While I'm on retreat I'm praying, but also reflecting on my prayer. That is, I'm asking, "What does it mean for me to pray as a priest for others." In doing this, I came across an old survey that I filled out for someone. I don't recall whom. However, it was providential, as it reminded me of earlier reflections on this theme. I hope you don't mind if I share them with you over the next few days.
The survey first asked, "What one poignant experience comes to mind of your own priestly experience of submission before God and intercession on behalf of the world?"
My response: The poignant experience didn’t hit me at the time. I didn’t recognize it as anything unusual at all, actually. The poignancy came just a few weeks ago [which, at the time I originally wrote this, would have been the end of December, 2009], when I was in Eugene to give a parish retreat. I met with a couple of friends, Charlie and Pam. They are former Protestants who are now Catholic. Charlie told me over a glass of wine one night how when he and his wife were thinking of joining the Church in early September 2001, tragedy befell the US in the form of a terrorist attack that scarred the psyche of Americans.
His own pastor at his local church was frantically trying to put together some kind of prayer experience at which his congregation could gather. Charlie had come to the St. Thomas More Newman Center in Eugene to ask me what we Catholics would do in response to the horrific loss of life and the devastation that New Yorkers were experiencing.
I had replied, “We’ll do what we always do; what we do every day. We’ll offer Mass.”
I don’t remember the comment at all, though I remember the day well. I don’t remember the Mass that was offered, who was there, or how many. But I know we offered the Mass, as I had promised. The congregation, who knew nowhere better to turn in their suffering than to the Christ who suffered for them, offered the Mass for a whole host of people. The 2995 victims on the airplanes and on the ground in New York, Washington, DC, and Shanksville, PA, including the 19 terrorists who had plotted the deaths of anonymous people - Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, unchurched, agnostics - who’s only offense was to be American, or working for the military or American financial institutions.
We prayed for the dead. All of them, including the terrorists. How could we not? God’s love is impartial, everlasting, unmerited. It is an act of submission, in spite of whatever we might have been feeling, to pray even for those who declared themselves to be our enemies, for that is what Jesus commands us to do. Especially in the Mass, where we offer His blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant God makes with us, which is shed for us and for all so that sins may be forgiven.
That response, which could have sounded trite, lame, or lazy to Charlie, had a profound influence on him. The Holy Spirit touched his heart, helping him realize that he had been included in our prayers for doctors, for parents, for spouses, for those seeking a more intimate union with Jesus even though we didn't know him. The universality of the prayer that is the Mass became part of the reason Charlie and his wife became Catholics.
As a priest, people often ask me to pray for them or their loved ones. Sometimes I suspect they believe that my individual prayers are more efficacious because I'm a priest; that somehow God takes my prayers more seriously than theirs. But for all of us who are baptized and anointed with chrism and enfolded into the one priesthood of Christ, our sacrifice of prayer reaches its perfection when we offer our prayers in the high priestly prayer of Christ at Mass. That's what I should remind people when they ask for my prayers. I should help them recall their own priestly dignity and encourage them to consciously offer their intention through Jesus, with Jesus and in Jesus, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, to God the Father, at Mass.
What a treasure we have in the Mass, and in the opportunity to pray with Jesus on behalf of the world. I need to make that connection more consciously when I preside.