The Church often asks us to pray for one another – this is the call of the Lord and of the Gospel. Throughout the Gospels and the Epistles, we are asked to pray for each other. St Paul often ask for the prayers of the Church members, and promises his own prayers for them as he does in this text – “I urge you, brothers, by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the love of the Spirit, that in your prayers to God for me, you exert yourselves to help me” (cf. Romans 15:30). And in the first Letter to the Thessalonians, we read – “Pray for us, my brothers” (cf. 1 Thes. 5:25). St Paul also tells us – “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance making supplication for all the saints” (cf. Ephesians 6:18). There are many similar texts.
This same call is repeated in the Sacraments of the Church; at the start of Mass, for example, we ask our brothers and sisters “to pray for me to the Lord, our God”, as we do precisely the same for them. As we leave Confession, the Priest will often ask us to pray for him; and I am sure that Priests pray for their penitents more than we will ever know in this life. Similarly, at the Sacraments of Baptism, of Confirmation, of Holy Communion, of Ordination, of Matrimony, and of the Anointing of the Sick, we pray especially for the particular recipients of those Sacraments.
Our prayers obtain grace and mercy for souls. This is the reality of the Mystical Body, the Church.
The call to prayer on behalf of sinners is repeated in the devotions of the Church.
In the Divine Mercy devotion we ask for mercy “for our sins and the sins of all the world”. This begging for mercy is a communal act, extended out to all humanity, for whom our prayers are offered – “for the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world”, as we pray in the Chaplet.
While in the devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, we are asked to pray that the Lord will “lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need”. These prayers, of course, include each one of us, for we are all sinners. Indeed, at Fatima, the Blessed Virgin asked the children explicitly to pray and to “make sacrifices for sinners” and for their conversion.
To “pray for sinners” can seem like an insurmountable task, so vast that we can feel quite overwhelmed by the magnitude of it. Contemplating the magnitude of the task is something the Lord knows well; in the Garden of Gethsemane, He thought about this as He prayed alone, and was so acutely aware of it that “He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat became like drops of Blood, falling on the ground” (cf.Luke 22:44). For us, there is a risk that because of the vastness of the need for prayer on behalf of sinners, we simply don’t do it, or don’t do it often enough, or with sufficient constancy.
Last year, I was at Confession one day and before I left the Confessional, the Priest asked me to pray each day for the grace for one single soul to return to Confession. I was deeply struck by this and did as he asked. I still do. I will never know which souls I am praying for, nor will that soul ever know I am praying for them. Neither thing matters in the least; what counts is the prayer, and the grace it obtains for that soul, from the mercy of God. I am certain that at particular times, other souls have been praying for me; there have been occasions when the Lord has given some particular grace or other, and I have felt the certainty that this was obtained through the prayers of some soul somewhere. No doubt this is the experience of many souls, and on some such occasions, the Lord may choose to make us at least partially aware of how a grace was obtained for us. In case we become too pleased with ourselves, however, we need to remember clearly that the prayer we offer is not our own initiative; we are simply responding to a grace given to us by the Lord, to Whom alone the praise belongs. We are nothing more than instruments in His hands. As the Catechism reminds us –
“Jesus also prays for us – in our place and on our behalf. All our petitions were gathered up, once for all, in His cry on the Cross and, in His Resurrection, heard by the Father. This is why He never ceases to intercede for us with the Father.“ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2741)
We know from the Gospel what the return of a soul to God means to the Lord. He tells us –
“I tell you that .. there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (cf. Luke 15:7)
If there is such joy in Heaven, can there be any doubt as to our call to pray that these souls return to the Lord?
Perhaps, then, we might consider this plan to pray for one single soul, for one particular sinner; leave the choice of which sinner, to the Lord – He knows best where those prayers are most needed, and it helps us avoid any temptation to ‘look down’ on another soul; remember, all of us are sinners and we are all in need of the mercy and grace of God.
And perhaps, in God’s providence, as we are praying for a soul, somewhere a soul may be praying for us, too.