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“Ask a Priest: Why Pray for Someone If God Won’t Force Grace on the Person?”
Q: I have struggling a bit with our practice of asking others for prayers and praying for others. I can understand that I need to pray to God to help me. But how I can pray to God for graces for others who do not ask directly of God, as Our Lord won’t force things on us? I recall a homily where the priest said many people asked him for prayers. He reminded us that we can’t outsource prayers. This really spoke to me. Also, I struggle somewhat when we give a lot of credit to St. Monica’s prayers for St. Augustine’s conversion – does that mean if we have a mother like St. Monica, or someone who prays like her for someone, that that person will be converted and become a saint? — J.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Intercessory prayer for others is a great act of charity.
Scripture backs this up. St. Paul writes, “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior” (1 Timothy 2:1-3).
But what might be some of the reasons behind intercessory prayer?
First, prayer is very hard for some people. Some people might not even think to pray for themselves. There could be lots of reasons – such as fear or ignorance or shakiness in the faith. So they turn to others for help.
Second, some people are holier, and their prayers might have more weight with God, so to speak. And these holy people are sometimes in demand as intercessors.
Third, keep in mind that God has given all of us the power to help one another. I can help people by changing their flat tire, or even by passing them the salt during dinner. Why not help them by praying for them? This capacity to help one another is one of the beautiful aspects about being created in God’s image.
The Catechism in No. 2634 says, “Intercession is a prayer of petition which leads us to pray as Jesus did. He is the one intercessor with the Father on behalf of all men, especially sinners. He is ‘able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.’ The Holy Spirit ‘himself intercedes for us … and intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.'”
No. 2635 says, “Since Abraham, intercession — asking on behalf of another — has been characteristic of a heart attuned to God’s mercy. In the age of the Church, Christian intercession participates in Christ’s, as an expression of the communion of saints. In intercession, he who prays looks ‘not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,’ even to the point of praying for those who do him harm.”
God won’t force his grace on anyone, of course. But part of his grace could be precisely to open the heart of someone who needs to be closer to him – and who needs to recognize that basic truth.
The pastor you mention has a good point. People should never presume that they can shift their obligation to pray onto someone else’s shoulders. That would be a mockery of intercessory prayer. Nevertheless, intercessory prayer in principle retains its value.
As for the case of St. Monica: Her example is certainly praiseworthy, and over the centuries it has given more than a few moms a source of hope for their wayward children.
Still, prayer is not like using a vending machine. There is no guarantee that someone will insert coins (prayers), and outs pops the candy bar (a conversion and a saint). There are lots of factors involved. Some souls resist grace. Other souls might convert, though it might take a lot of people’s prayers. It’s not easy to do a simple calculation when it comes to prayers and divine favors.
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