Why Do We Pray?
The Catholic tradition has always held a sense of mystery for me. Growing up in Nebraska, there were a lot of Catholics around. The Catholic church was one of the largest in our small town, and many of my friends and teachers ascribed to the Catholic faith. In high school sports, we competed against several Catholic schools in the surrounding area. While they shared the label of “Christian,” to my young nondenominational Christian mind, it was very clear that lines were drawn between “us” and “them.” We were the real Christians, we loved Jesus, and we understood the gospel. They– well, I didn’t really know what they believed, but it had something to do with weird prayers to Mary, holy water, and my friends complaining they couldn’t eat a hamburger on Fridays during Lent (but then eating one anyway). I was familiar with hearing people from my church say things like “I know there can be born-again Catholics…” which implied that this was more the exception than the rule. After graduating high school I attended a small nondenominational Bible school and the line between “us” and “them” continued to deepen. Instead of learning about their tradition and history, I learned about their legalism, rejection of grace, and seemingly idolatrous worship of the saints. A school trip to Italy and a visit to the Vatican only served to solidify those views as we looked at the images and icons.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that my comfortably held beliefs about Catholicism began to be challenged. My sister started dating a Catholic boy and began asking questions. What truly are the major differences between “us” and “them”? Does it really matter so much? I didn’t wrestle with those questions the way she did, but I watched her struggle with them. One question she raised stuck out to me: why is it wrong to ask the dead to pray for us? I had never wondered that before, but it was intriguing to stop and actually consider that question. This semester, as I’ve taken an early church history course, I’ve been struck by the fact that many of the early church fathers we Reformed people hold onto are the same church fathers the Catholics venerate. The Catholic church says the Apostles’ Creed along with the Reformed church. Is it possible they aren’t as different and “crazy” as I’ve grown up to believe? Do they hold on to a tradition that has something to teach us? How do they understand prayer (how do I understand prayer?)? Do they pray to Mary and the saints because they don’t feel close enough to God?
This article is an adaptation of a paper I wrote last year for Reformed Confessions class (shout out to Professor Beirma! Woot woot!). In the paper I compared the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, 1994), Part 4, the teaching on prayer, with the Heidelberg Catechism (HC, 1988), Lord’s Days 45-52. As I began this comparison of the Catholic catechism with the Reformed confessions, my desire was to learn and broaden my understanding of this seemingly foreign religion. My background would expect to find mostly differences with and contradictions to what the Reformed confessions teach. I was delighted to find not only similarities but also a view of prayer that expanded my understanding of it. I also gained a better understanding of their theology behind prayers to Mary and the saints which I will compare with Belgic Confession (BG, 1988), Article 26. But since the original paper was 12 pages long (no one wants to read all that) I’ve decided to break it apart into three parts. I’ve broken it up by the three main questions I asked in the paper: Why do we pray? How do we pray? To whom do we pray?
Today we will look at “why do we pray?”. I encourage you to take a moment and consider this question for yourself. Why do YOU pray? What inspires that action?
Why do we pray?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches the primary purpose of prayer is a relationship with God; we pray to commune with our heavenly Father. The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) teaches the primary purpose of prayer is to express our gratitude to God for our salvation; we pray to respond to God’s grace and mercy. Both teach that prayer is communication with God and in response to something he did first. While the Reformed focus is on God’s act of salvation, the Catholic focus is on God’s act of creation.
The CCC sees prayer as the outworking of God’s redemptive plan beginning in creation. “In the act of creation, God calls every being from nothingness into existence” (CCC, 1994, para. 2566). Because of sin, humans have rejected and forgotten God, but God continues to call human beings to himself. Prayer is mankind responding to God’s call. “As God gradually reveals himself and reveals man to himself, prayer appears as a reciprocal call, a covenant drama” (CCC, 1994, para. 2567).
The CCC views prayer as first and foremost a relationship with God. The Church professes the mystery of the gospel (summarized in the Apostles’ Creed) and celebrates the mystery in the sacraments so that the lives of believers will be transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ, “this mystery…requires that the faithful believe in it…celebrate it…live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” (CCC, 1994, para. 2558). Prayer is the way for the Christian to grow in that relationship with God and become more like Christ.
Similarly, the HC views prayer as man’s response to God’s salvation. Prayer is the most important way for Christians to express their gratitude. Bible passages from the Old and New Testaments are used to defend this teaching. Psalm 116:12,17: “How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me? I will sacrifice a thank offering to you and call on the name of the LORD.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18: “pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” The Heidelberg Catechism also teaches that prayer is the way Christians continue to grow in their life with Christ. “And also because God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for these gifts and thanking him for them” (HC, 1988, Q&A 116).
The CCC uses a quote from St. John Damascene to summarize prayer as “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (CCC, 1994, para. 2559). It goes on to define what prayer is in three parts: 1) prayer as God’s gift, 2) prayer as a covenant, and 3) prayer as communion.
Prayer is first a gift from God. The CCC uses the story of the Samaritan woman by the well in John 4 to draw the picture of a God who first thirsts for us and then offers himself to satisfy our thirst for him. “Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him” (CCC, 1994, para. 2560). This is a free gift and therefore needs to be accepted and approached with humility. Humility is the foundation of prayer and without it, a person is not ready or able to accept it. “Prayer is the response of faith to the free promise of salvation and also a response of love to the thirst of the only Son of God” (CCC, 1994, para. 2561). In prayer, we acknowledge our need before God and receive the gift that he desires to give us.
Prayer is a covenant relationship. The CCC says that prayer comes from the heart of a man, his inmost being. This is the place where we encounter the Holy Spirit. As a Christian engages in prayer it is an act of both God and man “springing forth from both the Holy Spirit and ourselves…” (CCC, 1994, para. 2564).
Prayer is also communion. Prayer is the relationship between the Christian and the Trinity. Through baptism we are united with Christ and therefore able to have communion with him, “prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him” (CCC, 1994, para. 2565). This communion is not only with God but also with the Church, which is the body of Christ. Later on, it teaches that prayer is fully revealed to us in Jesus Christ, “the Word who became flesh and dwells among us” (CCC, 1994, para. 2598). In Jesus, we find a gift from God, a covenant relationship, and communion.
The HC also defines prayer in three parts in Q&A 117. The difference in wording is, while the CCC describes prayer from a God-to-man perspective, the HC describes prayer from a man-to-God perspective. Prayer comes from 1) a sincere heart, 2) a humble heart, and 3) a heart of expectation. These three qualities, while different in approach, have themes that intersect with the teaching found in the CCC.
Q&A 117 asks, “How does God want us to pray so that he will listen?” (HC, 1988, Q&A 117). The answer begins, “We must pray from the heart to no other than the one true God, who has revealed himself in his Word…”. Prayer “from the heart” is sincere and in response to what God has revealed. This is similar to the CCC teaching that prayer comes from an encounter with God in our heart. It is God who reaches out to us first and our prayer is in response to his call. It is also important to note in the HC that prayer is also to the “one true God,” (HC, 1988, Q&A 117). No one else is to be the recipient of our prayers, a point that will be important later in this discussion.
Secondly, the HC continues, “We must acknowledge our need and misery, hiding nothing, and humble ourselves in his majestic presence” (HC, 1988, Q&A 117). Prayer must be done in humility, recognizing our need and helplessness. This correlates with the CCC stating that humility is the foundation of prayer. Both catechisms would agree that without humility a sinner is unable to approach God in true prayer.
Finally, prayer must be done standing on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ, knowing that because of Christ’s work (not because of what we have done) God will listen to our prayers. The HC’s answer ends, “We must rest on this unshakable foundation: that even though we do not deserve it, God will surely listen to our prayer because of Christ our Lord” (HC, 1988, Q&A 117). The CCC also points us to Jesus, stating that “prayer to Jesus is answered already during his ministry… Jesus always responds to prayer offered in faith” (CCC, 1994, para. 2616). Reformed teaching focuses on the work of Christ and his fulfilled promises as proof that the Christian can approach God with confidence. The biggest difference I sense here between the Catholic view and the Reformed view is that the HC is focused on what Christ has done for the sinner to allow him to enter into prayer, while the Catholic focus is on the relationship God desires to have with the sinner that calls them into prayer. Some of these differences might stem from the Catholic’s more favorable view of natural Theology.
Nothing revolutionary, and way too long for a blog post (is anyone still there?!), but if you are, I hope you were as encouraged as I was learning about some of the deeper thoughts Christian traditions hold towards prayer. As you go throughout your week I hope the thought of God calling to you draws you into communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jilanne German is in her second year of the MDiv program at Calvin Theological Seminary. She is currently living in Grand Rapids, MI with her dog, Swede. When not studying, she enjoys getting away from technology, being outside, and exploring new places.