All For One, and One For All

This week, we have an opportunity to dwell on a wing of theology that most people don’t know by name. On the other hand, knowing of its existence illuminates the reason for this week’s Work of Mercy: pray for the living and the dead.

Ecclesiology is the school of theological thought and doctrine that explains the nature of the Church itself. Much Scripture deals with the nature of Christ’s mystical body, the Church. Therefore, it shouldn’t be too surprising that our tradition holds prayer for both the living and the dead as one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. This kind of prayer has a name, in fact, which speaks of the role we are called to play, the nature of our relationships with one another and the nature of the Church – intercession.

Intercession is the act of, literally speaking, interceding with God on behalf of someone else’s needs – something perhaps most of us have done without even a second thought. What then is the value of such prayer that we do it almost unthinking, yet it merits inclusion on such a select list of practices? What difference could these simple prayers make, when so often we feel our prayers go unanswered? We may not ever be able to see their effect. Further yet, what good could it do to pray for the dead?

Scripture is replete with examples of, and exhortations to, intercessory prayer, as well as instruction on how to carry it out. Happily, prayer to God, for the good of ourselves and others, is a primary thread that connects the selections we have in the Liturgy today. I’ll briefly point those out, but refer also to other stories from both the Old and New Testaments.

The reading from Sirach, which is echoed in the psalm and the gospel reading, tells us of the attitude of the successful pray-er but can be summed up merely by quoting the antiphon of the psalm: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” So concise are these words that teach us that, in order to be heard, we must reckon ourselves rightly before God. It is not so much the economically poor, but the humble, the “poor in spirit,” who have the Lord’s ear and all the more when they pray not for themselves but for others.

James 4:3 further illuminates this by saying that sometimes, when we do not receive what we have asked for, it is because our motivations are selfish. Rather, we find success in our prayer when we understand our lowliness, our utter dependence on God and his gracious good will for even the simplest of needs and then, rather than merely seeking what we need, asking God to grant the needs of others. When the Church prays for the needs of others, prisoners are set free (see Acts of the Apostles 12:1-19, an amazing and authentically human story of the Church, the many interceding for even one person), and all of God’s people are saved from destruction (the book of Exodus is loaded with instances of the leader praying for the many, and God sparing them on account of Moses).

The value of humility in prayer is obviously two-fold then, based only on what we have seen so far. First, that humility places us in a correct orientation or posture before God. Second, our prayers for each other provide a model of what we are called to be as Church. Truly, the Church is at her finest when believers pray for the great and small needs of others and even for the world. This radical, fundamental, spiritual solidarity is a well-explored, but little-appreciated, truth of the Church’s ecclesiology.

This oneness extends even to those who died with the grace of Baptism, so the “faithful departed” are deserving of our intercession, as well. Yet, what need could these souls have of our prayers? The answer to this lies in the nature of the Church itself. We, the Church, are not a principally earthly body, but rather a spiritual corpus, destined for union with God through his own immeasurable mercy and wisdom. So it is close to the Church’s heart to pray for the salvation of its members, even those beyond the earthly veil, since the only petition we could make for them that would avail is for God’s mercy.

I came across a “tweet” recently that said that God has three answers to our prayers, 1) yes, 2) not yet, and 3) I have something better in mind. I daresay we get more option 3 than the other two combined, since we lack understanding of what we really need, or better, what would draw us nearer to the Lord. However, the primary petition of the Mass, and therefore of the Church, is for salvation – a mercy we all can seek with confidence in God’s great willingness to grant. Let us, therefore, intercede tirelessly for the grace of salvation in Christ for every member of our spiritual body.

David Dunst

Musical Director


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