“Here we see that intercessory prayer does not divert us from true contemplation, since authentic contemplation always has a place for others.” (Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium 281)
Having grown up in a Christian evangelical household, prayer was unconsciously understood as intercessory prayer. When we got together in church to pray or in our home, it always implied that we would be lifting up intentions on behalf of ourselves and those around us. I can still remember my father early in the morning crying out to God in the other room asking Him for His help and provisions. I was raised in a household where we brought before Our Lord all that we needed in faith and assurance that He would hear us.
St Paul urges, “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (I Tim 2:1) We also see in the early church when Peter was in prison “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” (Acts 12:5) Intercession was perhaps the prayer of choice for St Paul who goes as far as to encourage the Ephesian believers to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph 6:18). He also mentions that he was “constantly mentioning” people in his prayers. (I Thes 1:2)
When I entered the Catholic Church in 1999 I began studying the Church’s teaching on prayer with great interest. So many forms of prayer and ways to live out the spiritual life! I fell in love with the scriptural rosary. I loved the Mass. I began using a variety of prayer books and for the first time began praying the Psalms as though they were my own. All this was so very good for me. I admit, though, that I began to intercede less. I began to think that Intercession was a lesser form of prayer for beginners and that meditation and contemplation were higher forms of prayer to which I needed to dedicate all my focus. I remember reading with great interest The Cloud of Unknowing and falling head over heals for the Jesus Prayer.
Nevertheless I have come to see that in all our zeal for deeper prayer we can miss out on the profound encounter with Jesus, indeed a Christocentric form of contemplation that Pope Francis, in his great pastoral wisdom, is encouraging us to foster. The rediscovery of personal intercession, I believe, will lead us to fresh waters and spiritual richness.
Before looking at the Papal teaching I wanted to mention that I found it quite difficult to discover any teachings from Catholics in the last millennium on intercession. A simple internet search on Catholics and intercession got me nearly half a million its and yet pages and pages were simply devoted to the intercession of the saints, apologetic endeavors to defend saintly intercession, or liturgical forms of intercession. The development of personal intercession seems greatly neglected. I believe this dearth of formation is the backdrop for Pope Francis’ exhortation.
In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis draws to our attention two forms of prayer particularly necessary for modern believers- missionary-disciples. One is Lectio Divina (which we will discuss in a later post) and intercessory prayer. He devotes an entire section of his exhortation (281-283) to this particular form of prayer.
In our modern globalized conscience we are aware as never before of what is going on in our world. Many people experience deep anxiety over what is happening all over the world which leads oftentimes to a feeling of powerlessness before all the suffering and evil in the world. It can move us towards indifference and a sense of futility in our charitable actions which seem to do so little in the world. We can become suspicious and closed off to our neighbors who seem wholly other and threatening. Yet seen in a different light it is an opportunity for greater encounter if we allow Jesus to guide us.
One could certainly call globalization a crisis. Pope Francis recently points to a way of understanding crisis based upon the Chinese word for crisis which is taken from two words “danger” and “opportunity.” (Pope Francis Feb 17, 2017) The danger is that we disown our neighbors excluding them from our love and compassion thus dehumanizing them. Any time we respond to another human person with any attitude but that of love we dehumanize them. (Karol Wojtyla Love and Responsibility)
The opportunity is that in others we can encounter Jesus. Jesus said He would be with us always (Matt 28:20). He certainly is with us in the Holy Eucharist but also He meets us in our neighbor, especially in the poor. Pope Francis encourages us to take advantage of the opportunity to meet Jesus in other people.
In Evangelii Gaudium 281 Francis says:
One form of prayer moves us particularly to take up the task of evangelization and to seek the good of others: it is the prayer of intercession.
An awareness of others needs should lead us to desire for them a personal encounter with Jesus. That should be our first response. As Pope Saint John Paul II stated in Mission of the Redeemer “The poor are hungry for God, not just for bread and freedom. Missionary activity must first of all bear witness to and proclaim salvation in Christ.” We need to realize that before any other need the human person desires to know that God is with them. This is the true task of evangelization. The message is simple:
Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you. (Ev Gaud 164)
We need to believe that deep inside the human person is longing for this revelation. Your maker loves you and is for you. Intercession should first and foremost increase our desire to encounter others with this message. As Pope Francis says intercession should move us to evangelization:
“We are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize.” (Ev Gaud 266)
Intercession also opens our hearts to other people’s needs. As we ask God to move in the lives of others it reminds us of our filial relationship with them. It calls us on to greater compassion. How can we disown the person we have been bringing to mind in our personal time with God?
“We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!” (Ev Gaud 274)
Certainly Saint Paul was constantly praying for others in his personal prayer time (Phil 1:4,7). He was a mystic and yet we can clearly see “that intercessory prayer does not divert us from true contemplation, since authentic contemplation always has a place for others.” (Ev Gaud 281) I think of the long lists of names the Dorothy Day kept and prayed for every day. I realize I was mistaken about the idea of contemplation and the place of others in my prayer life.
Intercession, Francis teaches, leads us to a greater gratitude to God for others. This is so important today when the world has become so connected. We can easily become threatened by others. How often the fear of another destroying my way of life gets in the way of authentic Christian love! Yet when I intercede for others I begin to realize all God is doing in the life of others and in my own life.
[Intercession] is a spiritual gaze born of deep faith which acknowledges what God is doing in the lives of others. At the same time, it is the gratitude which flows from a heart attentive to others. When evangelizers rise from prayer, their hearts are more open; freed of self-absorption, they are desirous of doing good and sharing their lives with others. (Ev Gaud 282)
How many people would be changed if they began praying for their enemies, for immigrants, for refugees, for anyone on the periphery, and trying to see what they needed as they prayed. How often would we discover the value in our neighbor as we ask God to give them their daily bread. Our hearts can be opened by encountering the needs of others seeking to understand rather than be understood. It opens doors rather than building walls.
So many of the great men and woman of the Bible were intercessors. I think of Moses arguing with God for His people. I think of Abraham pleading for the few righteous men in Sodom. I think of Jesus n His high priestly prayer of John 17. One could go on. Francis says that:
Intercession is like a “leaven” in the heart of the Trinity. It is a way of penetrating the Father’s heart and discovering new dimensions which can shed light on concrete situations and change them. (Ev Gaud 283)
Our society longs for change. We ourselves long for a better world. Yet without God we are utterly powerless. All our actions amount to so precious little. When we intercede for others we touch Jesus and can be drawn into the very heart of the Trinity. We encounter our neighbors needs but find that God “in reality is always there first.” (Ev gaud 283)
During this lent I want to encourage you and myself to intercede more, to exercise your priestly ministry given at Baptism. I am reminded of the words of the Second Vatican Council concerning the lay members of the Church:
“Their work, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily labor, their mental and physical relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life if patiently borne-all of these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Pt 2:5). During the celebration of the Eucharist these sacrifices are most lovingly offered to the Father along with the Lord’s body. Thus as worshipers whose every deed is holy, the lay faithful consecrate the world itself to God”(Lumen Gentium 34).
We can truly consecrate the world itself during the offering of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. While the ministerial priesthood asks Jesus to become present in the bread and wine we ask Him to become present in our everyday lives, in those we meet on the streets and online. Rather than simply offering assent to the petitions during the sacred liturgy let us begin personally offering up our world to Jesus so that He “may be all in all.” ( I Cor 15:28)
God bless you in Jesus name.