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