The readings at Mass today (Twenty-ninth Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle C) challenge us to pray with persistence. In the Gospel (Luke 18: 1-8) Jesus tells "a parable about the necessity to pray always without becoming weary." It's about a widow and a judge who refuses to take her case, but finally does because her persistence is wearing him out. If uncaring people respond to persistence how much more will our caring God?
But we've all had experiences of praying and not receiving the good things for which we pray--like the health of loved ones. A few years ago I prayed and prayed for Fr. Will Prospero, S.J. and he died of cancer at the age of 49. My administrative assistant, Stephanie, died of leukemia at the age of 31. Last April my good friend Fr. Ray Gawronski, S.J., 65 years old, died one month after he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. But one of my most painful losses was my sister Judy for whom I prayed fervently for years as she struggled with depression; she died of suicide two days before Christmas in 2003.
When we pray and nothing happens we ask: "Where are you, God? Why don't you hear my prayers? Why don't you answer them?"
The truth is that God hears every prayer and knows what is in our hearts before we even put words to our desires and concerns. Moreover, God answers every prayer. Sometimes the answer is the one that Jesus received from his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane--"No."
"Why?" we ask. We don't know why God answers some prayers in this way. It challenges our faith that God is there and loves us.
Jesus ended his teaching in today's Gospel asking, "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
What's the point of praying for specific intentions if God knows our desires and concerns even before we articulate them? God does not want to act alone or apart from us and our cooperation. God's love always respects our freedom.
We see that in the First Reading (Exodus 17: 8-13). God chose to work through Moses and his prayer, symbolized by his upraised hands. But he grew tired. He needed others to help him pray. God shows us that when we grow weary in our prayer we have a community of believers to rely upon. Prayer builds community.
The Apostleship of Prayer, now also known as the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network, is a community of millions of people around the world who pray each month for specific and important needs of the world and the Church. There is power in this prayer, but it requires faith. It requires persistence even when nothing seems to change or when things only get worse.
Pope Francis wrote about having the faith that empowers our prayer in his Apostolic Exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" (#278-9):
"Faith also means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity. … Because we do not always see these seeds growing, we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation…. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit."
Through the daily offering of our lives--every prayer, work, joy, and suffering--we can "pray always and not grow weary."