Opening Anew the School of Prayer, The Anchor, June 10, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
June 10, 2011

The tradition of papal general audiences goes back 140 years to Blessed Pope Pius IX. Up until then, the Popes would regularly grant “private audiences” to individual bishops, priests and religious, visitors, diplomats, and small pilgrimage groups. Beginning in 1870, however, when Pius IX declared himself a “prisoner of the Vatican” and for 59 years he and his successors refused to travel outside of the Vatican walls, the general audience became the means by which not only pilgrims coming to Rome could see the successor of St. Peter but the pope could maintain a personal contact with the flock Christ had entrusted to him. It also provided the opportunity for a clear and healthy shift in the public understanding of the papacy, from the Pope as the chief administrator of a small nation to the more ancient and authentic model of the bishop of Rome as the teacher of faith.

The use of the papal audience as a catechetical opportunity for the Pope to lead Catholics of the world into a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith took a giant leap forward under Pope John Paul II, who used the Wednesday audience format not merely for short faith fervorinos but to debut theological series series, most famously his five years of catechetical talks on human love in the divine plan, popularly called the theology of the body. Over the course of his pontificate, he also gave an enormous rich body of catechetical series reflecting on creation, the sacraments, the profession of faith, the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Trinity and the psalms. Pope Benedict, after he brought John Paul’s series on the psalms to a conclusion, has launched into several series of his own: on the apostles, the early fathers of the Church, St. Paul (during the Pauline Year), the great women saints, and the doctors of the Church. In an age of celebrity, when people are convinced more by witnesses than words, Pope Benedict has focused on the greatest catechesis and catechists of all, given by the lives of those of the saints who have radiated God’s presence and truth in every generation. The beauty of their holiness, the effulgence of their joy, Benedict believes, is the most attractive and compelling presentation of the faith possible.

As important as his first six years of catecheses have been, however, last month Pope Benedict began a new series that may prove to be his most important of all. It is being dedicated to Christian prayer.

The context for the series appears to trace back to the insights Pope John Paul II mentioned in his 2001 Pastoral Plan For the Third Christian Millennium, Novo Millennio Ineunte. Pope John Paul II wrote that the Church exists to train people to become holy and “this training in holiness calls for a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer. … We have to learn to pray. … Learning this Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer and living it fully … is the secret of a truly vital Christianity.” He noted that there is a widespread demand for “spirituality” in today’s world and many religions and movements offer some responses to this demand, but “we who have received the grace of believing in Christ, the revealer of the Father and the Savior of the world, have a duty to show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead.”

He said that, therefore, it is “essential that education in prayer should become in some way a key-point for all pastoral planning” and that “our Christian communities must become genuine ‘schools’ of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly ‘falls in love.’” He also described how dangerous it was for the Church as a whole and our parishes in particular not to become true schools of prayer that train people to pray well and deeply. “It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life,” he declared. “Especially in the face of the many trials to which today’s world subjects faith, they would be no only mediocre Christians but ‘Christians at risk.’ They would run the insidious risk of seeing their faith progressively undermined, and would perhaps end up succumbing to the allure of ‘substitutes,’ accepting alternative religious proposals and even indulging in far-fetched superstitions.”

The series that Pope Benedict XVI began on May 4 appears to be responding to these needs and within this context. If the Church as a whole is meant to be a school of prayer, and if prayer is to be the key-point for everything the Church does at every level, then it is fitting that the Pope take the lead and set the example. Christians throughout the world are fortunate that, by this series, we will not only be able to profit from the Pope’s great intellectual gifts and his deep comprehension of the teachings on prayer in the Bible and in the great Christian mystical tradition, but we will also be able to enter into the fruits of his own eight decades of intense prayer. More than any of the catechetical series of the popes over the past century and a half, this series will likely have the broadest and most immediate application to daily life. Over the course of this catechesis, we will be running news articles on what he says each week, but it would behoove every Catholic to try to read the entire catechesis each week and take it to his or her own prayer. Catholics who use the internet can find the English translation of his full catechetical address on each Wednesday night; on that same website, they can also subscribe to receive a free email with the Pope’s catecheses, homilies and other news and interviews from the Vatican each day. Those readers who do not use the computer would be encouraged to obtain a subscription to L’Osservatore Romano so that each week they are able to read the entire papal catechesis on prayer as well as many other papal speeches (to subscribe, call 443.263.0248).

Beginning the series, Pope Benedict said, “Together with the first disciples, we now turn with humble trust to the Master and ask, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’” In these catecheses, “we will learn to live yet more intensely our relationship with the Lord, as though in a ‘school of prayer.’ We know well, in fact, that prayer cannot be taken for granted: We must learn how to pray, almost as if acquiring this art anew; even those who are very advanced in the spiritual life always feel the need to enter the school of Jesus to learn to pray with authenticity.”

In the first two episodes, he focused on prayer in ancient cultures “to reveal how, virtually always and everywhere, people have turned to God” aware of his “condition as a creature and his dependence on Another superior to him and the source of every good.” There is a universal religious sense, no matter how much those influenced by the secularist tendencies of modern culture seek to live as if God did not exist. Prayer is an expression of the human person’s desire for God.

After that introduction, Pope Benedict began a biblical review of prayer, saying to those in St. Peter’s Square with him and all of us throughout the world: “I would like you to invite you to take advantage of the journey we will make in the forthcoming catecheses to learn to know the Bible more, which I hope you have in your homes and, during the week, pause to read and meditate in prayer, to know the wonderful history of the relationship between God and man, between God who communicates with us and man who responds, who prays.” In the first few weeks, he gave rich meditations on what we can learn from the prayers of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, about praying for mercy, with persistence and in intercession, respectively.

“Lord, teach us how to pray.” God has responded to that plea, by giving us a deep instruction on prayer in the Bible. And Jesus Christ continues to respond to that request in our own day in the person of his earthly vicar.