When we pray generously for others, we truly become like Simon of Cyrene—bearers of the cross
When a request for assistance is made to help someone in need, I am always amazed at how generous people can be, even strangers, with their time, resources, and monetary support. But there is one request for help, usually of the briefest description, that requires an even more generous response. These are the requests for our prayers—“Will you pray for me? Will you pray for…this loved one of mine, this person who is suffering, my marriage, a job, this intention?”
Our prayer is one of the greatest gifts of charity that we can offer another and it is what truly completes any other form of help we can offer someone.
When someone asks for our prayers, we must make every effort to provide them, to bring the person and their need before God. This is not always easy to do, and I must admit that there was one occasion last month when I thought I might have to decline a prayer request of Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, while attending a meeting of U.S. bishops in Atlanta.
Happening upon the Cardinal and the Vatican’s Papal Nuncio to the United States, I asked His Eminence, “So Cardinal, how are the Cubs doing?” The reaction of Cardinal George, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, was predictable. Of course, the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, knew nothing of the century-old rivalry between the Cubs, who have not won a World Series since 1908, and my St. Louis Cardinals, who won their 11th title last year. Nor did Archbishop Viganò know that with each new baseball season, Cardinal George leads Cubs fans in praying for the elusive World Series win. I was grateful that His Eminence didn’t turn my question around on me and ask me to pray for that intention.
The Church always has considered intercessory prayer to be an integral part of its praise and worship of God, and a most necessary part of living out our faith. One of the highest expressions of this is to have a Mass offered for someone’s intention. And lest we forget, praying for the living and the dead is no less a work of mercy than giving drink to the thirsty is or food to the hungry.
I often think of how requests for our prayers resemble the petition of the Good Thief to Jesus upon Calvary—“Remember me…” (Luke 23:42). So many are crushed in spirit beneath the weight of the cross they struggle with. But in truly praying for another we become like Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21), who helped carry Christ’s cross, giving our shoulder and some relief to those heavily burdened. Indeed, it is our prayer for others that help form us into the saints we are called to be.
It is said that true intercessory prayer knows no boundaries. Of the many we pray for, beginning with the needs of the Church, St. Paul reminds us to also pray “for kings and for all in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1), and even for “those who persecute [us],” praying for their salvation (Romans 12:14; 10:1). But is it possible to pray for those who have caused great and immeasurable harm to us or to our loved ones? The terrible scarring and painful memories from such offenses can be like a long crucifixion, and it is these who most especially need our sustained prayers.
Ultimately, suffering can make us either a worse person or a better one. We see this in the two thieves crucified on either side of Christ (Luke 23:32-43). One only cursed all the more in his suffering and even turned to mocking Christ. But the other thief, in turning toward Christ and moved no doubt by the words of mercy he heard—“Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34), no longer experienced his crucifixion alone, but with Jesus. With our prayers, those tragically wounded by others can be helped to discover their sufferings in Christ’s and even their prayer, “Remember me,” transformed in His mercy so as to include the intention, “Remember them,” for those who had harmed them.
But we must not simply wait for people to ask us to pray for them to begin doing so. A good starting point is to pray individually for those whom we have particularly hurt and sinned against during the course of our life. If we honestly examine our heart, we should have little difficulty assembling a list of those we should pray for daily.
With the month of August, I am reminded in a very personal way of the tremendous gift of people’s prayers. My own health emergency in 2009 certainly helped me to better identify my priestly life with the sick and the suffering. In praying for them and for the many needs of the Church, I have often prayed the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. With this beautiful prayer of petition we call upon her intercession under various titles that include, “Mother of good Counsel,” “Health of the sick,” “Refuge of sinners,” “Comforter of the afflicted,” and “Help of Christians.” What a wonderful Mother we have.
I also have come to more fully appreciate the prayers of saintly people. Here I think of one person in particular who, with his many prayers, helped form my vocation to the priesthood, who guided me through my priestly life, and helped me through the many challenges that none of us are ever short of in life. It was my dear friend Archbishop Francis Zayek whose most generous life of prayer had so blessed me and countless others, and who with his passing continues to intercede for us as one of the saints of heaven that I truly believe he is.
So I ask you to join me in praying generously each day for others, especially the sick and the suffering. With the start of a new school year, please particularly pray for our students, teachers and staffs of our Catholic schools, and especially for the Class of 2013. May they be blessed in their studies, grow in their faith, and become the saints that they are called to be. n