Missionary Sending

Communion in the Body of Christ: Pray for the Living and the Dead

One of the most common requests a priest receives is, “Father, will you pray for me?” As a university chaplain, I have given out more than a few blessings to students on their way to a big exam, or before a trip to Mexico, or on a birthday. From ordinary daily challenges to life’s heaviest crosses, people crave the consolation of intercessory prayer.

“Father, please pray for us. We’ve been trying to get pregnant for a long time, and we just had a miscarriage.”

“Father, please pray for my biopsy tomorrow. I’m hoping for a good result so I won’t have to have surgery.”

“Father, please pray for my son. He’s been looking for work for a while now, and he’s starting to get anxious.”

Praying for those who need prayer is not just the work of the priest, though. It is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy that every Christian should practice: “Pray for the living and the dead.”

And I’m grateful, not only as a professional pray-er, but as someone who receives the abundant graces obtained through the prayers of those who pray for me.

Closeup of a man's hands open in prayer

Does God Need Our Prayers to Accomplish His Will?

I must confess, however, that I have not always been comfortable with the idea of intercessory prayer. Particularly when I receive emails with “urgent” prayer requests or exhortations to “storm heaven” with prayers for certain people or situations, I feel an interior agitation at the thought, “Does a good outcome here really depend on me praying the right way? If I don’t intercede for this right now, might God’s will be thwarted because of my laziness or ignorance?” According to the theology I learned in seminary, it’s impossible for us to change God’s mind because he is immutable. And even the suffering we endure because of sin is somehow instrumentalized in his providence to bring about his loving will.

Our prayers for one another are not needed in order for God’s will to be accomplished or for him to give us his loving care. He will love us perfectly even if we ignore him completely. Then why does the Lord command us to “pray always without becoming weary,” like Jairus begging Jesus to heal his daughter (Luke 8:40-56)?

Young man kneeling in front of a monstrance during Eucharistic adoration

Prayer as a Pathway to Communion

Last year, while on a silent retreat, I was drawn to meditate on the Agony in the Garden. I had a deep desire to be close to Jesus, and at the same time, I was feeling deep fear and anxiety that was hard for me to articulate or manage on my own. As I simply spent time with the scene in prayer, I was struck by how vulnerable Jesus was with his disciples. “He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.’” (Mark 14:33-34)

As I answered the invitation from Jesus to accompany him in his anguish, I felt my own heart open up to him. I was humbled by the Lord’s own humility, wanting the comfort of the prayers of his closest friends in that most difficult hour. And in having this empathy for Jesus and what he was suffering, I experienced his closeness to me in my own anguish and uncertainty. Repressed feelings and unarticulated fears all came rushing out as I felt this new closer communion with the Lord. I knew he was with me, and that I was with him, and that we loved each other deeply. Although what we were feeling was not enjoyable or nice, I felt a deep confidence and hope that was new and lasting. I felt genuine comfort, i.e., the fortitude that comes from being in communion. And all this because I had chosen to be with Jesus, just as he had asked his disciples to be with him on the sorrowful eve of his Passion.

A classical painting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

An Opportunity to Unite with Our Lord and with Others

I think when we pray for each other, something similar happens. We are forced to acknowledge our poverty, both the person requesting prayers and the one doing the praying. Sometimes when we are praying or asking for prayers, we are facing circumstances that have no earthly solution. Prayer is an act of surrender, but it is a hopeful one, like a drowning man ceasing to flail about and instead letting himself be carried safely to shore. And it unites us to Jesus who unites us to the Father and to each other.

Nowhere is this more palpable than at the Mass. In the offering of the Eucharist, we are drawn into communion with Jesus in the most intimate way possible on earth, and we are thereby united to all members of the Lord’s Body in heaven and on earth. I recall offering the funeral Mass for my grandmother a few years ago, and more recently for my own father, and as I offered this most essential prayer of the Church, the source and summit of the Christian life, I knew myself to be somehow accompanying my loved ones to heaven. I couldn’t grasp the mechanics of how my participation added anything to God’s work of salvation—he certainly could accomplish this all on his own—but I enjoyed being included, and I myself felt the comfort of being with the Lord and the ones for whom I was praying.

In the beginning God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). The Church’s command that we pray for the living and the dead is a reminder that we need each other. The Church is the Body of Christ, and it is in this body that we receive the fullness of his grace. Let us cherish the prayer requests we receive from our brothers and sisters in Christ as opportunities to draw closer to one another, through the very heart of Jesus.

Three young women sitting on a park bench praying together

Reflection Question

How have the prayers others have offered for you been a blessing in your life? What is it like to know you are the recipient of this powerful spiritual work of mercy?

Action Point

Ask the Holy Spirit to help you identify one person you can pray for throughout the week. If it is someone you know personally, reach out to that person and ask if they have any intentions you can pray for. Be sure to remember him or her in prayer next time you go to Mass.

Prayer: Prayer of Saint Clement I, Pope

In the Name of the Whole Christian People.

We beseech you, O Lord, to grant us your help and protection.

Deliver the afflicted, pity the lowly, raise the fallen, reveal yourself to the needy, heal the sick, and bring home your wandering people.

Feed the hungry, ransom the captive, support the weak, comfort the faint-hearted.

Let all the nations of the earth know that you alone are God, that Jesus Christ is your child and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture.

Do not keep count of the sins of your servants, but purify us through the bath of your truth and direct our steps.

Help us to walk in holiness of heart, and to do what is good and pleasing in your eyes and in the eyes of our rulers.

Master, let your face shine on us to grant us every good in peace, protect us by your powerful hand, deliver us from every evil by the might of your arm.

Grant us and all who dwell on this earth peace and harmony, O Lord.