already covered, we should start here.
Deficiencies of Prayer
First, Francis says: “Do not be afraid to ask…even to challenge.” But this fear was at the root of so much that was wrong with the Catholic attitude of the pre-conciliar generation. Do not raise questions. Do not concern yourself with things you cannot understand. Leave it to the professionals. Follow the rules. Memorize your catechism. Attend Mass on Sunday and Holy Days. Keep the fasts. In theology and philosophy, color within the lines established by the scholastics in the Holy Office. If you are a layman, build up the Church through your material donations. If you are a bishop, construct larger churches and bigger schools. Do not cloud your mind with mystery.
Second, Francis identifies the target of our asking, the person we are to challenge. It is “the Lord.” Yet this is the one person the post-conciliar generation never approached for enlightenment. Their mantras were more like this: God is perceived through the forces of culture and history. Follow and ratify the signs of the times. Adapt everything in the Church to what the predominant culture claims people want and need. If you are a priest, be sure you affirm timely causes. If you are a bishop, ensure maximum freedom for priests to go where the spirit of the times leads them. If you are a layman, set aside outworn popular devotions and spiritual masters from bygone ages. Drink the elixir of life in our enlightened times.
Are these caricatures? Certainly, but not by as much as you might think. They are caricatures in their implied universality, but not in their very real dominance. As a rule, then, the pre-conciliar generation did not ask questions and the post-conciliar generation did not ask them of the right Person. Yet asking Our Lord about everything is the key to a vibrant Catholicism.
The Ecclesial Context
It is a life of prayer which produces in the Christian fullness of life, effectiveness in witness, and aptness to each and every purpose. Note that I do not speak here primarily of liturgical prayer. The Christian whose prayer life consists only of “attendance” at the prayers and sacraments of the Church is like one who receives precious gifts all tied up in bows, but fails to unwrap them, and never gains proficiency in their use. The sacraments give grace, but they do not use grace. It takes our personal desire and commitment to do that. The transformation of our lives by grace occurs first and foremost through the practice of personal prayer.
Nonetheless, our personal prayer must never be exclusively personal. It cannot establish its own boundaries or guard against its own peculiarities and passions. The Church is always the context and the locus of prayer. We cannot know Christ apart from the Church; even those who are not Catholic have heard of Christ and understood Him properly (insofar as they have understood properly) only because of the witness and action of the Church through history. Moreover, the Church is the continuing sacrament of Christ’s presence in the world. Thus, there is no grace that is not mediated to the world through Our Lord’s presence in the Church, His mystical body.
As Christ is the mediator of all grace, so too is His presence in the Church the very means by which His life is continuously shared with all mankind. And while this grace reaches every human person in some way, it is guaranteed and intensified in the Church’s sacraments, explained and understood through the Church’s custody of Divine Revelation, and appropriated far more quickly and effectively through the Church’s guidance of souls. Without these formal operations of Christ through His Church, prayer is prone to misdirection. Grace can too easily be trampled and abused through human ignorance, error and passion, as well as diabolical deception.
For the Christian, then, personal prayer has an inescapably ecclesial context. It becomes more powerful and more fruitful as this connection to the Church is recognized, understood, embraced, and strengthened. Ultimately, we pray in the Spirit through Christ to the Father. The stronger our participation in the Body of Christ, the more powerful and transformational are our prayers. As John the Baptist put it, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). The Church enables and guides this change.
We can now return to Our Lord’s oblation to the Father in the salvific work of the sacred liturgy. As we habituate ourselves to a life of prayer, our participation in the liturgy finally becomes deeply personal as well. In St. Paul’s words: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
This transformation, made possible in some measure for all only by Christ’s continuing action in His Church, is appropriated and made fruitful primarily through personal prayer. A deep and constant habit of personal prayer is the very foundation of a vibrant Catholic life.
RELEVANT PASSAGES FROM THE NEW TESTAMENT
The following Scripture passages ought to convince readers that I have not exaggerated the centrality of personal prayer to a vibrant Catholic life:
- “And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” (Lk 18:1)
- “Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (Rom 12:12)
- “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints….” (Eph 6:18)
- “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (Col 4:2)
- “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thes 5:16-22)
- “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men….” (1 Tim 2:1)
- “Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” (Jas 5:13-16)
- “For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those that do evil.” (1 Pet 3:12)
- “But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire; on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” (Jude 1:20-23)
- “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; …And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.” (Rev 5:8, 8:3-4)
- “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Mt 7:78; Lk 11: 9-10)
- “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:11-13; cf. Mt 7:9-11)
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Posted by: Flavian -
Jun. 04, 2015 12:16 PM ET USA
I am a pre-Conciliar Catholic; I was in my early 20's during the Second Vatican Council. Two realities have energized me and many Catholics I know in the last 30 years. First, there have been many conversions of articulate Protestant pastors to our faith. Secondly, up until recently there were many Marian and Charismatic conferences one could attend.