Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
World Mission Sunday
October 20, 2013
Ex 17:8-13, Ps 121, 2 Tim 3:14-4:2, Lk 18:1-8
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click here:
The “necessity” of praying always
As we continue our journey with the whole Church during this Year of Faith, today we come to Jesus’ haunting words in the Gospel. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The question seems to be more than rhetorical. Jesus asks it, it seems, because he’s not convinced that when he comes he’s going to find faith. The test of faith, he indicates by the parable of the persistent widow, is whether when he comes he will find us persevering in prayer. Prayer is faith in action. If he’s going to find us faithful, he’s going to find us praying, not necessarily on our knees, of course, but seeking to unite our whole day and life, our mind, our heart and our soul to God. If he doesn’t find us praying and living in conscious communion with him, however, it’s likely that he’s not going to find us living by faith. Jesus today wants to teach us about the “necessity” of “praying always without growing weary,” how to “cry out to God day and night.” He wants to train us to live that way so that no matter what time he comes we will be united to the Lord in a prayer not merely of our lips but of our lives. Jesus asks the question at the end of the parable because he knows many do not pray like the inopportune woman. Many of us don’t persevere in prayer. We’re content on praying “a little,” saying a Hail Mary or two at the beginning or the end of the day. Others would like to pray more but they think they don’t have time to pray, because they’re prioritizing so many other things in life to a life-changing time with God. Others, because of a bad experience or other reasons, stop praying altogether as an ordinary activity of life, only turning to prayer in times of crisis. They have lost or perhaps never had the heart to pray always.
Faithful perseverance in prayer leads to faithful perseverance in life
Why does Jesus want us to pray with the type of heroic perseverance he describes today? It’s not that he wants to hog all our attention. It’s not that he wants us to ask for something 70 times 7 times as a pointless exercise, especially given that God already knows what we need before we ask. Earlier today in his Angelus meditation in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis explains that Jesus’ words about the necessity of praying always without giving up “leads us to deepen a very important aspect of the Faith.” He said, “God invites us to pray with insistence, not because He doesn’t know what we need, or because He doesn’t listen to us. On the contrary, He always hears and knows all of us, with love. In our daily journey, especially in difficulties, in the fight against evil outside of ourselves and within us, the Lord is not far away, He is at our side; we fight with Him beside us, and our weapon is prayer, which makes us feel His presence alongside of us, His mercy, even His help. But the fight against evil is hard and long, it requires patience and resistance… There is a struggle to carry on every day; but God is our ally, faith in Him is our strength, and prayer is the expression of this faith. … If the faith goes out, if prayer goes out, and we walk in the darkness, we will be lost on the journey of life.”
Because we need to persevere in the fight for God and against evil, and because we can’t win that battle on our own strength, we need to be praying constantly to the Lord. Just like the Israelites discovered with Moses’ prayer in the first reading: when his arms were lifted in prayer, the Israelites had the upper hand against the Amalekites; but when his hands fell because of fatigue, the Amalekites began to prevail. Likewise, when we persevere in prayer, when we regularly turn to him for help, when we’re conscious of his desire to live in communion with us, then we open to receiving his strength to confront and overcome the challenges we face each day to live a life apart from him. When our hearts, however, grow weary and our hands fall, when we distance ourselves from the Lord, when we either try to do things on our own and lose heart and give up the good fight of faith altogether, that’s when we fall. To persevere faithfully in life we first must learn how to persevere faithfully in prayer.
This is so important for us to grasp, because we live in an age in which many people give up. They give up on the Mass. They give up on the Sacrament of Confession. They give up on fighting sin. They give up on their marriages. They give up on suffering. They even give up on their religious vows or priestly vocations. That’s why the virtue of perseverance is so important in everything in general. Never to give up. Never to stop running the race, to fighting the good fight, to keeping the faith and growing in faith. Jesus told us in the Gospel, “He who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mt 24:13). But for us to have that type of holy endurance, we need never to give up on God and on his help at every moment. We need to pray — and to pray with perseverance. Life is a marathon, but one in which God wants to run right alongside of us helping and sustaining us along the way. Prayer is the conversation we have along that marathon.
Training in perseverance in prayer
Just like a marathon runner, if we’re ever going to finish the race to the heavenly Jerusalem, we need to train. We can’t go from barely praying to praying always overnight. We need to make a commitment in spirit but then we have to train our weak flesh. What I’d like to do is talk about eight ways to train so that we may persevere in prayer and in life.
First, we need to make the commitment to set aside some fixed times for a one-on-one appointment with the Lord each day for what’s called “mental prayer,” a time in which we spend time with God, quietly listening to him speak to us and responding to him with faith. We can use books to help us to meditate. We can contemplate and just rest in his presence. We can pray in our own words, praising him, thanking him, asking for forgiveness, bringing to him the needs of others, and mentioning our own needs. There are many ways to do this, and if we let God lead us, he will help us to find the most fruitful way for us to pray at that moment. The key, however, is to make the appointment and treasure it as the most important appointment of our day. If you can make a holy hour, I would strongly encourage you to do so, but if you can’t, then make a holy half-hour or at least a holy 20 minutes. It will change your life. It’s also essential for us to make and keep an appointment like this if we’re ever going to pray always. St. Josemaria Escriva, a great 20th century saint who specialized in helping lay people become holy through the ordinary events of every day, said that mental prayer is like starting a fire in a fireplace or a fire pit. It takes some work at the beginning to get the fire started, but once the fire gets going, to keep it going, all you need to do is add other logs. Mental prayer is like starting the fire of loving communion with God that can last all day provided that we continue to add “fuel” later with some vocal prayers we say — short aspirations like, “Stay with me, Lord,” prayers like the Angelus, or prayers in our own words.
The second means of training is by learning how to pray Sacred Scripture. St. Paul tells us in today’s second reading, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful …for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to us, provided that we learn how to pray Sacred Scripture to hear his voice, and it will train us in holiness. That’s why we have been having so many Adult Education opportunities to get to know Sacred Scripture better, so that we may hear God giving us light to help us persevere in faith. To pray Sacred Scripture is something different than to study Sacred Scripture. It begins by asking what God is actually communicating in the text, the same object of Scripture Study, but praying it leads us to ask what God is trying to say to me in my own life and circumstances. It provokes us to speak back to God to ask him for the help we need to live by what he’s indicating to us. It involves envisioning ourselves living by that word and making a resolution to put it into practice. Then it culminates in our acting on that word. This is the whole process that’s called the “sacred reading” (lectio divina) of Sacred Scripture.
The Holy Rosary
The third means is the Holy Rosary. In this month of October, dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, we focus on this great tool of prayerful perseverance. What is the Rosary if not a prayer of perseverance, not only praying 53 Hail Mary’s, but each week meditating anew on the same mysteries, seeking to penetrate their depths, imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise. When we make the commitment to pray the Rosary each day, we recognize that some days we feel like praying it and many days we don’t, but if we pray it anyway, as well as we can under each day’s circumstances, then we learn also how to persevere in communion with God in good times and bad, in sickness and in health.
Fourth, the Mass is the great persevering prayer of the Church. It began during the Last Supper, continued on Good Friday and has continued all the way down to the present day. It’s one continuous sacrifice, as Eucharistic Prayer III has it, “from the rising of the sun to its setting.” But it’s important that we persevere in praying the Mass and living a Eucharistic life. There are some people who come to Mass with no will of perseverance whatsoever. They think that the best Mass is the quickest Mass. They groan when another verse is sung to a hymn, or when a longer Eucharistic Prayer is used, or when the priest or deacon preaching adds a final point to the homily. If someone has no will to persevere during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, it’s going to be very hard to persevere in faith, uniting one’s whole life to Christ’s action on the altar. And we should have some doubts as to whether the person would even enjoy heaven should one endure to the end, since heaven is an eternal Mass, as the Book of Revelation makes clear. We should hope that the vast majority of times we come to Mass, it’s not a feat of perseverance, but rather a joy and the highlight of our week. But on those occasions in which we’re impatient at Mass, it’s an opportunity for us to learn how to persevere in prayer and life.
Praying for the needs of loved ones
Fifth, praying for loved ones and their needs is a tremendously helpful training ground for perseverance in prayer. Sometimes one of the greatest things that can happen to us is to have a family member in need of prayers, because if we pray with perseverance, we will be transformed.
One of my favorite saints is St. Monica (331-387), the mother of St. Augustine. She married a pagan man named Patricius who was a violent and dissolute pagan. Though he was rich, he could not take Monica’s generosity to the poor. Though she was as faithful and loving to him as she sought to be toward God, he constantly chastised her piety. If all of that was not hard enough to bear, her cantankerous mother-in-law lived with them and daily multiplied the insults. All of this could have driven Monica to divorce and despair, but instead it propelled her to even greater devotion to God and them. For 17 years, she joined her sufferings to prayers for their conversion. Eventually, the power of God’s grace and the example of her Christian virtues penetrated their hardened hearts and they both received baptism. For her husband it was just in time — he died a holy death less than a year later. But all of that suffering was just a warm up. The oldest of her three children, Augustine, was then a brilliant teenage rhetoric student living away from home in Carthage. She hoped that he would follow the example of his father’s conversion, but, instead, he went full-steam in the opposite direction. He joined the Manichean heretics. He invited a woman to cohabitate with him and fathered a child out-of-wedlock. When he would come home, he would intentionally blaspheme so much that Monica prevented him from eating or sleeping at home until the budding rhetorician learned to discipline his tongue. Monica prayed unceasingly for her son’s conversion. She fasted. She got friends to pray. She arranged for priests to argue with him. She flooded her bed and various churches with her tears. A bishop, seeing her weeping, assured her on behalf of God, “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.” Eventually after 15 years of additional prayer, Augustine converted, was baptized, became a monk, then a priest, a bishop and one of the greatest teachers in the history of the Church. It was because of Monica’s ceaseless prayers and tears that not only did her son “not perish” but became a great saint. It was also because of her persevering prayers and tears for both her son and her husband that she became the great Saint Monica. That’s a lesson we should never forget. When we persevere in praying for others, God not only can eventually change them but change us in the process.
Sr. Briege McKenna tells the story of a young boy who was diagnosed with a tumor on the brain and was given only seven months to live. Because the family knew that God had worked through Sr. Briege’s prayers many times to bring about physical healings, they asked her to pray with the family. She did. The family of eight wasn’t really good at praying, but Sr. Briege encouraged them to continue to pray each night. The little boy David kept getting worse, the tumor continued to grow, but the family kept praying. Eventually they realized that it had been seven months and he was still alive, although worsening. But they didn’t quit. After a year and a half, the tumor started to shrink until it disappeared completely to the astonishment of doctors. The father called Sr. Briege and thanked her. He said that he was grateful that God’s answer to their prayers was delayed, because David’s illness transformed the whole family by helping them together to persevere in prayer — a change that would never have occurred if the prayer was answered immediately and everyone went on with life as usual. Even after David was healed, the family continued to pray together and the teenagers would not leave the house after dinner until they had prayed as a family. There are great lessons here for all of us to learn about how the Lord trains us in persevering prayer by giving us a loved one for whom to pray.
Praying our work or studies
Sixth, our daily work is a great training ground. To pray always doesn’t mean we’re always in Church on our knees, but it means that we need to turn all we do into a prayer, into an exchange of persons with God, when we receive his help and live in his presence. That means we need to learn how to pray our work, to pray our studies. That involves, first, offering everything we do to God, as an acceptable sacrifice of Abel. We can unite our work to Jesus on the altar. We should never forget that Jesus’ whole life was a persevering prayer that saved us. It wasn’t just the enduring agony of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. It wasn’t just his three years of public ministry. But it was his entire life — the vast majority of which was spent in a Nazarene carpentry shop — that he was giving to God the Father for us and our salvation. Jesus is therefore the great model of how to pray our work by uniting it to God. How do we do this at a practical level? I can make a few suggestions. First, we can start off each hour with a small consecration of that hour to God. We can pray a Hail Mary or say a prayer in our own words. We can ask for God’s help to pray that work or study well by doing it in union with him. But that will help us to remain conscious of God’s presence and help. Second, what helps me very much to pray my work is when I explicitly offer it up for someone who has requested my prayers. I have a list of people on my phone who ask me to pray for them, but I also use the prayer list in the bulletin. The more I recognize that I’m offering that work for someone in need of prayers, the better work I do and my work becomes a very powerful prayer to help others. I’ve never ceased to be amazed at how many prayers God hears when I offer my work for people. I’d encourage you to pray your work in a similar way.
Praying for the Missions
The seventh training ground I’ll mention is prayer for vocations. On this World Mission Sunday, we need to remember to pray perseveringly for the missions. Jesus told us, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” He gave us these verbs in the present tense because he knew that there would always be a need for us to pray for laborers for the vineyard. That’s one of the reasons why St. Therese Lisieux is a co-patroness of the missions. St. Francis Xavier, the other co-patron, is an obvious choice, because he was the great missionary to India and Japan and died on the shores of China. St. Therese never left her cloistered Carmel in northwestern France, but she never ceased praying for missionaries. Likewise, we should never stop praying for them either. God will respond to our prayer, but that prayer needs to be constant. There is a shortage of vocations to the missions today because, frankly, we’re not praying enough. We are called to persevere not just in prayer for missionaries, but for all those who will hear the word of God through them, that they may respond with faith. Likewise, as we see in St. Matthew’s Gospel, right after Jesus told the disciples to pray for laborers for the harvest, he called 12 of them to be his apostles, and because of their prayer, they were more capable of saying yes to that call. So as we pray for the missions, we also recognize that we, too, are called to be laborers, bringing the Gospel to those around us just as much as missionaries bring the Gospel to far away lands.
Praying with others
The eighth and last training ground is praying with others. For us to pray unceasingly, we often need help and need to give help to others. That’s why it’s important for us to pray together, because we can help each other persevere. Moses had the help of Aaron and Hur to hold his hands up. We need to look around us and see those who have the gift of faith to pray perseveringly without losing heart, and ask to pray with them. To pray with those who pray with perseverance trains us to pray with perseverance. Likewise, we need to look around us, too, and see those who do not have the faith to pray with insistence and try to help them. It’s not enough, in other words, for us to pray alone, because that would be like hiking Mt. Washington alone. We’ve got a much better chance if we hike with someone else, or with a whole group.
The Year of Faith is a summons to faithful perseverance in prayer
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? This Year of Faith is a grace-filled opportunity for us to increase our prayer, to persevere in our prayerful union with God so that we may persevere in the good fight against evil and for God. We ask the Lord to help us to pray with living faith today, so that when he comes on this altar, he may find us full of faith, ready to persevere in prayerful union with him through the valleys and mountains of life all the way until, God-willing, we join the eternally persevering prayer of the heavenly Jerusalem.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Moses, therefore, said to Joshua,
“Pick out certain men,
and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle.
I will be standing on top of the hill
with the staff of God in my hand.”
So Joshua did as Moses told him:
he engaged Amalek in battle
after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur.
As long as Moses kept his hands raised up,
Israel had the better of the fight,
but when he let his hands rest,
Amalek had the better of the fight.
Moses’hands, however, grew tired;
so they put a rock in place for him to sit on.
Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands,
one on one side and one on the other,
so that his hands remained steady till sunset.
And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people
with the edge of the sword.
PS 121:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
I lift up my eyes toward the mountains;
whence shall help come to me?
My help is from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
R. Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
May he not suffer your foot to slip;
may he slumber not who guards you:
indeed he neither slumbers nor sleeps,
the guardian of Israel.
R. Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
The LORD is your guardian; the LORD is your shade;
he is beside you at your right hand.
The sun shall not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
R. Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
The LORD will guard you from all evil;
he will guard your life.
The LORD will guard your coming and your going,
both now and forever.
R. Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
2 TM 3:14-4:2
Beloved: Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work. I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.
about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.
He said, “There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,
because this widow keeps bothering me
I shall deliver a just decision for her
lest she finally come and strike me.'”
The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night?
Will he be slow to answer them?
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”