Sometimes I have a hard time praying for him.
His words, if examined carefully, are generally orthodox; however, sometimes they are not interpreted that way by one side or the other. Unfortunately, it seems that the most unorthodox interpretations are given free rein.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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And that frustrates me.
What is my responsibility to him? Am I my father’s keeper?
When I read Pope Francis’ recent dubia responses, my heart sank. I turned off my phone with a sigh and considered the ways different groups of people would interpret the Holy Father’s words on whether it is possible for the Church to bless same-sex unions. I worried about the pressure orthodox priests would face to administer these blessings based on a liberal reading from a progressive bishop. And I considered the fact that I was powerless to argue the matter with the Holy Father. But that didn’t mean I was powerless altogether.
I could pray.
I learned the importance of praying for priests the hard way a few months after Masses resumed following the Covid shutdown. A friend called me to request prayers for a parish priest who had suddenly and abruptly left the parish where he was serving as the parochial vicar. For some reason, this filled me with outrage. Just…no. The Father doesn’t get to abandon his family. The shepherd doesn’t get to abandon his flock. And yet, I realized with shame, part of the fault of this priest’s abandonment of his vocation lay with me.
You see, when this parish priest was in seminary preparing for the priesthood, our family prayed for him daily. In fact, his picture was on our refrigerator because a friend who has a heart for praying for seminarians gave us his picture as a reminder to offer our prayers for him. And pray for him we did.
When he was ordained, his picture came down one day as I was cleaning the kitchen and, I am ashamed to say, our prayers for him ceased.
The necessity of intercessory prayer is evident even in the Old Testament. In Exodus 17, we hear of the Israelites in the midst of their desert wandering. During this time, when the Amalekites attacked the Israelites, Moses was ready to intercede for the people of God. Moses instructed Joshua to lead soldiers in battle while he, Moses, stood at the top of the nearby hill with his staff in his hand.
When Moses had his arms raised, the Israelites gained ground in the battle; but when he lowered them in fatigue, the Amalekites began to take the lead. After a time, when Moses’ strength was flagging, Aaron found a stone for Moses to sit upon. Then Aaron and Hur stood with Moses, one on his right and one on his left, each holding up Moses’ arms so that his hands remained steady until sunset and the battle was won.
Only Moses could hold the staff of God, interceding for Israel, ensuring their victory over the Amalekites. So too, it is Pope Francis who is leading the Church. I can’t lead it and neither can you. And yet, just as Moses could not stand alone without growing tired, so too, Pope Francis will not lead us well without our interceding for him. Like Aaron and Hur, we must intercede for Pope Francis. Just as Moses could not stand alone without growing tired, so too, Pope Francis will not lead us well without our interceding for him.Tweet This
And I think holding up his arms looks like prayer, fasting, and sacrificing on his behalf because Pope Francis won’t get the graces that we don’t request for him. And a holy pope makes holy Catholics. We need each other to get to Heaven.
This story, told about Bishop William Emmanuel Ketteler—taken from Adoration for Priests at Opus Sanctorum Angelorum—illustrates the efficaciousness of prayers and sacrifice (it’s a long excerpt, but worth the full read):
In 1869, a German diocesan bishop was sitting with his guest, Bishop Ketteler from Mainz. During the course of their conversation, the diocesan bishop brought up his guest’s extremely blessed apostolate. Bishop Ketteler explained to his host, “I owe thanks for everything that I have accomplished with God’s help to the prayer and sacrifice of someone I do not even know. I can only say that I know somebody has offered his or her whole life to our loving God for me, and I have this sacrifice to thank that I even became a priest.”
He went on,
“Originally, I wasn’t planning on becoming a priest. I had already finished my law degree and thought only about finding an important place in the world to begin acquiring honor, prestige, and wealth.
“But then, one evening I was alone in my room, considering my future plans of fame and fortune, when something happened which I cannot explain. I saw Jesus very clearly and distinctly standing over me in a radiant cloud, showing me his Sacred Heart. A nun was kneeling before him, her hands raised up in prayer. From his mouth, I heard the words, “She prays unremittingly for you!”
“I distinctly saw the appearance of the sister, and her traits made such an impression on me that she has remained in my memory to this day. She seemed to be quite an ordinary lay sister. Her clothing was very poor and rough. Her hands were red and calloused from hard work. Whatever it was, a dream or not, it was extraordinary. It shook me to the depths of my being so that from that moment on, I decided to consecrate myself to God in the service of the priesthood.
“I withdrew to a monastery for a retreat, and I talked about everything with my confessor. Then, at the age of 30, I began studying theology. So, if you think that I have done something admirable, now you know who really deserves the credit—a religious sister who prayed for me, maybe without even knowing who I was. I am convinced, I was prayed for and I will continue to be prayed for in secret and that without these prayers, I could never have reached the goal that God has destined for me.”
The next day, Bishop Ketteler visited a convent of sisters in a nearby city and celebrated Holy Mass in their chapel. He was distributing Holy Communion to the last row of sisters when one of them suddenly caught his eye. His face grew pale, and he stood there, motionless. Finally regaining his composure, he gave Holy Communion to the sister who was kneeling in recollection unaware of his hesitation. He then concluded the liturgy.
When Mass had finished, Bishop Ketteler asked the Mother Superior to present to him all the sisters in the house. Before long, she had gathered all the sisters together, and both bishops went to meet them. Bishop Ketteler greeted them, but it was apparent that he did not find the one he was looking for.
He quietly asked the Mother Superior, “Are all the sisters really here?”
She looked over the group of sisters and then said, “Your Excellency, I called them all, but, in fact, one of them is not here.”
“Why didn’t she come?”
“She works in the barn,” answered the superior, “and in such a commendable way that, in her enthusiasm, she sometimes forgets other things.”
“I would like to see that sister,” requested the bishop.
A little while later, the sister who had been summoned stepped into the room. Again, Bishop Ketteler turned pale, and after a few words to all the sisters, he asked if he could be alone with the sister who had just come in.
“Do you know me?” he asked her.
“I have never seen Your Excellency before.”
“Have you ever prayed for me or offered up a good deed for me?” he wanted to know.
“I do not recall that I have ever heard of Your Excellency.”
The Bishop was silent for a few moments and then he asked, “Do you have a particular devotion that you like?”
“The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” was the response.
“You have, it seems, the most difficult task in the convent,” he continued.
“Oh no, Your Excellency” the sister countered, “but I cannot lie, it is unpleasant for me.”
“And what do you do when you have such temptations against your work?”
“For things that cost me greatly, I grew accustomed to facing them with joy and enthusiasm out of love for God, and then I offer them up for one soul on earth. To whom God chooses to be gracious as a result, I have left completely up to Him, and I do not want to know. I also offer up my time of Eucharistic adoration every evening from 8 to 9 for this intention.”
“Where did you get the idea to offer up all your merits for someone totally unknown to you?”
“I learned it while I was still out in the world,” she replied. “At school our teacher, the parish priest, taught us how we can pray and offer our merits for our relatives. Besides that, he said that we should pray much for those who are in danger of being lost. Since only God knows who really needs prayer, it is best to put your merits at the disposition of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, trusting in His wisdom and omnipotence. That is what I have done,” she concluded, “and I always believed that God would find the right soul.”
“How old are you?” Ketteler asked.
“Thirty-three, Your Excellency,” she answered.
The Bishop paused a moment. Then he asked her, “When were you born?” The sister stated her day of birth. The Bishop gasped—her birthday was the day of his conversion! Back then he saw her exactly as she was before him now. “And have you any idea whether your prayers and sacrifices have been successful?” he asked her further.
“No, Your Excellency.”
“Don’t you want to know?”
“Our dear God knows when something good happens, and that is enough,” was the simple answer.
The Bishop was shaken. “So continue this work in the name of the Lord,” he said. The sister knelt at his feet and asked for his blessing, which he immediately gave.
Profoundly moved, the bishop returned to the apartment of his friend. He confided to him,
Now I have found the one I have to thank for my vocation. It is the lowest and poorest lay sister of that convent. I cannot thank God enough for His mercy because this sister has prayed for me for almost 20 years. On the day she first saw the light of the world, God worked my conversion accepting in advance her future prayers and works.
What a lesson and a reminder for me! Should I become tempted to vanity by a certain amount of success or by my good works, then I can affirm in truth: You have the prayer and sacrifice of a poor maid in a convent stall to thank. And when a small and lowly task appears of little value to me, then I will also remember the fact: what this maid does in humble obedience to God, making a sacrifice by overcoming herself, is so valuable before the Lord Our God that her merits have given rise to a bishop for the Church.
What a story! And how beautifully it illustrates that the smallest and most humble tasks can be offered to Our Lord for the intentions of our Holy Father. It was through this lay sister’s offering up of her most menial tasks that she found her ladder to Heaven. And it was through her offering that the bishop found his vocation, which, in turn, allowed him to minister to thousands of others.
God does hear our prayers, and God does answer them. Sometimes the answer is not the one we would like, but sometimes it is.
Do you remember the priest who left his parish whom I mentioned earlier? He spent two years away from the diocese, away from the ministerial priesthood; however, God never stopped working in his heart as so many people continued to pray and sacrifice for him. Thanks be to God, after those two years, the prayers of the people were answered. This good priest returned to the ministerial priesthood where he continues to offer Holy Mass and the sacraments to his flock every single day.
As for Pope Francis? I certainly want him to lead the Church well and I desire his salvation. I may not be able to argue with him, but I can certainly pray for him. And I can offer up my tasks—both large and small—for him.
I am not powerless.
And I am my father’s keeper.
[Photo Credit: Daniel Ibáñez]