In my blog post on God as Infinite Love posted last Thursday, I reflected on praying as an active participation with God as the infinitely loving Father. What it did not address, however, were the practical realities concerning one’s life of prayer. To put it another way, it didn’t mention that such a task was hard to live out! With all the distractions and chaos of everyday life, it is too easy to fall into the trap of forgetting one’s dependence on God for all things. This trap, due to the human condition of sin, is in a way inevitable. So how does one persevere in praying when such distractions and forgetfulness occur?
The easy answer would be “don’t get distracted and don’t forget you depend on God for all things!” But let’s be honest with ourselves. Is that really practical? In a world of social media, can we, as humans, keep our focus on God at all times? I think most people, if sincerely evaluating their own lives, would say no. What do we do, then, to refocus on God and return to encountering His ceaseless love?
I think there is a two-fold answer to this question that has been answered by Pope Francis and Blessed John Paul II. The only way we are even capable of persevering, that is, getting ourselves back on route, is to realize and always remember God as Infinite Mercy. In addition, we must also humbly accept his never-ending forgiveness, for doing such is an act of recognizing that we need Him (and not the other way around!).
Blessed John Paul II dedicates an entire encyclical for reflecting on God’s Mercy. In Dives in Misericordia, he uses the parable of the prodigal son as an analogy (which was the Gospel reading two Sundays ago, if you recall). The son, who received a portion of his father’s inheritance, decided to spend it on a “loose lifestyle.” However, he soon realized what he had done, and how it had left him hungry. He reached such a point of guilt and hunger that he made the decision to go back to his father and say ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of you hired servants.”
But when the son heads back to his father’s house, before he can even finish his prepared statement, the father orders his servants to put the best robe on him and prepare a feast of celebration. This scripture passage shows that God’s mercy is an act of faithful love. God is faithful to his fatherhood and faithful to the Infinite Love He offers us in prayer. This is His Mercy, and it is a reminder to us all that God’s Love will never fail us.
Think how generous this is! Looking back at the parable, the generosity of the father (when the son returns home) is so great, it angers the oldest son. The father responds, saying, “but now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again.” The father’s fidelity to his lost son is totally and completely concentrated on the dignity of the son. This is the same way with God, our Father. The parable reveals that God’s Mercy is, in itself, an act of renewing His gift to us, our humanity.
What does this have to do with our sought-out questions? This understanding of God’s Mercy, that is, as the prodigal son’s father, explains to us why we need God’s Love and Mercy. God’s Love and Mercy give us our human dignity. When we lose sight of God in our life, we lose sight of our human dignity. We lose it to such an extent that, deep down, we realize we are missing something. We realize we need God’s Mercy and Love to renew our human worth.
It makes perseverance in a life of prayer that much easier, because we don’t have to worry about God abandoning us! However, it also makes it that much harder, because acknowledging our need of God requires a deep sense of humility. In his first Angelus, Pope Francis reminds the crowd that God never gets tired of forgiving, but we get tired of asking for His forgiveness. We must strive to come to God with an open and humble heart, as God will be eagerly waiting to offer His Forgiveness.
Pope Francis does not just remind us to never tire of asking for God’s forgiveness, but he is a living testimony to that message. Just look at his interview with America Magazine. Before he talks about the Church needing to be a hospital of mercy, he first answers the question concerning who Pope Francis is. His answer: “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Before encouraging others to be merciful, he recognizes that he himself is in need of God’s mercy. He humbly accepts God’s Mercy
Like the prodigal son, we wander off in our lives until a certain point hits us where we realize we are missing something. What do we need to do to ensure that we are able to get back to prayer, that encounter with God’s love? We first need to obtain the virtue of humility, like Pope Francis, to realize that we are lost and in need of God to renew us. To persevere in praying, all we need to do is say the words Pope Francis said in the interview: “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Out of that humility, we can accept God’s Infinite Mercy, because we know, that like the prodigal son’s father, He will always be faithful.
For some simple reflection, listen to this song by Matt Maher. It has helped me many times:
Andrew St. Hilaire is the Assistant to the Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center
“Do we love the Church as our Mother, who helps us to grow as Christians?
And how do we go beyond ourselves in order to bring Christ to others?”
-Pope Francis, General Audience, September 11, 2013
Stop for a moment and re-read again the two questions above. Reflect on how you would answer them. Pope Francis reminds us in his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, that our growth as a Christian is not an individual act.
“It is impossible to believe on our own. Faith is not simply an individual decision which takes place in the depths of the believer’s heart, nor a completely private relationship between the "I" of the believer and the divine "Thou", between an autonomous subject and God. By its very nature, faith is open to the "We" of the Church; it always takes place within her communion” (Lumen Fidei, 39).
The Church is the place where we are nurtured by Christ through the community of faith, where we grow in Christ through the sacraments, and where we encounter Christ in those around us, especially in the poor and the suffering. We cannot remain in our comfort within the Church, though. We need to move outward to others and assist them in encountering Christ.
Our growth as Christians is a life-long process. There is always more that we can learn, understand, and experience in faith, especially the teachings of our Church. Bringing Christ to others as an apostle or, as Pope Francis emphasizes, a missionary or missionary disciple*, makes a demand on us to know and live the faith. Being catechized does not simply mean knowing the faith, it means witnessing to it in our lives. On-going formation in the faith, being catechized, is a dynamic process that is for life! Our growth in faith is not simply our action alone, however, it is the work of Christ within us and the relationship that we have with him nurtured through prayer.
Click here for our resources on catechesis and on prayer
Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C. is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center.
*The term “missionary disciple” is used throughout the “Concluding Document” of the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops’ Conferences held at the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) personally guided the development of the document. Click here to read it.
Why do Christians, and in particular Catholics, pray? What is the purpose of prayer and how does it have any effect on me? Growing up in New England, I find that more people don’t see the significance of praying to God, even if they believe in his existence. They don’t see how a relationship with God can bring any meaning into their lives. On the other side of the coin, I think that while the majority of practicing Catholics realize that prayer, especially the prayer we call the Mass, is important, we can’t really articulate what the purpose of prayer is. We fail to grasp its necessity in fulfilling the deepest longings in our hearts.
While this may sound problematic if unanswered, the beautiful solution lies at what the past two popes say about prayer. If I were give you a SparkNotes summary as to why Popes Benedict XVI and Francis believe prayer to be so important, it would be three words: God is Love. This description of God comes from the first letter of John 4:16 – “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
Well, you’re probably thinking that sounds nice and pretty, but what does God being “love” have to do with me praying? The Catechism of the Catholic Church, as noted by Pope Benedict XVI in his General Audience on May 11, 2011, states that “In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.” So the Catechism is defining prayer as receiving and responding to God initiating himself to us as love. When we are praying, we are not merely attempting to talk to an open space in our room or in a chapel; we are receiving the love of God. This receiving makes prayer a form of participating in an event or experience, not just a conversation. That event we’re talking about is the love of God, because it was and continues to be revealed through his son, Jesus Christ.
So the first point is that prayer is the participation (receiving and responding) in God’s love, making prayer not only a conversation with God, but also an event. This is all very good, but how does one participate in this “event”? This is where Mass becomes important, because this experience occurs every time we go to Mass when the bread and wine become the Mystical Body and Blood of Christ. We participate in this prayer by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.
We’ve come to understand that the Mass is the foundation and apex of Catholic prayer. Why, then, do we participate in additional forms of prayer, such as the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, and so on? Why can’t I just go to Mass and get everything I need there?
I like to think that the best responses are counter-questions, so let me try to answer this by asking the following: why wouldn’t someone, who receives God as Infinite Love in the Eucharist, want to have any form of separation from him? Think about it. If we were to just go to Mass, and nothing more, we wouldn’t be perpetually united with God. We’d have a good foundation with Mass, but that’s like saying there is no need to build the rest of a house (i.e., the roof) because it has a good foundation.
Another analogy I like to think of is a family event, such as a family vacation or Thanksgiving dinner. You don’t build relationships with loved ones by just showing up for family gatherings (or at least I hope not). You spend time with them outside the event as well! If I love my parents, I will not just show up for Thanksgiving. I will want to talk with them on a regular basis to catch up and see how things are going.
Spending time with God sounds good, but where do I start? What do we say to God in prayer? Pope Francis offers us some advice. In his daily homily for Mass on June 20th, he said the following: “There is no need to fritter away words in order to pray: the Lord knows what we want to say to him. The important thing is that our first word be “Father.” This prayer that says ‘father’ first is the Our Father that Jesus gave to the apostles in the Gospel of Matthew (6:7-15).
Pope Francis then makes an additional point. He says that rather than praying to the “God of cosmos,” we must pray to the “Father” who begot us. To go further, we pray “our” Father because he is not generic or anonymous, but the “One” who has given life to each and every one of us. When we go back and say, “God is Love,” God is not some distant figure. He is “Our Father,” and that is how we can pray to him. We can use the very words that Jesus taught us.
Prayer is our willingness to participate in the love of God, who is our Father, and his manifestation of love to us is not just a conversation, but also an experience we are fortunate to perpetually be part of if we so desire. That is why prayer is important. Without prayer, we cannot receive nor can we answer to our Father’s invitation of His Infinite Love. So go to Mass, pull out your Rosary, read scripture, and spend time with God because it is an invitation to be united in love with your heavenly Father. You could even start by simply saying, “Our Father…”
Andrew St. Hilaire is the Assistant to the Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center
Each of us can likely recall a short list of places in which the Lord has spoken to our hearts in a special way. A Eucharistic adoration chapel; one of my favorites, a beach town in the winter; a faraway mountaintop; or even a simple social hall can all be places of encounter with the Triune God. What is one such place for you?
My faraway mountaintop place of encounter with God can be found in Tuscany, three hours north of Rome on the Monte della Verna. This is a sanctuary, now in the care of the Order of Friars Minor, where on this day—September 17, 1224—Saint Francis received the Stigmata, the physical wounds of Christ Himself, on his hands and feet. The place is reached by a switchbacking road—up, up, up you go! The place is impressive for its almost startling peacefulness, a felt reality that this is a place where God is—IS, for sure—you know it, you can sense it from the moment you step off the bus.
La Verna's indelible mark on my own heart comes from one Source—the action of the Holy Spirit, felt and experienced during a brief visit nine years ago. These encounters in awesomely holy places must encourage us to run after Jesus and to place ourselves on the Emmaus Road, so to meet Him there.
Pope Francis has spoken several times of the need for a "culture of encounter" as a foundation for peace and real justice in the world. The first place where this culture begins, I argue, is our own hearts. If what our Lord Jesus says in the Sermon on the Plain is true—"From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45)—we need encounters with the Lord to fill and shape our hearts, thus to be kind in our encounters with others.
Saint Francis' life of encounter with Christ reached a pinnacle in the Lord impressing His own wounds upon Francis' person. You or I might never receive the physical wounds of Christ in our own hands or feet, but we can foster the culture of encounter in our own life of prayer. Ministering and witnessing out of the overflow from our hearts will help build the Kingdom of God on earth!
Patrick Finn serves as Communications Director for the Black and Indian Mission Office in Washington, D.C.
Both of my grandmothers had great devotion to the Blessed Mother. I remember going to their homes and seeing statues of Mary and other saints, prayer cards, and crystal and silver rosaries. I learned much from them and my mother about devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Back in 1901, on this day, the feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary, my grandmother, Millie Donio, was born. During my childhood, though, I did not know that it was a feast day, because with the reform of the liturgical calendar in 1969, the feast was removed. Restored by Blessed John Paul II in 2002 in the revised Roman Missal, it is now an optional memorial. Interestingly, there is only one other feast related to the name of a person, the Most Holy Name of Jesus, celebrated on January 3rd. This feast day was restored in 1996.
The name, Mary, could mean “sea of bitterness” or, possibly, “beloved”. Consider for a moment how many situations Mary found herself in that could have resulted in bitterness. When the unwed young Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she was pregnant by the “power of holy Spirit,” she did not focus on her own situation, but made herself available to her cousin Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-40). When her son, Jesus, went off preaching suddenly at age 30, the scriptures show no evidence of her complaining about it. Instead, she says, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). No bitterness there. When she is at the foot of the cross watching her son die before her eyes, powerless to do anything about it, she accepts being given over the care of the Beloved Disciple, he as her son, she as his mother (John 19:26-27). Sorrow, yes. Bitterness, no. A “sea of bitterness” around her, but she, being the perfect disciple, shows us the way to be. She shows us how to live as beloved by God.
My grandmothers showed me how to live as one beloved by God. They each had their various hardships in life – physical sufferings, emotional difficulties, financial challenges – but each held firm to her faith and it was faith in God that sustained them. They each moved outside of themselves and cared for others, even in the midst of their own struggles. I will never forget going with Grandmom Donio quietly dropping off bags of fruits and vegetables at the back doors of the homes of people she knew were in need of them, but were not able to ask others for help. No words exchanged, we were not even seen, just an action done for good because the other is beloved by God.
Being beloved by God does not mean there will be no suffering or challenge in life. Being beloved by God, called by our name in Baptism, which claimed us for Jesus Christ, we are not left alone to simply move through life. We have the ones we call by name, Mary who intercedes for us with the other person we call by name, Jesus, who is also the Son of God. We call also on the names of the other baptized in the community of faith, the Church. We call out with all of our needs as we live in what can seem at times like a “sea of bitterness.” But, we are not meant to be bitter in life, no matter what we experience. Pope Francis offers us encouragement to move out of ourselves toward others:
“Let us never yield to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day; let us not yield to pessimism or discouragement: let us be quite certain that the Holy Spirit bestows upon the Church, with his powerful breath, the courage to persevere and also to seek new methods of evangelization, so as to bring the Gospel to the uttermost ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8)” (Audience with the College of Cardinals, March 15, 2013).
What are we to do then? Not live in bitterness, but witness as ones beloved. We are to call others by name and assist them in being good disciples of Jesus Christ, following the pattern of life and asking the intercession of the one called Mary.
Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C. is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center.
Those are the words that will inevitably come up at some point from anyone who knows that I grew up in New York City. I was in seventh grade, attending my Catholic elementary school in Queens, when my math teacher came in and told us all to “start praying.” I was very confused. This was before the age of iPhones or instant communication – there was confusion, worry, and an overall sense of terror. Eventually when we were told the details, it was followed up by a precautionary statement that we might have to seek shelter in our school’s basement and church hall. I was worried about my mother; she was working in Manhattan that day.
Tomorrow is the twelfth anniversary of that tragic day. I truly believe that everyone who experienced it deals with each anniversary in a different way. Here in Washington, DC, many people visit the Newseum’s 9/11 exhibit while many others around the country watch re-broadcasted news footage from 2001. I always find it interesting how people deal with grief. Those who were lucky enough to not have their families hurt by loss on that day or from a related illness, often times still feel as if they lost someone close to them.
Every year, I am drawn back to the words that my math teacher said – the first words of comfort on a day that would be filled with strangers comforting strangers – “start praying.” She didn’t know all the details, we certainly didn’t know all the details, but her instinct in that moment was to encourage us to look to God for comfort. She encouraged us to seek shelter in the arms of the Lord. I prayed that day and I take time to pray every September 11th that passes, to thank God for keeping my family safe and to pray for the thousands of men and women who lost their lives.
When Pope Benedict XVI journeyed to the United States on his apostolic visit in 2008, he visited Ground Zero in Manhattan to pray at a place where many Americans come to pray – no matter their faith. Instead of paraphrasing or commenting on his prayer, I leave it here for you to read and contemplate on your own. I will be praying it tomorrow; I would encourage you to do so as well.
O God of love, compassion, and healing,
look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions,
who gather today at this site,
the scene of incredible violence and pain.
We ask you in your goodness
to give eternal light and peace
to all who died here—
the heroic first-responders:
our fire fighters, police officers,
emergency service workers, and
Port Authority personnel,
along with all the innocent men and women
who were victims of this tragedy
simply because their work or service
brought them here on September 11, 2001.
We ask you, in your compassion
to bring healing to those
who, because of their presence here that day,
suffer from injuries and illness.
Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families
and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy.
Give them strength to continue their lives
with courage and hope.
We are mindful as well
of those who suffered death, injury, and loss
on the same day at the Pentagon and in
Our hearts are one with theirs
as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.
God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred.
God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost here
may not have been lost in vain.
Comfort and console us,
strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage
to work tirelessly for a world
where true peace and love reign
among nations and in the hearts of all.
Pope Benedict XVI -- Prayer at Ground Zero
New York, New York -- 20 April 2008
Chris Pierno is the Media & Marketing Manager for the Catholic Apostolate Center.
"Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love."
-Blessed Mother Theresa
Growing up attending Catholic schools my entire life, the life and teachings of Mother Theresa were always something that I was familiar with. There is something about an Albanian woman who gives up her life to serve the poor and dying in the slums of Calcutta that makes people stop and evaluate their own lives. It’s incredible to imagine one person completely uprooting their own life and going to try to combat the extremes of poverty in India. Mother Theresa embraced Catholic Social Teaching on the dignity of the human person and went above and beyond in her ministry. In theory, we would all like to have as much of an impact as Mother Theresa. However, the average person today recognizes his or her own inability to make such an extreme lifestyle change. We are comfortable in our lives today and uprooting them like Mother Theresa did is something we are not prepared to do. Making a huge impact, while desirable, is not usually possible for most of us.
Even Mother Theresa recognized that her decisions were extreme, and not something most people are prepared to do. She knew that not everyone could do what she did with her life. Her words remind us that even if we can't make such an extreme life-change, we can still impact the world on a smaller, but still meaningful, scale.
In this last week, these words have taken on a deeper meaning for me. Having just finished over a week of training to be a Resident Assistant at my university. I am exhausted and excited, but mostly, inspired. One of the main points that our supervisors made during our training is that we as RA's have a tremendous impact in the smallest ways possible. Mother Theresa's words are a good reminder to me that being a presence with my residents is the most important thing I can do. Sometimes, all a student needs is someone to listen to them, no matter how insignificant their problems may seem. College students can make poor decisions, and the role of an RA is often to discipline those decisions and enforce rules that many of these students disagree with. We are seen as students with nothing better to do than get our residents in trouble. The reality is, I enforce the rules and document my residents because I care about them. I recognize that very often it will feel like a thankless task, my residents will blame me initially when their decisions result in disciplinary sanctions. But I hope that even when I do have to have these harder conversations and confrontations, they will eventually come to realize that I do my job out of love for them.
In our daily lives, we often forget how even the smallest gestures can make the most meaningful impacts. If we live our lives as Mother Theresa suggests, doing the small things with great love, our lives might have even more of an impact than we realize. In the gospel this past weekend, we heard the “greatest commandments” from Christ himself: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind… and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37,39). Love can take many forms, and the smallest gestures can be the biggest examples of love.
Rebecca Ruesch is Blog Editor at the Catholic Apostolate Center.
It was a decision I had been dreading for weeks. The secretary at our local parish had been calling me for days to tell me my response was overdue. Our youth minister had lent me numerous books to aid in my decision. Even my family tried to help by offering their opinions. It was May of my sophomore year of high school and I had to choose who would be my Confirmation saint.
While I think half of my Confirmation class probably just picked a name that they liked (or wished their parents had named them) and hoped there happened to be a saint with the same name, I wanted to choose a name that had significance. I wanted to be able to envision myself having a lot in common with my chosen saint, so much so that we could sit down and strike up a conversation.
After much trial and tribulation in this selection process (or so it seemed at the time), I finally came across the story of a man whose life stood out to me. One day, in frustration over my lack of ability to pick a saint, I randomly flipped through the pages of one of the books on the lives of the saints, which my youth minister lent to me and I came across the story of St. Gregory the Great. Today he is remembered not only in his sainthood but also as one of the Church’s great leaders in the medieval papacy and as a Doctor of the Church. I was struck by the way St. Gregory the Great stood out as a humble leader during this time in history, which saw many Church leaders that didn’t hesitate to make their clerical ambitions known. During his pontificate, Gregory was credited with beginning the practice of using the title “Servant of the Servants of God,” which continues to this day. As a student leader in my school, I saw this saint as someone I could look to and attempt to emulate in my life. At the time I was a high school chorus nerd too, so it helped that Gregory was credited with reforming Gregorian chant.
Fast forward five years to the present day and it’s odd how despite my difficulty in picking a Confirmation saint, he’s not someone I think of very often. I didn’t even know that today (September 3) was his feast day until I noticed it last year and thought to mark it on my calendar. Although perhaps it was providential that as I selected the date for which I would write this blog post, September 3 was available. I saw the note on my calendar and thought this could be a way of reacquainting myself with St. Gregory the Great.
My hunch is that there are many like myself that have forgotten about a saint that once had some kind of meaningful impact on their lives. Perhaps a long lost Confirmation saint or even poor St. Anthony, who only receives attention in dire situations. As this Year of Faith draws to a close in the coming months, let us all take time to remember the holy men and women who have gone before us and devoted their lives, in faith, to Jesus Christ and his Church.
St. Gregory the Great, pray for us.
David Burkey is the Communications Coordinator at the Catholic Apostolate Center.