December 1, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

First of two columns on prayers of petition

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series)

Until now, I’ve written seven columns about prayer without mentioning prayers of petition. I’ll remedy that by devoting two columns to prayers of petition.

Such prayers are, undoubtedly, the most common—perhaps too common even if the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “when we share in God’s saving love, we understand that every need can become the object of petition” (#2633, emphasis in the catechism).

That may be true, but I can’t help but wonder at times. When Notre Dame and Boston College are playing each other in football, and both teams are praying for victory, what’s the good Lord to do?

They say that prayers of petition are the lowest and least essential kind of prayer because they are self-centered.

But aren’t they also the most human? Was Jesus being self-centered or just completely human when, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “Take this cup away from me”? (Lk 22:42). Of course, he prefaced that prayer with, “Father, if you are willing,” which should be the way we begin all our prayers of petition.

The greatest prayer of petition undoubtedly is for the wisdom to know God’s will for us, and the courage and ability to do it. I’ll have more to say about that in a later column.

It seems today that the whole concept of prayer is synonymous with petition. “What are you praying for?” As if we are always praying “for” something when we pray.

We pray for good health, for success in school or in our profession, for a happy marriage, for all the things we believe we need in life to make us happy. Perhaps such prayers are not as exalted as prayers of adoration, but so what? We are acknowledging our relationship, our dependence, upon God, and asking him confidently for what we want.

Do prayers of petition really do any good though? Are we supposed to believe that God, who is omniscient and knows from all eternity what is going to happen, is going to change his mind as a result of our prayers? Well, no, not exactly. He doesn’t have to change his mind because he knows, from all eternity, that we are going to ask him for something and that he will grant it. God hears, and answers, our prayers before we ever say them.

St. Augustine tackled this problem. He wrote: “Why [God] should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want [for he cannot fail to know it] but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us.”

Furthermore, God’s knowledge of what we are going to do in the future doesn’t destroy our freedom to decide whether or not we are going to do it. He knows our future actions to be the freely performed actions they are. †

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