“Today, as we give thanks for the gift of counsel, let us seek to support one another along the path of faith, as we seek to be ever more docile to the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.” —Pope Francis, May 7, General Audience
“If my people… humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” —2 Chronicles 7:14
April and May were busy. The liturgies of Holy Week, culminating in Easter Sunday Mass on April 20, the double canonization on April 27 of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, and the May 10 meeting of 300,000 Italian schoolchildren with Pope Francis made Rome a sea of humanity — a time of traffic jams, long lines, crowded sidewalks…
At the same time, a series of meetings and news stories followed one upon the other. The situation in Ukraine became tragic as dozens of pro-Russian Ukrainians were burned to death in a government building in Odessa. More than 200 young women were kidnapped from a Catholic school in northern Nigeria by Islamic jihadists; the Pope appealed for their release. The Papal Foundation came to Rome, and was received by the Pope. The North American College (where several hundred US seminarians in Rome reside) held its annual fundraising dinner. Cardinal George Pell of Australia led a group of cardinals in discussions to reform Vatican finances. Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Society of St. Pius X, reportedly dined near the Pope in the Domus Santa Marta, then greeted the Pope at the end of the meal. A UN panel on torture questioned the Church’s teaching against abortion, saying the teaching causes so much psychological pain to women who have abortions that the Church should change its teaching. Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke about the inability of many (most?) “ordinary” Christians to live out the moral heroism called for by the Gospels. Scholars from around the world flew to Rome to debate issues ranging from “global warming” (in a session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) to the place of solidarity and fraternity in making business decisions (the subject of a Centesimus Annus Foundation May 8-10 conference at the Vatican).
Francis met with members of the Centesimus Annus Foundation on May 10. He said: “The Christian community – the parish, the diocese, the associations – is the place in which the entrepreneur, but also the politician, the professional, the union worker, draws the strength to nourish his commitments and encounters with his brothers.” He closed his audience by encouraging the various experts to “move ahead with faith, dedicating proper time to prayer, because also the layperson, also the entrepreneur needs to pray and pray often when the challenges are most difficult!”
So, in the midst of all of these ecclesial events and global news stories, it seemed fitting, once again, to pause and reflect on what is most important. And, as Francis said, what is most important is an inward journey toward the presence of God, a journey of prayer.
Several weeks ago, on April 3, Pope Francis gave a homily on prayer at his morning Mass in the Domus Santa Marta. The focus of the homily was the dialogue between God and Moses on Mount Sinai. God wants to punish His people because they have created an idol, the golden calf. Moses prays to the Lord to think again.
Pope Francis said, “This prayer is a real struggle with God. A struggle [on the part of] the leader of a people to save his people, who are the people of God. Moses speaks freely in front of the Lord and in doing so teaches us how to pray without fear, freely, even with insistence. Moses insists. He is courageous. Prayer must also be a ‘negotiation with God,’ to which we bring our ‘arguments.’ Moses eventually convinces God, and the reading says that ‘the Lord repented of the evil that He had threatened to do to His people.’
“But,” the Pope asked, “who changed here? Has the Lord changed? I think not.” And then the Pope gave a penetrating analysis of what actually happens in intense prayer. God does not change; we change.
“Moses is the one who has changed,” the Pope said. “Because Moses believed that the Lord would do this, he believed that the Lord would have destroyed the people, and he searches, he tries to remember, how good the Lord has been to His people, how He led them from slavery in Egypt and guided them with a promise.
“With these arguments, he tries to convince God, but in doing so, he rediscovers the memory of his people, and God’s mercy.
“This Moses, who was afraid, afraid that God would do this thing, in the end comes down from the mountain with something great in his heart: Our God is merciful. He knows how to forgive. He can go back on His decisions. He is a Father.”
Moses knew all of this, Pope Francis observed, “but he vaguely knew it.” Now, “he rediscovers it in prayer. This is what prayer does to us: it changes our heart.” And the Pope concluded: “Prayer changes our heart. It helps us better understand our God. This is why it is important to speak with the Lord, not with empty words — Jesus says, ‘as pagans do.’ No, no, talk with [Him about] reality: ‘Look, Lord, I have this problem, in my family, with my child, with this, with that… What can you do? You cannot leave me like this!’ This is prayer! Does this prayer take a long time? Yes, it takes time. It takes the time we need to get to know God better…
“This is how our prayer must be: free, insistent, with arguments. Even rebuking the Lord a little: ‘You promised me this but you didn’t do it…,’ just like talking with a friend. Open your heart to this prayer. Moses came down from the Mount invigorated: ‘I have known more of the Lord,’ and with that strength given him by prayer, he resumed the task of leading his people to the Promised Land.
“Because prayer invigorates: it is invigorating. May the Lord give us all this grace, because prayer is a grace.”