By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia

As we begin to prepare ourselves for the observance of Lent, we reflect this week on one of its principal themes: prayer.

Simple yet profound
In one sense, it seems unnecessary to devote a feature as long as this article to the concept of prayer, because prayer can be seen as something which is very simple: prayer is conversation. All of us have a concept of conversation because it comes to us naturally as we progress, from speaking our first words to interacting with other people in the exchange of words and thoughts, which we call conversation.

To the degree that prayer can be defined as conversation, it should be simple to describe. It is the other part of the definition of prayer that reminds us that we are dealing with a profound reality: prayer is conversation with God! In fact, I remember once reading this definition of prayer: “Prayer is the miracle by which the creature can speak with the Creator.”

A traditional definition of prayer, which many of us are familiar with, reminds us that it is only a man or woman, made in God’s image and likeness, who can engage in prayer. We say: “Prayer is the lifting up of the mind and heart to God.”

While this is a well-known catechism definition of prayer, it actually comes to us from St. John Damascene (676-749), so we can see how ancient and well-founded this definition is. No other earthly order of creation is capable of prayer, because no other portion of material creation can “lift up the mind and heart.” Only we, with our power to know, to reason and to communicate in love, are capable of this lifting up of the mind and heart to God.

We may ask ourselves what it means for prayer to come “from the heart.” All prayer involves the whole person, but Scripture speaks more than a thousand times of the heart as the source of prayer. Obviously, we are not merely speaking of the heart as a human organ of the body, but something that seems to best represent the whole person, with all of his or her abilities to know and to love.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this understanding of the heart in this manner: “The heart is the dwelling place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place ‘to which I withdraw.’ The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully” (CCC, 2563).

As we reflect on the concept of prayer this week, and renew our good intentions to deepen its place in our lives, it would seem that this understanding of the heart, as the origin of prayer, is very helpful as a foundation and an encouragement to prayer. The following words of Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val (1865-1930), Secretary of State of Saint Pius X, may help us. He wrote: “It is up to us to turn our heart into a little Cenacle (this is the intimate gathering place for Jesus and the apostles and, later, for Mary and the apostles). Then nothing will upset us. There may be things to upset us on the outside but we can always find peace and recollection in the Cenacle of our heart.”

Mental and vocal prayer
Is there a difference between what we call mental prayer and vocal prayer and, what are these two forms of prayer? All of us know what we call “prayers.” These are usually written forms, which we have either learned as children, or which have become dear to us through long and faithful use. These are certainly good, and when we use them with attention and love, they are a great aid in communicating with God, His Mother and His special friends, the angels and saints.

Jesus acknowledged the value of vocal prayer when He responded to the question of His Apostles: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). He taught them, and us, that greatest of all vocal prayers, the “Our Father,” also known as “The Lord’s Prayer,” because it comes to us directly from Him. In this prayer, we find all the basic elements of vocal prayer: confidence, humility, praise and petition. In many ways, all other vocal prayers are patterned after the Lord’s Prayer.

Vocal prayers, written by someone else, are certainly good, especially the one given to us by Jesus Himself. However, God is certainly also pleased with what comes directly from our own hearts, in our own words. This is what we may call mental prayer. If you say the Rosary, as it is meant to be recited, you are already practicing both vocal and mental prayer. While using the vocal prayers of the Our Father and the Hail Mary, we think about, or meditate on, the great mysteries contained in the lives of Jesus and Mary. In this way, we learn the important lessons of the Gospel, and draw closer to Jesus and Mary. So we see that mental prayer and vocal prayer go together.

We are united with the entire Body of Christ in prayer
In the first Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, the priest prays: “In union with the whole Church….” In the Mass, which is the public worship of the Church, and our perfect sacrifice of forgiveness and praise, we are united with the Church throughout the world. When we pray, as baptized Christians, we are united the entire praying Church. This is why we can pray for one another and for the needs of the Church.

We see this in a very specific way in the Mass, when we are united in prayer with Pope Benedict, the Chief Shepherd of the Church and with me, as the Shepherd of this local Church. How grateful I am for this remembrance in the Mass, for I surely need the prayers of the faithful. The Bishop of a diocese is also obliged to celebrate Mass regularly “for the flock” entrusted to his care, just as the pastor of your parish is obliged to celebrate Mass “for the people” of the parish.

Even apart from the perfect prayer of the Mass, which unites us with the sacrifice of Christ made present on the altar, we can also be united in prayer for one another in our private prayers.

In the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul tells us: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). We help to bear the burdens of others by praying for them. Among those who are always in need of our prayers, but especially at this time, are the victims of sexual abuse, especially victims of clerical sexual abuse. As we have committed ourselves to pray for them in the past, so we do so again, along with all the other efforts we make to ease their burden and bring healing to their lives.

This can also bring to our minds what is called prayer of reparation. Since we are united with our brothers and sisters in Christ in their sufferings, we are also united in our efforts to try to make up for the sins and scandal of others. This is a response to what is a grave offense against God, as well as against human victims.

Writing of this form of prayer, especially prayed before the Blessed Sacrament, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Through intense prayer before the Real Presence of the Lord, you can make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm, at the same time imploring the grace of renewed strength and a deeper sense of mission on the part of all bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful” (Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, 19 March 2010).

The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that Jesus makes it possible for us “to speak freely to God, drawing near Him with confidence” (Ephesians 3:12). As we are invited to take advantage of this “miracle,” through which the creature speaks with the Creator, let us renew our effort not only to speak freely with God in prayer, but to also have a heart that is open to listening to Him in return. In this way, we will practice the idea of prayer given to us by the recently-beatified Cardinal John Henry Neumann: “Heart speaks to heart.”

24 February 2011