Q. I have heard that it is sinful to let oneself be distracted in prayer. This makes sense to me as regards prayers that are obligatory: e.g., Sunday Mass, the Divine Office for priests and religious, or the penance assigned during confession.
But what if one is not required to say that prayer in the first place: the morning offering, for example, or weekday Mass? Would it be better not to say those prayers at all, because then there would be no sin?
And at what point do distractions become sinful — when they are intentional of course, but what about a quick thought regarding something I must remember to do when I get home from church?
Also, when I have a weighty decision to make or a stressful situation on my hands, I like to say the rosary because it seems to help me to think clearly and be calm. But should I not be using that time (in the context of prayer) to think things through? (Omaha, Nebraska)
A. Relax, and don’t be so tough on yourself. Distractions during prayer are not necessarily sinful — even during prayers that are obligatory; they come to everyone — even to the saints, who have written often about this.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes the universality of the problem, calling distraction “the habitual difficulty in prayer” (No. 2729).
Purposely to allow one’s mind to wander during prayer onto nonspiritual paths would be wrong, and the distracted thought itself might be sinful: dwelling deliberately on thoughts of adulterous pleasure, for example, or thinking vindictive thoughts.
But much more often, the distraction is a neutral one morally — such as in the example you offer of thinking of something you need to do as soon as you get home. When distractions do occur, the strategy is simply to pause, refocus and move forward.
St. Paul of the Cross said, “Concerning distractions and temptations that occur during holy prayer, you don’t need to be the least bit disturbed. Withdraw completely into the upper part of your spirit to relate to God.”
As for your practice of “thinking things through” while you pray the rosary, I have no problem with that: You are using the soothing backdrop of the repeated words of prayer to commune with the Lord in a meditative way and to seek his guidance.
Q. I attend a very large Catholic parish that has some 4,000 families and 10,000 parishioners. Would it be appropriate for me to assign my contribution for our archbishop’s annual appeal to a nearby smaller church that I sometimes visit?
Our own parish always exceeds its obligation comfortably, while I suspect that the smaller parish is challenged to do so. (To be completely honest, I would probably join that other parish if it were a bit closer.) (Atlanta area, Georgia)
A. I heartily endorse your idea and can speak from my own experience. In our diocese — and I suspect this is replicated widely — each parish is given a specific assessment for the annual diocesan appeal. If a parish does not make that figure during the campaign, it supplies the difference from its own parish funds.
But if it exceeds the assigned amount, 50 percent of the excess is rebated to the parish. In the parish from which I recently retired (after 24 years as pastor), parishioners were exceedingly generous and always pledged considerably more than the assessed figure.
More than once, a person who was enrolled in our parish but sometimes attended Mass elsewhere would ask if they could credit their bishops’ appeal donation to that other parish, knowing that it was struggling to make its quota.
I always encouraged them to do exactly that; the church is wider than one’s own parish, and blessings should be shared.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr. Albany, New York 12203.