Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The MOST Theological Collection: A Basic Catholic Catechism

"Part XVII: Prayer: Prayer in General; The Our Father and the Hail Mary"


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1. Prayer in General

In prayer, we lift minds and hearts to God, to adore Him, that is, to acknowledge that all we are and have comes from Him, to express sorrow for our sins, to thank Him for everything He has given us - which is everything we are and have and do - and to beg His help for many things, especially for help to obey His will. Obedience is the most essential disposition, for to really love God is, in practice, to obey Him, since our obedience gives Him the pleasure of being able to give to us (cf. John 14:21).

Prayer may be either vocal, or silent. An important kind of silent prayer is meditation, of which there are several kinds, and several methods.

Not all of our prayers should be prayers of petition, asking for something. We need to remember the other purposes outlined above. But when we do make prayers of petition, we think at once of the remarkable promises Our Lord made, such as: "Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7-8); and: "Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do" (John 14:13).

These promises seem absolute, seem to promise an infallible result. That will come true, if the proper conditions are met. St. Thomas Aquinas enumerates four conditions (II-II, 83, 15, ad 2):

1) One must pray for him/herself. At first sight this might seem to be selfish, for we should pray for others, really, for all human beings. But the reason for the qualification is that if I pray for myself, I am not likely to be closed to receiving; if I pray for another, the other may not be open to receive.

To be infallible, a prayer must be for something needed for salvation, for in comparison to that, other things are of small account. In that spirit St. Paul wrote: "The things that were gain to me [the privileges he once prized of being a Jew] these I consider loss, for the sake of Christ. Further, I consider everything [not just Jewish privileges] loss because of the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord, for whose sake I have taken the loss of all things, and consider them as rubbish, so that I may gain Christ " (Philippians 3:7-8).

And yet, God often does grant other things other than what is needed for salvation. It is just that we do not have the infallible guarantee about them. Here there is room for confidence, which greatly helps the chances of obtaining things.

2) One must pray devoutly, that is, with humility, confidence, attention, and in the name of Jesus. The First Epistle of St. Peter says (5:5): "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble". Humility is not the greatest virtue - that is love - but it is indispensable to such an extent that if we do not have it, we cannot have love, nor can we have a high degree of love unless we have a corresponding degree of humility.

Humble prayer includes a respectful posture of body. Yes, it is true, we can pray in any position; but a slouchy or careless position neither expresses nor promotes interior reverence.

In regard to prayer with confidence we distinguish two kinds of confidence: ordinary faith, and charismatic faith. When Jesus said: "If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you would say to this mountain: Move from here to there - and it would move" (Matthew 17:20). He was speaking of a charismatic faith, not of ordinary faith. Charismatic faith is a special gift in which God as it were infuses the confidence into someone that if he asks, he will get a miracle. Of course, if God infuses that special confidence, the miracle will come. Some who have not understood this have erred greatly, have tried to work themselves into an emotional state of confidence, thinking that will bring a miracle. It will not work unless it is God, not ourselves, who works up that confidence.

In noncharismatic or ordinary confidence, we do believe God will keep His promise, if only we fulfill the needed conditions. But we need to notice the first condition just mentioned: He has not promised an infallible result to prayers for just everything. Thus if two teams in a sports event both pray for victory, clearly, both cannot have it.

Can we say that if a person has confidence he will never worry, e.g., while awaiting the result of a test for cancer? Confidence, which grows with holiness and resultant experiences of help, can go a long ways. But it cannot cover all cases. For Jesus has made no promise that He will preserve a particular person from cancer. Further, even Jesus Himself suffered long-running anxiety, since by means of the vision of God which His human soul had from the first moment of conception, He knew, in merciless detail and with absolute certainty, all He would suffer. He let us see this stress when He said: "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished". This means: "I must be plunged into deep suffering, and I cannot be comfortable until I get it over with" (Luke 12:50 cf. also another similar text in John 12:27). So if one who is not deficient in confidence still suffers anxiety, he/she can accept even the anxiety as a means of likeness to Christ, for it may really be the will of the Father to send or permit a given suffering.

May we, even without the charismatic faith, pray for a miracle? Yes we may, especially with persevering, strong, intense prayer, but we have not the absolute assurance of getting it. We need to be resigned to the will of God, saying with Jesus Himself in Gethsemani: "Not my will but yours be done.".

We know too that if we were to ask for something that would be harmful to us, then God would not give it.

As to praying with attention, we distinguish voluntary from involuntary distractions. The latter are inevitable. If only we try to dismiss them as soon as we notice them, they do not spoil, but enrich a prayer, because of the added effort needed in trying to please God.

4)We must pray with perseverance. We think of the words of Our Lord Himself: "There was a judge in a certain city who did not fear God, nor respected people. There was a widow in that city who kept coming to him saying: 'Vindicate me from my opponent. ' And the judge was unwilling for a long time. But after some time he said to himself: Even though I do not fear God, nor respect people, yet because this widow is a nuisance to me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continuous coming" (Luke 18:2-5; cf. 11:5-8).

An objection is sometimes made to prayer: God knows in advance what I will pray for, so there is no need to pray, and His decrees are eternal. But we reply: In making up His decrees, He does take into account our prayers. Further, prayer helps to dispose us to receive what He so much wants to give.

2. The Our Father:

This of course is the greatest prayer, since it was composed by Jesus Himself.

We notice that in the Gospels He carefully distinguishes: He often says "Your Father" or "My Father". But He never includes Himself in the same group. But in this prayer He teaches His followers to say our Father. He wants to say that we should not pray selfishly, but should pray for all people.

The expression, "Our Father who art in heaven" is found often enough in rabbinic texts. But the Jews had a scant if any perception that God was the Father of all people. They tended to think of Him as only their Father. One introduction to prayer sometimes used in ancient times was Avinu malkenu: "Our Father, Our King". This was very good to bring out the two great aspects of our relationship to Him: love and closeness on the one hand, and a sense of majesty, infinite greatness on the other.

"Hallowed be thy name". Of course the verse does not mean that we want God to be made holy: He is the very source of Holiness, is Holiness itself. The key is found in such texts as Isaiah 5:15-16: "Man is bowed down, and men are brought low, but the Lord of Hosts will be exalted in right judgment [mishpat], and the God, the Holy One, will show himself holy [niqdesh] by moral rightness [i.e. by doing what moral rightness calls for: sedaqah]". Similarly in Ezekiel 28:22: "They shall know that I am the Lord when I inflict punishments on her [Sidon], and I shall show myself holy in her [niqdashti]." Of course this righteousness/holiness is exercised not only in punishing, but in giving benefits: the covenant provides for both as Moses told the people in Deuteronomy 11:26: "Behold, today I am putting before you a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you obey... and the curse if you do not... ." (on blessings cf. Isaiah 52:1; 61:10; and Psalm 24:5. He owes it to Himself to confer benefits if the people fulfill what is asked of them in the covenant).

So this petition asks that the rightness of God may be recognized by all. Romans 3. 24-26 says that God has actually shown Himself righteous by fully rebalancing the scale of the objective order through the death of Jesus. In this prayer we ask that all may come to see his rightness (explained in our comments on the fourth article of the Creed).

"Thy kingdom come". The phrase "kingdom of God" in the Gospels often means the Church. And so the petition can ask for the expansion of His Church, the kingdom of the Messiah. It also at times means His rule: then the petition would ask that His rule be obeyed everywhere. Both senses seem to be intended here.

"Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." In heaven all wills are perfectly in accord with His. Not always so on this earth. So this petition asks that all may obey His will even here. In praying that His will be done here, we implicitly confess that we need His grace in order to obey His will (cf. Philippians 2:13: "It is God who works [produces] in you both the will and the doing").

The first part of the Our Father has asked for things for God's glory. Next we ask for our own needs.

"Give us this day our daily bread". Bread in Hebrew means not just bread in the narrow sense, but all the means of sustenance. We know we depend on our Father in heaven for everything.

The Greek word usually translated "daily" is epiousion. It has several possible meanings - and it is hard to be sure which one is intended - for the word never occurs in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament, only in this prayer. It is hardly found in other Greek writings. Hence the uncertainty. Some proposals are these: "necessary for existence, for the current day, for the following day, for the future." The usual translation, "daily" is most likely the correct one.

Some Fathers, such as Tertullian, St. Cyprian, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine made the daily bread refer to the Eucharist. But this is only an extended or accommodated sense. Jesus surely would not have expected the crowds who heard Him to think of the Eucharist when He had not yet foretold it. Nor would they think of it as daily reception. On the other hand, since His human soul had the vision of God, He would have foreseen that in the liturgy this prayer would come shortly before the reception of Holy Communion.

"And forgives us our trespasses." The Greek of St. Matthew here is opheilemata, which means debt. The concept that sin is a debt that needs to be paid is found abundantly in the Old Testament, in the Intertestamental Literature (where Hebrew and Aramaic hobah meaning debt is sometimes used to mean sin), and in the Rabbinic and Patristic writings. Pope Paul VI endorsed this concept in the doctrinal introduction to his Indulgentiarum doctrina of Jan 9, 1966 - cited and explained in our comments on the fourth article of the Creed).

"As we forgive those who trespass against us." If we will not forgive others what they owe us, when they repent, neither will the Father forgive us. It is frightening to think we here ask not to be forgiven if we do not forgive others. In Luke 17:4 we read: "And if seven times in a day he turns to you saying: I repent, you shall forgive him" (Cf. Mt. 18. 22 which speaks of 70 times 7 times, i. e, as often as the other repents).

"And lead us not into temptation." Of course, God Himself does not lead us into temptation. This is a Hebrew way of speaking in which they said God directly does things which He really only permits. Cf. 1 Samuel 4:3 (in literal translation from the Hebrew): "Why did God strike us today before the face of the Philistines?" But God does permit us to be tempted, for that leads to merit and spiritual strength. As St. Paul wrote in Second Corinthians 12:9, God told him when he was hard pressed: "My grace is sufficient for you; for power is made perfect in weakness." Cf. First Corinthians 10:13.

"But deliver us from evil." The Greek here could equally mean evil in general or the evil one.

The final "Amen" of the Latin Vulgate is not in the Greek manuscripts. It comes from the liturgy.

"For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever." It is certain these words were not originally part of the Our Father, as even Protestant scholars admit today. It is probably based on First Chronicles 29:11. It probably was first written on the margin of some manuscripts, and then crept into the text of Matthew, and then into the liturgy of some Eastern churches. It appears in the early work called the Didache (8:2) -dated usually 100-150AD. So it is far older than Protestantism. Today a form of it is found in the Roman rite Mass, but not immediately at the end of the Our Father.

3. The Hail Mary

Next to the Our Father itself, this is the greatest prayer. The first half comes entirely from the words of the Gospel; the second is a beautiful petition composed by the Church. The thought is so easily grasped we do not need to explain it, except that we should recall what was said about the translation "full of grace" in our comments on the third article of the Creed. (More about the Rosary in the chapter on sacramentals).

Pope Benedict XV (Decessorem nostrum, April 19, 1915) called her: "Suppliant Omnipotence." That is, everything God can do by His own inherent power, she can obtain by her intercession. Naturally, for she shared at such immense cost, as we saw, in earning every grace.

First Timothy 2:5 says there is one Mediator between God and humans. But it speaks of one who is by very nature Mediator, having both divine and human natures, and one whose work is indispensable and depends on no other. Her power, her very ability to do anything comes from her Divine Son.

Pope Leo XIII taught: "Every grace that is communicated to this world has a threefold course. For by excellent order, it is dispensed from God to Christ, from Christ to the Virgin, from the Virgin to us." (Encyclical Iucunda semper, Sept 8, 1884, citing St. Bernardine of Siena). St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII have all said substantially the same thing in varied language.

We notice that Leo XIII spoke of "excellent order". St. Thomas Aquinas explains (Summa I. 19. 5. c) that in His love of good order, God wills that one thing be in place to serve as a title or reason for giving the next thing, even though these things do not really move Him. So The Father needed Mary only if He willed an Incarnation, in the sense that some Mother was needed. But for all her additional prerogatives she was not needed at all. Yet He freely, in view of this principle, and to make all as rich as possible for us, chose to put her everywhere in His approach to us, as Vatican II taught (LG chapter 8: explained in our comments on the third article of the Creed). Similarly, the Father would not have needed the other Saints, but yet, in His love of good order, and wanting to make all things as rich as possible for us, chose to add their intercession as well.

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