Faith is the miraculous gift of God. In faith, we are reborn. Through faith, we are sustained by God’s grace. But how do we nurture faith? In a recent Wednesday catechesis, Pope Francis said, “We grow in faith inasmuch as we learn to pray.” And he wrote in Gaudete et Exsultate, “Prayer is most precious, for it nourishes a daily commitment to love.” Nothing is more essential to a faith-filled life than prayer.
Pope Francis’s remarkable catechesis on prayer is now complete, and it is available in its entirety on the Vatican website. Francis, like his predecessors, has delivered many of his Wednesday General Audiences in catechetical series devoted to important themes and foundational elements of Catholic life, including the sacraments, the liturgy, and the Creed. This series of catechesis on prayer is among his longer ones, and has illuminated the importance of prayer in Francis’s theology and how necessary it is for the life of the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis began his catechesis on prayer early in the global coronavirus pandemic, in May 2020. Because of government restrictions and health precautions, Francis delivered his first catechesis on prayer, not in St. Peter’s square, but from the Library of the Apostolic Palace. Throughout the pandemic, when many were locked in their homes and public celebrations of Mass were suspended, Francis continued teaching the Christian Church about prayer: the theology of prayer, the importance of prayer, and suggestions on how to overcome common pitfalls in the habit of prayer.
The catechesis can be broken down into a few overarching topics: an introduction (1-2), what Scripture has to say about prayer (3-16), different kinds of prayer (17-21), praying with and as the Church (22-29), the daily experience of prayer (30-35), and the prayer of Jesus (36-38).
Pope Francis’s catechesis brings together theology, lived experience, Scripture, and the writings of the Saints to teach us how to pray better. For example, the catechesis begins with the acknowledgment that “prayer belongs to everyone” and concludes with a beautiful meditation on Jesus’ prayer on the Cross. He says that prayer is the “breath of faith” and later spends several audiences explaining common pitfalls and struggles of prayer.
One of these struggles, Francis acknowledges, is that we live in a world where our senses are constantly bombarded. Everything seems to demand our attention. In response to this, the Pope encourages us to remain “vigilant” and to fight against our distractedness with mental discipline, like athletes.
Later, Francis addresses the concern of many people who believe they simply don’t have time for prayer or that prayer is unimportant. Francis responds by explaining that prayer helps us to get in touch with reality. Nothing can be more real than God himself, to whom all things owe their existence. To pray, then, is to nurture the faith that God has given us, to strengthen it, and to be steeped every more deeply in the fullness of God’s plan for our lives. When considered in this way, “prayer is a kind of musical staff, where we inscribe the melody of our lives.”
To be clear, this is not an academic theological treatise. Even in comparison to the previous two popes, who often used their Wednesday audiences to speak more informally—the Theology of the Body notwithstanding—Francis’s style is fluid and conversational. His catechesis frequently includes lighthearted jokes or anecdotes from family life. It is at the same time, practical, enlightening, and uplifting.
At the end of this series of catecheses, Francis reminds us that as Christians we never pray alone; we always pray with Jesus. Perhaps more importantly, Jesus is praying for us! Francis reminds us that Jesus is a model of prayer. We know that Jesus, though he is God, often went off to pray by himself. If Jesus—who shares perfect intimacy with the Father—prayed, then certainly we must also pray. Of course, we pray with Jesus because we pray through his priestly intercession. But perhaps most poignantly, Jesus prays for us. Even on the cross, his prayer was for us and for our salvation, and he is constantly praying with the Father on our behalf. As Francis said,
Remember the grace that we do not only pray, but that, so to speak, we have been ‘prayed for’, we have already been received in Jesus’ dialogue with the Father, in communion with the Holy Spirit. Jesus prays for me: each one of us can take this to heart. We must not forget.
On a final, personal note, I strongly urge you to read the entire catechesis, taking time to reflect on each address. And keep watching this space as we reflect more deeply on Francis’s teachings in this catechesis on prayer.