WDTPRS: 24th Ordinary Sunday – Does prayer make a difference? Or, God is our cosmic concierge.

The Collect for the 24th Ordinary Sunday was not in pre-Conciliar editions of the Roman Missal but it has an antecedent in the ancient Veronese Sacramentary amongst the prayers used during September.

Respice nos, rerum omnium Deus creator et rector, et, ut tuae propitiationis sentiamus effectum, toto nos tribue tibi corde servire.

Propitiatio means “an appeasing; atonement”.  It can also mean the propitiatory sacrifice itself.

LITERAL RENDERING:

Be mindful of us, O God, creator and ruler of all things, and, in order that we may sense the effect of Your act of atonement, allow us to serve You with our whole heart.

CURRENT ICEL (2011):

Look upon us, O God, Creator and ruler of all things, and, that we may feel the working of your mercy, grant that we may serve you with all our heart.

St. Augustine (+430), in his autobiographical prayer the Confessions (3, 7), uses the phrase “unus et verus creator et rector universitatis”, very like the first line.  Augustine certainly knew the hymns of Milan’s bishop St. Ambrose (+397), which he heard sung in cathedral.  To my ear, this first line rings like Ambrose’s hymn Deus Creator Omnium, which is, in part, included in the Liturgy of Hours for 1st Vespers of Sundays during Ordinary Time.

Propitiation is a prayerful act of appeasement begging for God’s mercy. Because we are sinners, we seek mitigation of the punishments we justly deserve for our sins both in this world and temporal punishment in the next.  Propitiation is distinguished from impetration (from Latin impetro, “to obtain, by exertion, entreaty”).  Impetration is an appeal to God’s goodness asking for spiritual or temporal well-being for ourselves or others.  By impetratory prayer we beg God for benefits. By propitiatory prayer we beg Him for mercy and forgiveness.

Throughout the ages people have wondered whether it makes any sense to pray to God at all.

After all, God is omniscient and eternal. He is not limited by past, present or future.  His being and will and knowledge are one and the same.  God, being perfect, is unchangeable. He orders all things to their proper end, which is what we call divine providence. What God knows will come to pass must necessarily come to pass.  God is utterly transcendent.  We cannot bend God to our will.

Does it make any sense or any difference to offer prayers to such a God?

Various solutions to this problem have been proposed.

Some ancient thinkers held that human affairs are not ruled by any divine providence and it is therefore useless to pray to or worship any god.  Others held that all things, including human affairs, happen from necessity, whether by reason of the immutability of divine providence, or through the compelling influence of the stars, cosmic or physical forces, etc.  This view similarly renders prayer pointless.  Others held that divine providence indeed rules human affairs and things do not happen of necessity, but they thought that God and His providence is mutable, and can be changed by rites and prayers.

In figuring out what to pray and how, and even why to pray at all, we Catholics must account for the usefulness and effectiveness of prayer in such a way as to avoid imposing fatalistic necessity on human affairs and also to avoid any suggestion that God is changeable, fickle, malleable.

In His earthly life Jesus, God with us, demonstrated that prayers are effective.  He was moved by His Mother at Cana to change water to wine, by the Syro-Phoenician woman to exorcise her daughter, by the Good Thief to remember him in His Kingdom, and by many others.  We know that saints can intercede for us and obtain favors from God.  Our Lord Himself prayed.  He Himself taught us to pray and to ask for things and to beg mercy.

St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274) drills into the problem of whether it is useful to pray to God (STh II, IIae, q. 83, a. 2) saying, “We pray not that we may change the divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers, in other words, ‘that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give’ (St. Gregory, Dialogues)…”.  The same applies to begging for God’s mercy (propitiatory prayer), which we can do with confidence.

Our prayer should be raised to God with humility and gratitude for what we know He has disposed in His divine providence. He grants favors according to what from all eternity He has known about us, our needs and disposition.  Our prayers are good for us.

Confidently but humbly, boldly but without presumption, raise your cares and petitions to God without treating Him as if He were a cosmic concierge.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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19 Responses to WDTPRS: 24th Ordinary Sunday – Does prayer make a difference? Or, God is our cosmic concierge.

  1. Bill F says:

    Thank you for this post, Father. This is a question I wrestle with daily – constantly, even – and I needed some encouragement.

  2. VexillaRegis says:

    Thank you Fr. Z for this uplifting post!

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    I am told Father that one of the main protestant objections to Catholocism is that we view prayer in a mechanistic way i.e. we have to pull levers in just exactly the right way in order to obtain x

    As far as I can see this is TRUE !!! Reading various articles on unanswered prayer by Priests I would compare getting one’s prayer answered in the positive to an obstacle course at Crufts (annual British Dog show); First you have to crawl underneath the humility bar (which you cannot see), and immediately afterwords vault the confidence bar (again which you cannot see), tiptoe over the trust plank and repeat ad infinitum.

    I’ve been praying for a particular intention for over 40 months and although I thought it had been granted twice now, I’m still at square one whereas a ‘friend’ of mine prayed for the same intention for himself and it was answered immediately, guess we know who God loves more

    [Hmmmm. I suggest that you read Hebrews 12 today and spend time thinking on it. It may be precisely because God loves you that He says “No.”]

  4. Kathleen10 says:

    I better read it too. Jack Hughes said it well.
    What a mysterious journey.
    Thank you Fr. Z.

  5. StJude says:

    Yesterday I was out working and some people were standing in front of a mall holding signs “Come Pray”… I pulled over and a wonderful woman came over and we prayed for Christians in Syria… in the middle of a mall parking lot. Others were praying too for whatever was on their hearts.

    There is something about praying that lifts the soul even if its not answered. These people offering to pray for people were glowing in pure joy. I smiled all day. God is good.. He was there in that mall parking lot.. I am sure of it.

    This is the second time this summer I have seen church groups on the streets offering to pray. ..not the same church either. Pretty neat to see people pulling over and praying with strangers.

    Jack.. maybe God has something better for you than what you are praying for?!

  6. MangiaMamma says:

    @Jack,
    Fr. Z is totally right on this one. My husband of almost 28 years was diagnosed with O.C.D. 18 years ago, and we’ve been dealing with it non-stop since that time. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve asked God to heal my husband, but He has chosen not to do so. One day on our way home from daily Mass, my son and I were talking about the Gospel and homily for that day which was about carrying our crosses. My son commented that perhaps “Dad’s O.C.D. and all you go through with it is your cross”. I had never thought of it that way, and it has made a profound difference in how I look at what we go through. This doesn’t mean I still don’t ask for God’s healing for my husband. I just have a peace throughout all of this knowing God does love us, and He does hear us. As Father Z said, “It may be precisely because God loves you that He says no.” Keep coming before the throne of God, and be sure to ask the Blessed Mother and all Saints to intercede on your behalf. Know that I’ll be praying for you at Mass today, too!
    “Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”
    Padre Pio

  7. mamajen says:

    This is a very interesting thing to think about. I’ve had prayers that were answered and prayers (that I thought very worthy) that weren’t.

    I’ve found that being a parent helps me relate to God in a way I couldn’t before. I might make chocolate chip cookies as a treat for my son because he’s been good. If he asks me very politely if he can have one, it pleases me to no end even though I was planning to give him one anyway. If he asks me very politely but it’s too close to dinner or bedtime, I have to say no, but I am still pleased by his good manners.

  8. friarpark says:

    Of course, our priest made the connection between Pope Francis’ call for prayer AND fasting and the backoff on the bombing plans re: Syria. Prayer and fasting works, but not always in what to us might be such an obvious way.

  9. Jack Hughes says:

    @Fr, St Jude, Maggnamomma

    I’m not praying for houses in London, New York and Paris (although why anyone would want to live in those hellholes is beyond me), nor was it for a fleet of Ferrari’s and luxury yachts, it wasn’t for anything so prosaic as a job or a house, etc etc. So far as ‘being disciplined’ goes; I’ve endured fire and water without respite my entire life, I have literally got down on my knees and BEGGED for this intention more times than I can count whilst have crying oceans of tears so please don’t try and fob me off with pious platitudes. [Is that so? I direct you back to my previous comment. More over, contemplate the life of Bl. Theresa of Calcutta who received not a single consolation from God during her decades of labor.]

  10. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    But Father! But Father! A preeminent theologian recently stated as a matter of doctrine that there is no God without the cosmos, [Good catch!] so asking if he is the concierge of said cosmos is not nearly as important as leveraging his dependence on the cosmos toward improving social justice for all of our sistren.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  11. StWinefride says:

    Jack Hughes, I don’t know if this is helpful, but here are two of my favourite quotes:

    If we patiently accept through love all that God allows to happen, then we will begin to taste even here on earth something of the delights the Saints experience in Heaven. But for this we must serve God willingly and lovingly, seeking to obey the Divine Will rather than to follow our own inclinations and desires. For the perfection of love demands that we desire for ourselves only whatever God wills. Let us implore the good God unceasingly to grant us this grace!
    Saint Jane de Chantal

    All is well when one seeks only the will of God.
    Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

  12. acardnal says:

    Jack Hughes,

    “God always gives me what I want, because I want everything God gives me.”
    –St. Therese of Lisieux

    P.S. Recalling the life of Saint Monica, “forty months” time in prayer seems short to me.

  13. raininnewark says:

    I can empathize with Jack. Me and my wife are going through our second miscarriage and it’s been difficult. On the surface, it seems like a non-selfish intention to pray for. The only thing that gives me any kind of comfort is knowing God is the author of life and we are merely instruments in helping to create new life. It is ultimately He who is in control. All that’s to say, it does make it hard for me to wrap my head around prayers of intercession.

  14. StJude says:

    I will pray for you Jack! Dont lose heart!

  15. Will D. says:

    I was thinking on this earlier today. Here in Colorado, we have suffered from severe droughts and two devastating fire seasons in a row. So we (I) prayed for rain. Now we are enduring record-breaking flooding. Someone noted the damage that seemed to answer our prayers saying “some of us were warning of praying for it because we knew this would happen.”
    I think part of the problem with that attitude is the “God as genie” idea, that he will give us what we ask for, even if it is harmful. Which, of course, is hard to square with Luke 11:11, when the Lord asks “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?” My prayer was for beneficial rain for drought-stricken areas, and we received it, but we also received damaging rain. I can only trust that the Lord sends the rain that he wills according to his own plan, which is beyond my ken. Like St. Thomas or Zechariah I want to see and know for myself, I guess, and I have trouble trusting in faith.

  16. The Sicilian Woman says:

    Timely post. With the exception of my daily prayers of thanks for the blessings I do have (health, food, employment, and such, all important things), I’ve thought about giving up on my prayers for others (especially those for whom I have been praying for conversions/reversions yet who seem to be growing stronger in heresy and secularism…sigh) and those for myself (especially for a 10+ year-old intention) that seem all but dead, though, in all honesty and in hindsight, I have been **very** thankful for a couple of “NOs” received a few years ago. When despairing, I do try to remember that Christ asked for the cup to pass Him by, but humbled Himself to our Father’s will.

    What makes some “NOs” especially difficult are the times I see the most secular/agnostic/atheistic folks have everything (noble or not) fall into their laps with ease (not sure if that’s Jack Hughes’ case), and others with seemingly noble intentions (for example, devout Catholic couples struck with infertility, when they would happily raise many children according to God’s word-doesn’t this world need healthy, holy families?), be denied constantly.

  17. PA mom says:

    My mother told me once of her most desperate prayer ever. My parents were young, with me already, and their business was going under and she was begging for customers. They didn’t come. They went virtually bankrupt and my dad found other work which gradually brought him to quite outstanding success. I had to point out to her carefully that if her first prayer had been answered just as she asked, she would have gained a little, but would likely have continued to struggle lengthily at something they were not exceptional at.
    My most sincere prayer seems to change me far more often than I see it change anything else. I end up trying to see from God’s view how something I am struggling with might be good for me/us.

  18. Michelle F says:

    When I’ve tried to answer this question for myself, I’ve always looked at the example of the city of Nineveh.

    God told Jonah that He would destroy the city because of their sins. When the Lord said this He meant what He said, but He also had determined that He would not destroy it if the people repented, and He knew they would repent if they heard their destruction was imminent.

    It is interesting to note that Jonah did not tell the people of Nineveh to repent. All he said was “Forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed” (3:4).

    It is even more interesting that NO ONE in Nineveh asked Jonah WHY they were being threatened with destruction.

    It appears they knew they were doing wrong, and they knew exactly what they were doing wrong. The king simply proclaimed a fast, required everyone including the animals to put on sackcloth, and then ordered everyone to pray and give up their evil works (3:6-8). The Lord relented and did not destroy the city: “…and God had mercy with regard to the evil which he had said that he would do to them, and he did it not” (3:10).

    So, did God intend to destroy the city? Yes.

    Did the Ninevites change God’s mind? No.

    Was the Ninevites prayer, fasting, and repentance necessary? Yes.

    Nineveh’s sins had reached a point where it was going to be necessary for God to destroy them as an act of Justice. His threat was not empty. It is just as much a part of Justice, however, to have mercy on someone who repents – someone who does penance for his sin and stops committing the sin. If the repentance is real (the penance is done and one’s life is amended), Justice has been served. For this reason God cannot be said to have changed His mind in regard to Nineveh: their repentance and prayers were necessary to fulfill the demands of Justice.

    Do our prayers make a difference, whether we ask for something as in individual or as a group? Yes.

    Our prayers, whether we are lamenting our sins or asking for a favor, are a necessary part of God’s plan from the beginning of time. He does not force us to pray – we have free will. He knows what we are going to do as far as our prayers are concerned, but it is necessary that we do it.

    The purpose of prayer isn’t to change God’s mind or inform Him of a need. The purpose of prayer is to change us, and to remind us that we have to rely on Him for all things.

  19. Scott W. says:

    I’ve encountered strange ideas regarding prayer. I had one person tell me that he prayed that God would take away his homosexual inclinations. Since God didn’t do that he reasoned, that meant that God wanted him to be homosexual. Then he claimed if He didn’t, then Our Lord (or one of His apostles recording Him) must have been lying when he said all prayers would be answered and whatever we asked for in prayer, we would receive. I asked him that if he prayed for God to stop being God and it didn’t happen, would it be reasonable to conclude that Our Lord was lying about prayer? Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get back to me.