Photo: Felix Carroll
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Dec 29, 2014)
Recently, I have received several questions about the mystery of our God of mercy who hears and answers our prayers and supplications. Does the particular time when we make our requests really make a difference? And are we more likely to receive an answer to our prayers — indeed, a positive answer — the more people we can find to join us in praying for our intentions?
Let's take the first one. A man named Doug put it this way in an e-mail to me. He referred to a passage in the Diary of St. Faustina in which Jesus requests in His revelations to St. Faustina for a special prayer and meditation on His Passion each afternoon at the three o'clock hour, the hour that recalls His death on the cross.
Our Lord tells St. Faustina, "In this hour, I will refuse nothing to the soul that makes a request of Me in virtue of My passion. This is the hour of great mercy for the whole world." (1320)
Do we have any idea what this translates into? Because throughout the Bible the indication is that Almighty God will answer prayers in His time and according to His will. So are we to believe that our prayers in the 3 o'clock hour are stronger and closer to being granted if we recite them in His virtue of His passion, or are we to learn something else about prayer, and how our dear Lord answers?
Well, Doug, on the one hand, God will surely answer our prayers with divine action only when He sees that the time is just right for the working out of His loving plan for our lives. But, in another sense, every request that we make to Him receives an instant answer: either "yes" or "no," or most often, "wait."
To "wait" is sometimes very hard for us, but it may be that the time of our request is not the right time yet for God to act on the matter — or it may not be the right time yet for Him to show us how He has been acting in the situation already! He knows what's best for us. What we can know for sure, as St. Francis de Sales once said, is that "He will either shield us from suffering, or give us unfailing strength to bear it." As St. Bernard of Clairvaux once said, He will surely give us whatever we ask of Him, or something even better for us, perhaps something we could never ask, or even imagine!
So, with regard to God answering our prayers: He always does, instantly, in one of those three ways, and He always acts in response to our prayers when the time is right. "For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven" (Eccles 3:1).
The other part of your question, Doug, really boils down to this, I think: Does it really make a difference what time of day we make our requests — after all, St. Faustina's Diary (entry 1320) states that the 3 o'clock hour is best?
First, the 3'o clock hour is not to be viewed as "magic." It's not that we will automatically get whatever we want if we ask God for it at that time each day. On the other hand, our Lord loves to bind Himself to us in love by "covenants": big ones and little ones. True lovers are always doing that kind of thing. Just look at all the covenant promises of merciful love that He made to His wayward bride, the people of Israel, in the Old Testament!
In entry 1320, Jesus promises special graces to those who pray at the 3 o'clock hour "in virtue of His passion," which I take to mean that He has bound Himself in love to do even more for us when we pray at that hour, if we do so with faith in what He accomplished for us on the Cross. In other words, at that hour we need to have a firm belief that He truly gave His life for each and every one of us, and we need to pray with complete trust in His merciful love in the light of the Cross. It seems to me that this is one version of "the prayer of faith" mentioned or alluded to numerous times in the New Testament, and in response to which Jesus promised such great and extraordinary divine blessings. It's the kind of prayer that leaves the door of our hearts wide open, so to speak, to let Christ enter into our lives and do all that He wants to do, to us and through us, for the spread of His kingdom.
Another question on intercessory prayer came to me recently from a woman named Felicia. She writes:
I always wanted to know: Is there some sort of spiritual calculus that says the number of people praying for a particular intention equates to more powerful prayer, which results in more attention from God on the particular matter? Take the Divine Mercy Intercessory Prayerline, for instance, which has hundreds of people praying for the same intentions. Or how about the Apostleship of Prayer, with millions praying every day for the Pope's intentions!
Thanks, Felicia. Two quotes come to mind, quotes that I always find helpful when thinking about this subject.
The first comes from a famous Anglican preacher from many decades ago, T.P. Ferris. He said: "Our prayers do not persuade God to help us; they permit Him to." The thing we have to get out of our heads is any idea that God is actually reluctant to help us, so that He needs to be "petitioned" or "lobbied" or even "cajoled" into assisting us! Christ gave us those amusing parables in the gospels about the Importunate Friend and the Unjust Judge (Lk 11:5-13 and 18:1-8) not to give us a false picture of God, but to make the point that if the pestered friend in his bed and the badgered judge at his bench will give in to supplication in the end, "how much more" will our heavenly Father, the God of Mercy, be willing to come to our aid!
From your question, Felicia, I don't think that you are suffering from any such false conception of God, but I mention it because it is all too common for Catholics to think that way.
Second, Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said: "It is not the magnitude of our actions, but the amount of love that we put into them that matters." In that sense, the intercessory prayers of one perfectly pure, innocent, and trusting heart are of more value to God — that is, He takes them as the most complete invitation and "permission" to intervene in our lives and help us — than many thousands of half-hearted supplications from the lukewarm and the languid. The best thing of all, therefore, would be for many pure and trusting hearts to pray to God for the same good intentions. That would really "open the floodgates" to all the merciful love that our Father wants to pour out upon us! That is what the Divine Mercy Intercessory Prayerline is striving for, of course, and it is also why the prayers of children and of those who bear chronic illness and suffering with faith and love, are of special merit — and why we should always ask the angels and saints to intercede for our intentions, and most especially the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose radiant heart is pure and full of grace above all other creatures.
To some extent, this is all a mystery too deep for us fully to understand, Felicia. But the directives from heaven, in Scripture and Church tradition, seem clear enough. We are to pray without ceasing and pray with a loving and trusting heart, as many as possible, in heaven and on earth. We are to pray together for your good intentions in this same spirit, especially at Holy Eucharist, or in union with the Eucharistic offering (as in the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy) and especially in virtue of Christ's Passion (at the 3 o'clock hour). And then stand back, and watch out. The doors of the world are then wide open to the God of Mercy, the Good Shepherd, and the King of Kings, who right now, even today, "stands at the door and knocks" (Rev 3:20). He will work in our lives in surprising, and even powerful ways. Broken families can be reconciled, and broken bodies healed, broken hearts mended, and lost faith restored.
In fact, whenever we Christians have prayed like that, down through history, tremendous things have happened. Just read your history books: The evil and oppressive Roman Empire converted to the faith, and the barbarian invaders converted to the faith; the Franciscans and Dominicans renew the Church, and the Muslim invaders of Christian Europe driven back against all odds at Tours, Lepanto, and Vienna; slavery abolished in the Spanish and British empires, and God-given human rights proclaimed to all the world in America; the Nazi conquests crushed; and the Soviet Empire crumbles without a shot being fired.
Prayer played a huge part in every one of these triumphs. Why should we be surprised? For Scripture calls Him "the Lion of Judah," and when He gets unleashed, by our pure and trusting prayers, who can say what will happen?
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.