Children have a way of shedding light on a question or topic we hadn’t thought of or paid much attention to. Suddenly, a topic they might casually bring up becomes extremely important and sends us into a research frenzy in search of the correct answer. A few weeks ago, a coworker shared stories about her young children with me, some of which included teaching them lessons about God. Her son asked why we pray for others if God knows the outcome.
While discussing prayer and God’s omniscience with my coworker, I dug deep down in my memory to recall catechism lessons from Catholic grade school. I shared some answers with my coworker, but felt the need to consult my parish priest for further insight.
Ultimately, I understood that prayer deepens our relationship with God. My parish priest proposed the alternative: “If we never needed to pray, we would never think of God. We would forget him and our relationship with him would atrophy, if not entirely disappear.” Jesus tells us to pray as he prayed. James 4:3 says, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” And in somewhat of a response, John 16:24 says, “Until now you have not asked anything in my name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” As we pray, our desires can become purified. Perhaps we begin praying for “x” outcome, and as we pray, we come to realize “x” is not the best option and instead we are called to “y”. Prayer serves to change us.
While God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, he has also provided us with free will. We must pray and discern which choices lead us to follow God’s plan. As St. Thomas Aquinas says in his work Summa Theologica, “We pray, not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers...” (Pg. 3492)
Praying for others is a way of loving them. Prayer for others allows us to grow in compassion and keeps us from focusing on selfish concerns. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that even since Abraham’s time, people have interceded (asking on behalf of another) in prayer for one another. It is a “characteristic of the heart attuned to God’s mercy.” (CCC 2635) Intercession for our fellow man is an act of selflessness, even to the point of praying for our enemies. “The intercession of Christians recognizes no boundaries, ‘for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions,’ for persecutors, for the salvation of those who reject the Gospel.” (CCC 2636) Sometimes we can be God’s instrument by providing comfort or assistance to a community member in need when we learn of or are asked to pray for someone. We can become God’s answer to a prayer.
While we do not know why God may grant one prayer and not another, it’s important to know God loves us and desires what is best for us. And being in a close relationship with God is best for us. As my parish priest said: “the ‘stuff’ God grants is secondary.”
For more resources on prayer, please visit the Catholic Apostolate Center Prayer and Catechesis Resource page.
“Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.” This simple invocation was the conclusion to my family’s Morning Prayer ritual. Every morning, for as long as I can remember, my family would pray together an Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, and the St. Michael’s Prayer. We would conclude with the invocations of Saint Anthony (for a safe trip to school) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (for help with our studies). Today the day before the feast day of Saint Thomas, patron saint of students, and during Catholic Schools Week; I wanted to share my experience of education.
I attended public schools from first grade until I graduated from high school. I was not the only religious student in my grade (or even the only Catholic) but nonetheless I was labeled as the “token Catholic.” This label was at times a point of pride for me and at others a burden
I wish I could evade. While it never hindered me from making friends, it still set me apart. I would take up defense of the Church’s often unpopular stance on social issues in class discussions. In some rare cases I even found that my thoughts on certain subjects were brushed off as being my opinion only because of my faith, and any evidence I supplied in support of that stance was ignored. While I received a well-rounded education, the school community was so concerned with being tolerant of all things that it became intolerant of ideas it perceived as being intolerant.
After high school, I attended a Catholic college. This was my first real experience of having faith integrated into my formal education. There were numerous differences, but perhaps the most notable was the community. In every classroom, there were Catholic students whose beliefs varied widely, as well as students of other faiths or no faith at all. Regardless of who you were or what you believed, you were expected to support your opinion with reason. It was this environment that fostered a community of intellectual discussion and debate (which rarely turned into conflict). Every idea was heard, which allowed me to hone my own beliefs while also growing in faith. This community was truly welcoming and challenging to all—even when that meant a difference of opinions.
Education should be a constant exchange of ideas. This exchange is not always smooth and simple, and that can in fact be a good thing. Saint Thomas’s two greatest works, Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles, incorporate the work of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (which, at the time that Saint Thomas lived and wrote, was just shy of heresy). He also conversed with philosophers of other faiths, most notably Islam. Despite this pushing of boundaries—or perhaps because of them—Saint Thomas is recognized today as one of the founders of modern philosophy. In his writings he addresses arguments and opposition to his theories head-on regardless of whom they came from. This boldness in spirit is what made him both an incredible student and teacher. It is also why, over eight hundred years later students—myself certainly included—ask for his intercession with their studies.
As Catholics, it is our duty to build up communities where we can encounter both those who share our faith and those who do not. We can see this lived out in the challenging and formative words of our Holy Father. May we always seek to be students and teachers of the faith. Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.
Patrick Burke is a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.