In the United States, a pervasive intellectualism continues its stranglehold on Catholics, thwarting our flourishing. Again and again, we hear the need for “doctrinal clarity,” or about how Pope Francis is “confusing.” Many seem to believe that being clear-minded and certain are among the most important—if not the most important—markers of faithful Catholic living. Many Catholics, including outspoken bishops, have stressed the need to reaffirm the Church’s teaching on abortion, the Eucharist, and gay marriage. They seem to be motivated by a belief that failing to control the faithful’s thoughts and behavior on these matters is indicative of ineffective catechesis.
The weight given to orthodoxy and orthopraxis in Catholic public life today may be causing counterproductive attitudes among the faithful. When our primary emphasis is placed on “understanding” Church teaching, rather than on embracing the Gospel and our need for conversion and transformation through cooperation with the grace of God, the more we create the illusion that faith itself is within the grasp of our intellectual powers. This mindset begets Pelagianism, a sinister ideology, which in its various forms saps Christians of their joy and zeal (cf. Gaudete et Exsultate 47-49). It is one thing to recognize that ongoing education and formation in the faith are essential, but it is another thing altogether to use intellectual or academic categories like “natural law” to browbeat the faithful into submission. Where is “grace” in these discussions?
Rather than re-proposing the same teachings over and over with diminishing results, perhaps we should shift our emphasis toward building up some areas that remain strengths in the Catholic population. One such strength is an attachment to prayer. Despite falling Mass attendance and declining Church affiliation, a very large percentage of Catholics (>80%) still pray at least weekly, with most (59%) praying at least daily. Despite differences on specific beliefs and practices, the vast majority of Catholics have an openness to the Divine life and can be encouraged to thank God more regularly and to ask for God’s help. As Pope Francis said during his recently-concluded Catechesis on Prayer, prayer may be most adequately expressed as a cry of the heart. He explained,
Faith is a protest against a pitiful condition the cause of which we do not understand. Lack of faith is to limit ourselves to endure a situation to which we have become accustomed. Faith is the hope of being saved. Lack of faith is becoming accustomed to the evil that oppresses us and continuing in that way.
To nurture a habit of prayer may be the most important pastoral need in our Church right now. Although many of us have occasional habits of prayer, remarkably few have developed the skill of prayer. The Catholic faithful is “crying out” in the darkness, hoping for an answer, but without understanding how God speaks to us. We are therefore unable to discern his voice and listen to it. In daily life’s distractions, prayer can seem fruitless and God can seem distant. Pope Francis discussed this experience at length during his catechesis, saying,
The Catechism lists a long series of enemies of prayer, those that make it difficult to pray, that put us in difficulty (cf. nn. 2726-2728). Some doubt that prayer can truly reach the Almighty: why does God remain silent? If God is Almighty, he could say a couple of words and end the matter. Faced with the elusiveness of the divine, others suspect that prayer is merely a psychological operation; something that may be useful, but is neither true nor necessary: and one could even be a practitioner without being a believer; and so on, many explanations.
Prayer can be a struggle for many. Even the Pope has admitted his own difficulties. Francis offered a few potential responses to our struggles with prayer informed by the saints. “In times of trial, it is good to remember that we are not alone, that someone is at our side, watching over and protecting us.” He went on to explain,
Jesus is always with us: If in a moment of blindness we cannot perceive his presence, we will succeed in the future. We will also end up repeating the same sentence that the patriarch Jacob said one day: “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it” (Gen 28:16). At the end of our life, looking back, we too will be able to say: “I thought I was alone, but I was not: Jesus was with me”. We will all be able to say this.
But why must prayer be so important? Aren’t admonitions and exhortations from our bishops, priests, and lay leaders sufficient to shape people in holiness? Pope Francis doesn’t think so. “I do not believe in holiness without prayer” (Gaudete et Exsultate 147). In other words, all the doctrinal explanations, bishops’ statements and media appearances, grandstanding blog posts, and Twitter debates are worth nothing if the faithful do not know first how to cultivate the habit of prayer in their daily lives. Prayer “nourishes a daily commitment to love,” according to Francis, and “has the power to open the mind to a great horizon and to broaden the heart.” Most succinctly, Francis said, “We grow in faith inasmuch as we learn to pray.”
We all need ongoing conversion in prayer in order to convert our lives. We can pray through the Church’s liturgy, privately, and in groups. Likewise, Pope Benedict taught in Sacramentum Caritatis that, “the moral urgency born of welcoming Jesus into our lives is the fruit of gratitude for having experienced the Lord’s unmerited closeness” (82). This experience of closeness with the Lord is found primarily in prayer.
If the faith was about nothing but ideas and right understanding, then we wouldn’t need to pray. We would only need to study and think and cultivate our intellects. But the truth is that much more important than our woefully inadequate ideas about God is the encounter with the radical gift of his mercy in Jesus Christ. To become more fully shaped by God’s love requires prayer. In our Church today, an effective pastor is one who fosters the encounter with God that is necessary to open up the power of prayer to every member of his flock.