On the day of his election in 2013, Pope Francis surprised us all when, before blessing the large crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square, he asked that everyone present pray for him. This moment made him the first pope to ask the faithful to pray for him before giving his blessing to them. And to this day, 9 years later, he still ends each of his public speeches with these now famous words, “Please do not forget to pray for me.”
Clearly the pope places great value on so-called “intercessory” prayer. But when he, or anyone else, asks us to pray — to intercede — what does he mean? What are we to do?
In Latin, the word intercede literally means “to be in the middle”. When we agree to pray for someone, to intercede for another, we offer ourselves as a link between that person and God. In this sense we place ourselves “in the middle,” but not as an obstacle and certainly not as the center of attention. Our prayer is free and often hidden. Perhaps the other person does not even know that we are interceding for him. And that’s good because our desire is for that person to become more and more united with God and open to the grace that only He can give him.
In the Spring of Water meditation for the month of May, Alexa reminded us that Mary is our model for intercessory prayer. With great faith she recognizes that only God knows what the other person needs. That is why Mary never seeks to draw us to herself but always to lead us to her Son. And she leads us to her Son because Christ is the only true intercessor with the Father. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that
intercessory prayer “is a prayer of petition which leads us to pray as Jesus did… [and] consists in asking on behalf of another. It knows no boundaries and extends to one’s enemies” (CCC 2634, 2647).
The Paschal Mystery — the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus — was the climax of the Son’s intercession for us. His confident self-offering and abandonment into the Father’s hands bridged every distance that sin had created between God and humanity. There is no longer any division that has not been defeated by God’s immense love for us. There is no part of us, no matter how dark or covered with sin, that cannot be reached and redeemed by this love.
But sometimes we need help to open ourselves to this love, to give God permission to enter those parts of us, to bring them to light, and to heal them. We always remain free creatures, and God respects our freedom. He never imposes himself but is always ready to come to us; he stands at the door of our heart and knocks until we open it (Cf. Rev. 3:20). This is why it is important to support each other with intercessory prayer, a prayer that, rather than seeking solutions, requests that there be a sincere and intimate encounter between God and the person for whom one is interceding.
An image that comes to mind is that of the families who attend our retreats in Italy. Many times we offer two parallel programs: one for adults and another for their children. Every now and then, in the room where the adults are gathered, you can see one of the babysitters enter hand in hand with a child. More often than not, the child is crying and calling one of two names: Mommy or Daddy. In this case, I would say that the role of the babysitter is like that of an intercessor. He recognizes that he cannot solve anything himself. At the same time, the child cannot come to Mommy or Daddy alone. So, the babysitter’s mission is clear: she or he must lead the child to the parent. And when they arrive at the parent, the babysitter doesn’t have to say much, maybe he gives some explanation of the situation as he sees it, but he certainly doesn’t give advice on what to do and what not to do. He trusts the parent’s competence toward his child. The babysitter fulfills his mission in facilitating the meeting between the two.
When we intercede for others, we do something very similar. In our personal prayer we bring to the Lord names, faces, precise situations that we know about. We bring them to God and deliver them into His hands. We trust His Father-like competence and do not waste many words in advising Him what to do and when to do it. For us it becomes an occasion of great faith and surrender. So many times these people or situations touch us deeply in the heart and it is difficult not to demand specific solutions from God. But if we really believe that God is the Highest Good, then the best way to want the good of a person is to want his or her meeting with God. We trust in Jesus who wants to be with our loved ones in their suffering; he really cares, as Elizabeth reminded us in last month’s meditation. And Jesus’ being with them will make all the difference.
A particularly suitable time for this prayer is during the offertory of the Mass. In this part of the Eucharistic celebration, the bread and wine are presented on the altar, awaiting their transformation into the body and blood of Christ. It is also an opportunity for us to metaphorically place on the altar that which we desire to be transformed into love, into grace, into glory…into Christ. Let us, thus, unite to Jesus’ intercessory prayer before the Father those persons and situations we carry in our hearts and trust the Church who teaches us that “the lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value” (CCC, 1368).
Let us put no limits on the power of intercessory prayer. When someone entrusts an intention to us, let us take the commitment seriously and confidently go to God with that prayer. And let us not worry about perfect formulas. God already knows much better than we do the hearts of those dear to us and the situations they face. With simplicity let us bring their names to him and ask for a genuine encounter to take place between them and God. Let us trust in the goodness of our Lord and unite our intentions with the offering of the Intercessor par excellence, Jesus Christ.
Ideas for a concrete resolution:
- On the Sundays of this month I will try to live the offertory as a true intercessory prayer. Before the Mass begins, I will take a couple of minutes to bring to mind specific names, faces, and situations. Then, at the time of the presentation of the bread and wine on the altar, I will imagine that I also place there on the altar the intentions I had collected before Mass, uniting them with the total offering of Jesus.
- When someone asks for my prayers, I will take the commitment seriously, and find as soon as possible a moment of silence in which to entrust their intention to God.
This month’s meditation is by Sr. Cherise Klekar, AVI