“And now I would like to give the blessing, but first I want to ask you a favor. Before the bishop blesses the people, I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me — the prayer of the people for their Bishop. Let us say this prayer — your prayer for me — in silence”
— Pope Francis, in his first speech as Pope at the balcony of St. Peter’s basilica
March 13th, 2013
One of the first acts of Francis as pontiff was to ask for prayers from the faithful. Prayers for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI… but especially and most poignantly for himself, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and for the success of the titanic task ahead of him as shepherd of the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, where a well-formed Catholic in any other circumstance would see nothing but a saintly attitude, worthy of a holy pope (after all, every single one of our endeavors should be preceded by prayers,) this specific prayer request was accompanied by criticism from the outset. Formerly faithful Catholics were already losing their minds because of Francis’ name choice (too “liberal” and “hippie” for them) and because of the humble vestments he wore for his presentation (which were not “traditional” enough.) So they took the saintliness of this prayer request out of context and started criticizing him for asking the faithful to bless him. They would claim this was an inversion of due hierarchy, in that it should be the Pope to bless the people, not the other way around.
Of course, someone who would have actually read the full speech with objectivity would see that the Pope had indeed blessed the people as he should. And that he didn’t ask the people to bless him, but for them to ask God to bless him. No hierarchical inversion there.
However, if we had enough discernment, we could see in this speech (and its aftermath) a prelude of what Francis’ pontificate would be. On the one hand, asking for intercession on the part of his faithful is a sign of humility. Also, it is a basic tenet of Francis’ theology that every action should be done in the context of intense prayer. Therefore, Francis led by example.
On the other hand, the outcry against such a positive request from the Pope can be seen as the precursor of the current dissent and widespread disobedience against the Holy Father. It didn’t start with the abuse scandal, not even with theological divergences… those are just the pretexts advanced to justify a certain inclination, which is the real root of the general rebellion against Francis. What is this inclination? An attitude of suspicion towards anything that doesn’t fit a particular worldview of how the Church should be… and the idea that it is up to oneself to militate / defend this worldview as if it were true Catholicism.
Long before Amoris Laetitia, right in the first weeks of this papacy, Catholics with this mindset were already going berserk because they now had to apply their suspicion to the Pope himself. I remember watching this spectacle in the social media and blog comboxes. Whether Francis would’ve published Amoris Laetitia or not, sooner or later, there would be rebellion for certain. Anyone could see that.
More importantly, the hostility towards a prayer request for the success of a holy task in the Church can be seen as nothing less than outright Satanic. And I have no doubt that the Enemy would’ve seen in this suspicion and fear and closedness in the hearts of the faithful an opportunity to plant the seeds of what we are seeing right now. There is no other explanation for Catholics to find fault in a Pope asking for prayers for himself… this is actually quite traditional. If you peruse those same Catholic social media that were outraged against Francis and go backwards until the pontificates of Benedict XVI or John Paul II, you will find many pious and devout people praying for their Pope. In fact, we do that in every Mass… in a rubric aptly called: “prayers of the faithful.”
This hostility towards prayers (inexplicable to a Catholic, but so typical of the influence of the forces of Hell) may have stayed latent for years, but eventually had to resurface and overflow to other situations as well. When the abuse scandal erupted, threatening to tear the Church apart and hindering its capacity to reach out to the World, the Pope took initiative and issued a Letter to the People of God, asking for prayers and penance from the whole community of the faithful. Later on, the Pope made a rosary call for the same intentions, so that all Catholics would pray a daily rosary throughout the Marian month of October, coupled with a Sub Tuum Praesidium to Our Lady and the prayer of St. Michael Archangel.
This was met with loud criticism from Francis’ critics, which decried these projects as mere “prayers”, with no “action.” So it happened that people who, for years and years, had criticized the idea of the Church as a NGO, completely focused on social action and stripped of its spiritual and eschatological meaning, were now proclaiming loud and clear the primacy of action over prayers. Conservative Catholics who, in other debates would defend the opposite, would now perfectly mirror the liberal arguments minimizing “thoughts and prayers” as an excuse to avoid due action. And apologists who lionized Pope St. Pius V’s rosary call as the reason why Christianity was able to win the heart of Europe in the battle of Lepanto, were suddenly unenthusiastic about rosary calls as a way for the Church to gain victory in a difficult situation.
So there it goes to show that people who defend an idolatric view of tradition, so rigid that even a pastoral approach can’t be changed, end up sacrificing everything that really is fundamental to Catholicism, from papal primacy to the value of prayers.
Instead of heeding the Pope’s call for prayers, those critics preferred to rail around a disgruntled archbishop, who had accused the Pope of mishandling an abuse case, before fleeing to an unknown hiding place, accessible only to favorable media that would not report on the many inconsistencies found in his testimony. From Viganò’s supporters came a vast number of those who criticized the Pope’s call to prayers as “no action.” Why? Because the “action” proposed by Viganò was the Pope’s resignation, something that would delight his critics, since they hope a future pope will come along and “correct” the teachings they disagree with. Even when the resignation plan died out, as a violent wave crashing against the Rock of Peter before disolving, they would keep doubling down on calls to “action” against the lavender mafia, a boogeyman overestimated to undermine Francis’ papacy, whenever he says or does something that doesn’t sit well with his critics.
At least the secular NGO’s action, even if stripped of spiritual meaning, tries to emulate (albeit imperfectly) the Church’s praxis. But those who call for “action” and minimize prayers, just to attack the Pope because they don’t like him, have no semblance of Catholicism in their actions. Action in such a grave situation as the abuse scandal can only be preceded by intense prayers and penance if it is to be successful. Sexually abusing the bodily integrity of an image of God, especially children, can only be described as demonic, particularly if carried out by a member of the clergy… and therefore, any action against such heinous crimes can only flounder if the global Church fails to pray on it for guidance on what to do. Claire Navarro has written superbly about this matter and why the Pope’s call for prayers is spot on and necessary.
But can we say that these papal critics do not pray for the Pope? No. They do. Or at least, they say they do. The problem is, they pray on their own terms. In doing so, they eschewed (when not sabotaged through public complaining) the Pope’s call to prayer on such a fundamental topic.
Nevertheless, the Pope’s intentions are a special prayer intention. It is part of our tradition: praying for the Pope’s intentions is one of the three acts one must perform to achieve an indulgence. In contrast, not every personal prayer intention has the same value. For example, praying for someone’s death is not acceptable, nor pleasing to God.
And yet, that is precisely what some of these papal critics have done! Granted, only the most extreme go to such lengths, but it is undeniable that some people have been praying that God will shorten this papacy, in order to preserve Catholicism (or what they perceive to be Catholicism.) If you ask me, preserving Catholicism is accomplished by not enshrining as acceptable such an anti-Catholic prayer as asking for a pope’s death.
But there is a more subtle, insidious way to misuse prayer to resist the pontiff. I have noted that, whenever someone who is publicly (and many times viciously) criticizing Francis is called out on it, he/she will inevitably tone down his/her speech and glumly proclaim: “I’m not disrespectful! I pray for the Pope everyday!”
It is interesting how these critics always fall back on the same rhetorical devices. I already lost count of all the dissenters who have piously said “But I pray for the Pope” as if that justified anything they are doing.
What are those prayers, though? Of course, every person will construe prayers in his/her own way, but it is of no use to pray for the Pope while undermining him in public, regardless of the content of those prayers, or how well-intentioned they may be.
It is also not an appropriate use of prayer to pray that the Pope will stop teaching the doctrine one disagrees with, so that the Church will be conformed to what one thinks it should be. Just to get my point across, it would not be pleasing to God to hear a liberal pray that the Pope will overturn the Humanae Vitae. The same can be said about Francis’ teachings.
Those who pray for the Pope should, as any other Catholic, direct their prayer first and foremost to themselves if they want to see a more holy Church. This means praying that God will change in ourselves not only the things we would like to see changed, but also the changes we need, but don’t accept in our lives… like admitting that a certain papal teaching is orthodox and correct, even if we disagree with it or don’t understand it.
However, someone who follows Francis knows that those who have strayed from the good path may come back on track through incremental steps. Maybe God can have some use for those prayers, even from those who do not want to submit to the authority of the Pope. In this sense, I think an acceptable prayer for people in that situation would be: “God, please guide the Church to do Your will, whatever that will might be.”
This is actually biblical and expressly stated in the supreme prayer: Our Father. By not trying to force the hand of God into a predetermined way, we are letting Him act in the Church, while at the same time making a demonstration of faith that He is indeed guiding the Church. Maybe this will open hearts to the possibility that they may be wrong, for certainly God’s will for the Church is that every single one of its member be in communion with the Vicar of Christ.
Those who do follow the Pope can certainly pray this prayer alongside those who have fallen away, with no fear. And those who criticize the Pope, will certainly not object to it if they really believe that they are actually fighting for what God’s will is. In this sense, I think this proposal could unite our already much divided Church and purify the intentions of those who claim to “pray for the Pope.”
Let us pray for the Holy Father, with the right intention, then!
[Photo credit: Montage with Study of Praying Hands, from Dürer, ca. 1508]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.