Yesterday, I began sharing some reflections on intercession based on three questions I was given some time ago - unfortunately, I don't remember by whom. But on my retreat I have an opportunity to review these brief reflections and expand them a bit. So here was the second question, and my response.
In your own experience, how has this priestly work of submission to God and intercession shaped you as a priest?
When I was the director of the Newman Center at the University of Oregon, I had a young pastoral associate, Stefani, a woman I had first met when she was a freshman at Arizona State University, and I was a newly ordained priest. Our lives intersected years later when she was looking for a job at a parish and our campus ministry was searching for a lay pastoral associate. On occasions in which I was acting as though the success or failure of our ministry depended upon me, she would say, "Fr. Mike, get off the cross, we need the wood." It was a humorous, yet pointed reminder that I was not the Messiah. I had to give up the fantasy of control and humble myself in submission before God. It was a reminder of who is the Savior, and that I should go to Him in prayer and intercession regarding those things I was so worried about.
Intercessory prayer helps defuse the frantic hyperactivity that springs up like unwanted weeds in my soul. First of all, the act of interceding itself acts as a brake on that momentum generated by busyness. It reminds me that I have to consciously trust that God loves me and the people around me, and that no matter what may be weighing upon me, God promised Julian of Norwich that "all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well." Of course, that doesn't mean that things will turn out the way I want, but placing myself before God as a supplicant for others immediately takes the focus off of me, and reminds me that I’m not in control, and it’s not all up to me, and, in fact, the One Whom it is all up to can be trusted. In fact, I’m a much better priest when in my private prayer I acknowledge my dependence upon God, remind myself of his loving concern for me by reading Psalm 139, or Jesus' admonition to "consider the lilies." (Mt. 6:28-30) The constant temptation I face, however, is to abandon private prayer to “get things done.”
There are two patterns I've noticed in my prayers for others that are linked to the idea of submission before God. And I suppose I should indicate what I mean by submission, because in our culture it's something of a demeaning concept. By submission, I simply mean a willing, even joyful acknowledgment that God knows better than me, loves better than me, is more trustworthy than me, and is eminently worthy of my trust. And so because God is so trustworthy, my intercession for others is, first of all, almost always petitions for their change, rather than an attempt to change God's mind. I believe that God desires their good, and that natural evils, or the assaults of the Evil One or those doing his malicious will, can ultimately be for our good. So for those who are sick, or facing surgery, for example, I ask that they be given peace, or deeper trust in His love, or that the illness might be a catalyst for spiritual growth and conversion. I so believe that there are worse things than death, that I pray they might be freed from those things, rather than be protected from death itself.
Secondly, unlike people with a charism of intercession who find their prayer directed by the Holy Spirit, or who can pray for long periods of time, I find that my intercession for someone is usually brief, and often an expression of trust that they are in God's loving embrace. I simply ask God to help them recognize that reality. Then, sometimes, I know I need to contact the individual, to remind them of that, or to simply know that I have not forgotten them, and that there are people praying for them not only on earth, but in heaven.
And that's the final aspect of how priestly intercession has shaped my life. A friend of mine who went through a powerful conversion from selfishness, drugs, reckless promiscuity and violence did so without any apparent explicit spiritual guidance from the people around him - including the Catholics who saw him when he periodically showed up at Church. I expect that there were people praying for him, but most of the people he hung out with weren't living as Christians, and likely weren't interceding much for him.
I believe it was the powerful intercession of the saints that made the difference. And so part of my priestly intercession involves enlisting the saints - something I re-learned from a wonderful priest who was my superior at Arizona State, Fr. Nathan Castle, OP. But I also enlist the help of wonderful friends and companions who have passed from this vale of tears to Jesus' side. I experienced their imperfect love in this life, and was blessed by it beyond what I deserved, and trust that it has been purified and is much more potent now. So I call upon that love for me, and for others, and ask for their prayers regarding the people and situations I'm concerned about. That gives me great comfort, and reminds me that I am not alone in my intercession for others.
But I also pray for those dear friends. At every Mass, during the Eucharistic prayer we are invited to pray for those who have died. So now I pause, and I remember, always, five women who were particularly good to me, and who I know interceded for me while they were alive. I experienced through them God's mercy, encouragement, and love that I do not deserve. So I take time to remember Sue, Pat, Sr. Renilde, Sr. Kathleen and Ginger, along with a number of Dominican friars who have died, like Fr. Bernie, who prayed for me every day while I was a seminarian, until he died. I must admit, sometimes the pause lasts awhile! But perhaps, maybe, in those places where I preside on a regular basis, the congregation has come to expect that, and intercedes on the behalf of people they know and love - or for those who have no one to pray for them.
Part of the blessing of being Catholic is knowing that we are not separated from our loved ones by death. When my dear friend and fellow campus minister, Sue Gifford, died almost two years ago, I knew my tears (and there weren't all that many) were all about my loss of her physical presence and her way of asking, "And you, Michael, what can I do to support you?" They were tears flowing from self-interest, more than anything. They certainly were not out of sorrow for her, because I believe she is with God, Whom she had served so faithfully as a minister in the Church. In fact, I could rejoice for and with her, because the suffering she endured for many years because of her chronic illness (which she hid very well) and because her ministerial contributions were often ignored, was over.
It's appropriate to be reflecting on intercession while at the cabin of Art and Kathleen Nutter. You may have been part of the story of intercession for their daughter, Marysa, who nearly died while in the third term of a pregnancy last year. The efficacy of corporate prayer for her and her child, as well as the intercession of St. Gianna Molla, led to a miraculous recovery and a safe, healthy granddaughter for the Nutters. More importantly, it led to a conversion for Marysa and her husband, who was baptized at this year's Easter Vigil, thanks be to God.
Yes, thanks be to the Father, Who invites our intercession for each other so our human dignity can be raised by becoming secondary causes of the good He wishes to pour out upon the world. And in our intercession we unite ourselves with Jesus, the High Priest who constantly intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father, and so fulfill the priestly ministry He shares with us.