ASK FATHER: Can we pray for anonymous people?

From a reader…


I encounter many online requests via social media or comments in online articles asking the reader to pray for either the person
writing, their loved one, or for a deceased individual. However, in most cases the name of the person who will be the subject of the prayer is absent. This provoked my question – can you pray in an efficacious way for a person whose given name is unknown? I’m guessing a twitter handle won’t suffice. In the same vein, at my parish we can communicate through an app and people frequently ask for prayers. Sometimes it’s for a cousin whose name isn’t provided or for an intention that is deliberately kept private. I’ve seen you write about the importance of specificity in prayer and these prayer requests seem to have inherent obstacles in them. What is the best way to pray for such intentions?

Firstly, I think that when I have suggested specificity in prayer is when I write about asking St. Joseph for his intercession.  My experience with St. Joseph has been that, when I have been precise, he has come through.  “Dear St. Joseph, I am jammed up.  I need X and I need it by 5:30PM.  Thanks in advance.”  That has worked for me in some pretty dramatic and urgent past challenges.   Thank you, St. Joseph!

Next, nothing is hidden from God, neither the secret thoughts of our heart nor the identities of those anonymous people for whom we might pray.  For example, you don’t know the names of all the “Poor Souls”.  They are “poor”, in the sense that they need our prayers, though they are rich in their not-yet-attained glory.   You don’t know their names when praying for them en masse, but God does.  And God knows which souls need whatever and how they need it. No prayer that we offer is vain, in the sense of being empty.  Even though a specific person from whom we might be praying after death may already be in heaven and, therefore, without the need of our intercessory prayers, God can make use of what we pray for those souls who are in need.

If in social media you see, or want to post, “Please pray for ‘T’ who is in need of spiritual healing?”, that’s okay.  If I stop and pray for “T”, God know who “T” is, even if I do not.

Also, we can have a moral intention in our prayer.  For example, sometimes a priest will accept a Mass stipend for an intention.   It could happen that a priest has a whole bunch of intentions that he thinks he can’t take care of in the proper amount of time.  It could be that he had an intention for a certain day and something else came up that make it impossible for him to say that intention.  In that case, he can reach out to another priest to say the intention as an “intentio dantis“, without the specific information, but according to “the intention of the one giving” the intention (the literal meaning of “intentio dantis“).

“Hey, Msgr. Z, this is Fr.  Joe Włotrzewiszczykowycki of the St. Philip Neri Oratory of Mary Cause of Our Joy.  I have to pick up a couple of parish Masses for Fr. Guido Schmitz who is ill. I have an intention that can’t say for today’s specific date.  It’s the anniversary of someone’s death.  I don’t have the deceased’s name with me right now, because I’m driving to St. Fidelia over in Black Duck.  Could you celebrate it “intentio dantis” and I’ll get the details to you after?  Thanks!”

So, we can be specific and we can also have only a vague sense of details.  The important thing is that you pray with earnest sincerity, and humble confidence that no prayer you raise to God is without its good impact according to His inscrutable dispositions.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    As a Polish pontiff, you’d think St. John Paul II would have made some indulgences like, “Partial indulgence for pronouncing Fr. Joe W?otrzewiszczykowycki ‘s name correctly. Plenary if done three times fast.”

  2. Akita says:

    By far, most of the living souls we are praying for have names unknown to us. As when I recently prayed for everyone caught up in the whirlwind of BLM. My God, how desperately I pray! Once I was bereft praying for a little child who was abused to death by his mother in a far off land. The cruelty of his death made the AP wire service. Had I not entrusted his little likely pagan soul to God, I would have been deeply depressed.

  3. APX says:

    I once had a random woman come up to me at church asking for prayers. I had a Mass said for her. Our priest offered it for “Random Woman”. God knows who she is.

  4. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    I’m prompted by your observation about prayers going to good use, even if they don’t go where we think we’ve sent them.

    Several relevant questions:
    Should we pray “…. or for another soul in greater need”?
    Assuming that the population density of Heaven is known perfectly to God, does this also mean that He can apply “superfluous” prayers to a soul who would (otherwise) go to hell? Following that to its logical conclusion, if I pray for the needs of a canonized saint, could I depopulate hell, since the canonized saint clearly doesn’t need those prayers?

  5. Ms. M-S says:

    Given that the merits of Our Lord and all the saints as well as the mercy of God are infinite, I just assume that what you take away in prayer from that treasury is limited only by how often you visit in prayer. About 40 years back, a priest advised me to pray each day for whoever needed it most on earth that day, so I added that intention to the list of others attached to my morning offering prayers. I figure you just place every prayer in the economy of God and He’ll know where it should go even if you don’t.

  6. B says:

    Remember to pray for the anonymous souls in Church Suffering. No riots there and they always have our back.

  7. Veronica scriptor velum says:

    I have a story about an amazing answer to prayer for my son who was prayed for by a Philippine Franciscan monk in Assisi.

    I was on a pilgrimage in Italy with a friend. Knowing that I was deeply concerned about a very difficult situation my student son was in at that time, my well-meaning friend, noticing a young monk walking deep in prayer inside the beautiful church of St Francis, went up to him. Whilst I was wandering around studying Fra Angelico’s beautiful murals in the church, she asked him if he would kindly pray for the boy. He promised her that he would. When she told me she’d done this I thanked her and asked her if she’d told him my son’s name. “Er, I think I did but I’m not sure”, was her reply. I believed she’d forgotten to do so and that he’d been given just another anonymous request, so that probably nothing would come of it, but I would keep hoping all the same.

    However the prayer was answered soon afterwards in the most extraordinary way! Even more extraordinary was an absolute certaintity that suddenly overwhelmed me with a tremendous force that it was the prayers of this humble Franciscan monk that had brought about the grace of the answer to prayer. Deo gratias.

    This experience has changed the way I now pray for unknown souls. We are all united in the communion of saints, whatever our time or place on Earth. One day it shall all be revealed to us: the graces we have received in life from those who have prayed for us…. and the souls we have helped on their journey towards Heaven by our prayers for them.

  8. oldCatholigirl says:

    Sometimes it’s better that the recipient of the prayer be unnamed. I remember years ago going to a prayer meeting in which the members asked for prayers for specific people. One of the women asked for prayers for her husband’s drinking problem. I didn’t think I needed to know that he had one.

  9. mitdub says:

    That paragraph explaining the intentio dantis screams “American” and especially upper midwest American than anything I’ve seen in ages!

  10. Discerning Altar Boy says:

    The dammed are dammed forever, that’s why it’s Hell. You’d be better of praying for the Poor Souls and for the Conversion of Sinners.

  11. catholiccomelately says:

    Veronica scriptor velum.
    Thank you for sharing that story. I pray often for folks I have heard of but don’t know. It’s encouraging to see an occasional positive answer to those kinds of prayers.

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