That I May See You

A Look at Benedict XVI’s Catecheses on Christian Prayer

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By Kevin M. Clarke

SAN DIEGO, California, JUNE 22, 2011 ( Reading Benedict XVI’s recent cycle of catecheses on the Fathers of the Church, one can only imagine what it would have been like to study Church history under Joseph Ratzinger, the professor at Tübingen. Now with the latest series of catecheses, this German Pope takes the faithful on a new course — his school of prayer.

“Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Under this theme the Pontiff introduces his next series of catecheses. More than a month into his audiences, the Holy Father appears to be approaching the topic of prayer from salvation history, working from the Old Testament toward the New, and likely from there into the rich history of Christian mysticism.

Thus far in his reflections, he has worked his way up through the prophet Elijah. Like his catechetical series on the Church Fathers, the Pope is using salvation history as the channel through which the theology develops. Even though the course of the reflections is only up to the time of Elijah, the Pope has nonetheless given the Church very much.

The praying pagan

Even apart from Israel — the Chosen People — man has always prayed. And so the Pope began his series on prayer with a historical survey of prayer in ancient pagan cultures. Human beings from the beginning of civilization have recognized the dependence they have had upon “Another” and have reached out in supplication to the Almighty.

The Pope characterized these ancient religions as “an invocation, which from the earth awaits a word from Heaven.” These cries to the unknown One, however, receive an answer that is spoken. They find their fulfillment in divine revelation, which offers to the praying one a chance at a relationship with the one God who is also a Father (General Audience, May 4, 2011).

“Man is religious by nature,” and has been so throughout the entire history of civilization, the Pope said in his general audience on May 11. The same basic metaphysical questions confront men of all times — why am I here? Why is there suffering and death? What will happen to me after this life? (cf. Second Vatican Council, “Nostra Aetate,” No. 1) — but by his own limitations, man is unable to render an answer.

The praying man kneels before the Almighty — not in slavery, but in a gesture of recognition of his weakness and limitation. But the praying man prays because he is attracted to God, according to St. Thomas Aquinas. This God-given attraction “is the soul of prayer, that then takes on a great many forms, in accordance with the history, the time, the moment, the grace and even the sin of every person praying.”

Abraham’s “New Idea of Justice”

Benedict XVI continued his reflections by turning to salvation history and the figure of Abraham — specifically, his intercession for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this well-known story, Abraham negotiated with the Lord for the sake of the cities, to the point where God said that for 10 righteous, he would spare the whole city.

Of course, there were fewer still than 10 actually dwelling therein. But the main observation the Pope makes is that Abraham’s prayer is one for “a new idea of justice” — one of abundant mercy that spares the guilty for the sake of the innocent. Justice in its “superior” form offers mercy and salvation, because if the wicked repent, they too may become righteous.

This theme of mercy for the sake of the few appears again in the day of the prophet Jeremiah, who searches Jerusalem for one righteous person, for whom the whole city may be spared. And as in the case with Sodom and Gomorrah, Jerusalem fell for want of righteous inhabitants.

Thus, the Lord sends his Son, the Pope says, to be that one for us:

“It was to be necessary for God himself to become that one righteous person. And this is the mystery of the Incarnation: to guarantee a just person he himself becomes man. There will always be one righteous person because it is he. However, God himself must become that just man. The infinite and surprising divine love was to be fully manifest when the Son of God was to become man, the definitive Righteous One, the perfect Innocent who would bring salvation to the whole world by dying on the Cross, forgiving and interceding for those who ‘know not what they do’ (Lk 23:34). Therefore the prayer of each one will find its answer, therefore our every intercession will be fully heard” (General Audience, May 18, 2011).

Moses the Mediator

In his general audience on June 1, the Pope offered a lengthy reflection on the value of Moses’ fasting, on his role in the wilderness as mediator for the Israelites before God, and on how Moses’ prefigures Christ and reveals God’s mercy through his intercession on the mountain.

When Moses went up the mountain to receive the law, he fasted — showing that God’s law would give the people their nourishment. The law and entering into a covenant would be a “source of life” for the people. Yet, they sought to mold gods matching their own plans.

Though God asked Moses to leave him alone that his wrath may “burn hot” against the Israelites, God’s words were an invitation to Moses to enter into the role of mediator between the people and God. These words, the Pope says, “were spoken so that Moses might intervene and ask God not to do it, thereby revealing that what God always wants is salvation.”

Moses does this in two ways: He reminds the Lord of the Lord’s own name. After all, what would the Egyptians say about the Lord, who led them out only to have them all perish in the desert? And what about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the covenant the Lord had sworn? Because of Moses’ intercession, the people are spared.

Yet, after destroying the golden calf, the reality of their sin remains; so this “friend” of God ascends the mountain to seek forgiveness for the people or that Moses himself be blotted out of the book of life (cf. Exodus 32:32). In this, the Pope said, “the Fathers of the Church saw a prefiguration of Christ who from the very top of the Cross was truly before God, not only as a friend but as Son.” There, Christ offered himself to be blotted out that the sin of the people be forgiven.

“I think we should meditate upon this reality. Christ stands before God and is praying for me. His prayer on the Cross is contemporary with all human beings, contemporary with me. He prays for me, he suffered and suffers for me, he identified himself with me, taking our body and the human soul. And he asks us to enter this identity of his, making ourselves one body, one spirit with him because from the summit of the Cross he brought not new laws, tablets of stone, but himself, his Body and his Blood, as the New Covenant. Thus he brings us kinship with him, he makes us one body with him, identifies us with him. He invites us to enter into this identification, to be united with him in our wish to be one body, one spirit with him. Let us pray the Lord that this identification may transform and renew us, because forgiveness is renewal and transformation” (General Audience, June 1).

Elijah the Intercessor

On June 15, the Pope offered a brief but thoughtful reflection about the prophet Elijah, “a model of intercessory prayer.” In a famous episode from First Kings, Elijah challenged 450 prophets of Baal to a test of the gods. Which one would answer the prayers to consume a sacrifice — Baal or the Lord God? Of course, the false god Baal gave no answer, despite Elijah’s rather clever mockery (cf. 1 Kings 18:27).

But as Elijah prepared to offer the sacrifice, he said to the people, “Come near to me” (1 Kings 18:30). In saying this, Elijah invites the people to join in his prayer that the natio
n repent from its idolatry. Benedict XVI commented: “In response to Elijah’s prayer, God reveals his fidelity, mercy and saving power through the consuming fire sent down from heaven. He also enables the people to turn back to him and to reaffirm the covenant made with their fathers” (General Audience, June 15, 2011).

“That I may see you” — while this is “the essence” of the prayer of the blind man in Ancient Egypt (General Audience, May 4), the faithful, too, wish to see the Lord through prayer. This picture should be made clearer in the coming months and more as the Pope continues his catecheses on prayer.

There are many directions the Holy Spirit may lead him in his reflections, perhaps through the Psalms, or through the intercessions of the prophets, or through the prayer of the Exiles, certainly through the life and prayer of Christ and the Virgin, as well as the development of the prayer life of the Church. Regardless of the path, the nature of the reflections themselves invites the faithful to join the Holy Father and the Church in the communion of prayer to the Father — to join the Pope in his school of prayer.

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Kevin M. Clarke is an adjunct professor at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, California. He is the author of a chapter on Benedict XVI’s Mariology in “De Maria Numquam Satis: The Significance of the Catholic Doctrines on the Blessed Virgin Mary for All People” (University Press of America, 2009), and is a recent contributor to the New Catholic Encyclopedia.

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