WDTPRS – 24th Ordinary Sunday: Does it make any difference to offer prayers to God?

concierge bellGiven The Present Crisis and the call, often taken up now, for prayer and more prayer, we might consider whether it makes any real difference to offer prayers to God.

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 among 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.


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.


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.

QUAERITUR: 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.  This renders prayer pointless. 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. This view similarly renders prayer pointless, because, if the one we are praying to is mutable, it isn’t God.  God isn’t fickle or changeable.

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 certainly 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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Kent Wendler says:

    In other words, we pray, not to “change God” or His actions, but to change ourselves?

  2. Spinmamma says:

    I have always imagined that prayer is for our benefit, not God’s. The act of prayer is an acknowledgement of our dependence on Him, our gratitude, our need for His gifts, and an opening of ourselves to the reception of His love, of his Light illuminating the swampy areas of our souls, and of entrance, even if for a moment, into the refuge of His sacred heart. Is that not enough?

  3. MitisVis says:

    As the father of 6 I love it when my kids give me a call, although I wonder why sometimes they don’t ask for advice or support when they run into problems. Maybe those times they know I’d say it probably wasn’t a good idea or want to do it themselves. One time my son with a full college load, a full time job and enlisting in the military paid a fortune to fix his car because he didn’t have the special tool. I have one in my toolbox, if only he would have asked…

    How much infinitely more our Heavenly Father?

  4. Kathleen10 says:

    Prayer does feel pointless at times, especially when things seem rotten, as they are right now. But God will answer all in his good time. We can’t know the plan but He does.
    The best way to pray is full out spontaneous “can we pray together?” prayer. Earnest prayer that makes you forget yourself and kneel and bow your head and fervently ask. It’s super powerful.
    I completely believe God answers prayer, I know He does, He has answered some prayers of mine that were so against the odds! He’s been awfully good to me, now that I think about it.

  5. John Grammaticus says:

    My problems with Prayer are as follows:

    a) Most of the sermons I’ve heard on the subject of the ‘power of prayer’ seem to say well God himself says ‘seek and you will find, ask and it will be given to you’ but then layer on so many conditions that it seems to suffer what the late Anthony Flew termed, death by a thousand qualifications”

    b) It seems that to get your prayers answered in the affirmative one has to run an insubstantial assault course i.e. you have to crawl under the humility bar and then jump over the confidence gap ect. etc. its like God is acting like Denis Nedry’s hacker program saying “ah ah ah you didn’t say the magic word” when Mr Arnold is trying to fix Jurassic Park.

  6. tzard says:

    I had at one point worried that my prayers might not be for what is best, for I don’t know all the consequences of my what I pray for. Then I became a parent.

    Now I recognize that, as a child of God, children ask silly things of their parents all the time. I keep that in mind hoping to at least get a knowing smile, a pat on the head, and a “Well see”.

  7. jameeka says:

    Prayer is everything! How many prayers have been answered, in God’s good time.

    Here is one of my favorite quotes from St Ambrose about prayer:

    “To conclude, if you pray only for yourself, you will be praying, as we said, for yourself alone. But if you pray for all, all will pray for you, for you are included in all. In this way there is a great recompense; through the prayers of each individual, the intercession of the whole people is gained for each individual. There is here no pride, but an increase of humility and a richer harvest from prayer”

  8. GregB says:

    I have been told that God has an active will, and a permissive will. Things that God causes to take place, and things that God permits to take place. IIRC I once read an article by rabbis where they suggested that God could also have a conditional will, where God would do something subject to our fulfilling certain preconditions. This sounds very much like the Aquinas quote in the article.
    In a universe with free will the future would be the outcome of all exercises of free will leading up to that point. God knows the future, we don’t. We also don’t know what God knows about the future unless He chooses to disclose it through Divine revelation. This being the case we are back to needing to lead our lives in accord with God’s will as faithful Catholics.

  9. Gregg the Obscure says:

    recent prayers keep returning to the theme “cast down the mighty from their seat”

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