By Fr David Stewart SJ
The Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network prays with the Pope each month, sharing his specific intention for the challenges that face humanity and the church’s mission. The pandemic that is sweeping the world at the moment is one of the greatest challenges that humanity has faced. It is, as this piece is being written, already causing numerous events and publications to be out-of-date. The Holy Father’s Intentions are selected, after careful deliberation and prayer, some months in advance.
This month, we have another way of praying with the Pope. It is very likely that, in the month of April and particularly during Holy Week and the Easter triduum, all our attention and all our prayer will be focussed on the epidemic and efforts to cope with this situation. Conceivably, we might not have public liturgies at all this year. The Pope had already selected an intention for this month: ‘that those suffering from addiction may be helped and accompanied’. This intention is really important in many of our towns and cities but it will be hard, whatever happens in these fast-moving days, to concentrate on anything other than the virus pandemic. But let’s try. When our hearts are open to the possibility of prayer, then we can be open to all that humanity experiences. We should always be open to the possibility of a prayer; we can all be Apostles of Prayer. There is nothing in human experience that cannot be the topic or substance of our prayer. Nothing is strange or alien to God.
Praying with the unexpected
In our busy contemporary way of life, schedules for all manner of public events are, of necessity, planned well in advance. We make our plans and we’re in control of events. Between planning and delivery things can change. ‘The best-laid plans...’ wrote a great poet once. Sometimes we must adjust and adapt, taking careful note of what our interior attitude is telling us. Are we annoyed because an enforced change is inconvenient? Are we open to remembering that others, too, are affected and that the call to each one of us, that we hear in the better part of ourselves, is to look out for the others, for the Common Good? Most of us, probably, most of the time experience a mix of both reactions in ourselves.
The heart of the Church’s mission is prayer
As we look over each day, towards the end of each day, asking God’s Holy Spirit to shed its gentle light on our day, we will recognise when we have followed now this, or now that reaction, when we have been closed in on ourselves, perhaps annoyed by the demands on us, or when we’ve been open to others, our natural generosity guiding our reactions more than our occasional selfishness. It’s always a good idea to take those few moments of reflection each day. In the Ignatian tradition, which appeals to many Christians and others of good will, this is sometimes called the ‘Daily Examen’, or ‘Prayer of Daily Awareness’.
Most of us have never experienced anything like this before. As with every tragic situation, we do need to remember, deliberately and intentionally, the importance of discerning well and praying well, so that the Bad Spirit has fewer opportunities to lead us down a pathway of despair and hopelessness.
This virus pandemic is a call for kindness, not a moment to despair. So many events, as March unrolled, were cancelled or postponed and many civic activities were suspended. There has been a lot of fear, but fear is not from God. Despair is not from God. Let’s reflect on this. The darkness that we’re living through will make us hesitate. What use is prayer? What use is religion? Churches are closed, events are cancelled, but what is not cancelled is our love, our solidarity. Christian love is not cancelled. Christian prayer is not cancelled. Laughter and friendship are not cancelled. The compassion of the Heart of Christ for all of creation is not cancelled. Solidarity, one of the essential pillars of our Catholic Social Teaching, is not cancelled. Our concern for the common good, which is not an optional extra for the Catholic Christian, is not cancelled.
Praying in times of great trial
We are concerned for the common good. This is distinct from the greatest good for greatest number of people, but is about the good of the most vulnerable, who are least able to speak up, who are the most powerless. What underlies that is our absolute belief that we are not separate from each other, we ARE each other. That is true of individuals and families, of countries, faiths and races. Of course, we will pray for ourselves when the future looks bleak and especially when we are scared. Each day, as this situation has unfolded, we have seen and heard of extraordinary acts of human kindness and self-forgetfulness. Each one of these actions is the answer to an unspoken prayer. Each one speaks of hope.
Christian hope is a virtue, a grace that we can ask for and which we can develop in ourselves simply by practising it. As we live hope, more and more we live in hope and we are hope to others.
Praying with St Ignatius
In a section of his Spiritual Exercises that St Ignatius calls the Third Week, he invites us into the extremes of the Passion in solidarity with Christ. It’s Holy Week, it’s Good Friday, it’s the Stations of the Cross. Some of us will hesitate. St Ignatius knew this, and so he suggested that we pray for this grace: to pray to be sorrowful with Christ sorrowful, for anguish with Christ in anguish, for tears and deep grief because of what Christ endures for me, for us. Unify your prayer with Christ’s, for he unifies his with yours. And above all keep looking for the face of Jesus in all of this; turn to his blessed mother with our heartfelt prayers, for her prayers are heartfelt too. In our hearts, our souls, will well up that spring of living water, welling up to Resurrection and eternal life.
Pope Francis’ prayer to Our Lady
Pope Francis composed the following prayer to Mary, referring to her by the Roman title of Mother of Divine Love. Let us pray it with him and share it with anyone who would like to pray it too. St Ignatius of Loyola was keen to encourage approaching Our Lady with our prayers and petitions, asking her to present them to her son, Jesus.
O Mary, you shine continuously along our journey as a sign of salvation and hope.
We entrust ourselves to you, health of the sick, who at the Cross were near to the pain of Jesus, keeping your faith firm.
You, salvation of the Roman people, know what we need and we trust that you will provide for those needs so that, as at Cana in Galilee, joy and celebration may return after this moment of trial.
Help us, Mother of Divine Love, to conform ourselves to the will of the Father and to do what Jesus tells us. He took our sufferings on himself and took up our sorrows to bring us, through the Cross, to the joy of the Resurrection.
We seek refuge under your protection, O Holy Mother of God. Amen.