Prayer and the power of change

Evils like the mass shooting at south Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Ash Wednesday have become far too commonplace in our country. As a nation, we struggle to find an appropriate response. Statements are issued and sides are taken, but no solutions are found. The atrocities keep happening. Why? Because society has not correctly identified and sought to correct the root of the problem.

In his statement following the horrific school shooting, as debates over gun control raged, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput strove to address this root: “let’s not lie to ourselves that tighter gun restrictions — as vital and urgent as they now are — will solve the problem.” Rather, he said, the problem is much bigger. “We’ve lost our respect for human life on a much broader scale, and this is the utterly predictable result.”

So how do we restore what Archbishop Chaput says has been lost? The path to peace and the end to violence for which society yearns, especially at times like this, hangs in the balance until we realize the solution. Ironically, the answer is in plain sight, found in the much-criticized phrase “thoughts and prayers” so commonly announced in the wake of such tragedies. To many, this phrase seems empty — that it is not enough, that action must be taken.

People of faith know, however, that prayer is action and that it contains the power to change. Pope Benedict XVI said in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians” (No. 37).

Take, for instance, Moses’ intercessory model of prayer. When he pleads to change God’s decision to destroy Israel, God hears his pleas and has mercy (Ex 32:9-14). Like Moses, we must pray with confidence and hope knowing who God is and what he can do for us.

At times of tragedy, rightly we pray for the victims, the assailants, those affected by the massacre, as well as the first responders. The lives of those left behind are forever changed, and they will experience much suffering. Prayer’s power can make a change in their lives and in society.

But does our prayer stop here? Rather than only turning to God when all else fails, what about praying in advance for God’s protection and for peace to reign? Why not pray the St. Michael prayer each day? And we cannot forget Our Lady’s explicit request that we pray the Rosary daily for peace. Innumerable examples can be given of how these prayers have changed the course of history.

Ultimately, the change we are all looking for in these dark days of pervading violence is more than human activity alone can fix. In the end, mass shootings — or any other of human evil for that matter — cannot be solved by any means other than Jesus Christ. Our prayer unites us to him, and also demands change in us.

Christ died to make right all of humanity’s wrongs. He continues today as model and guide for getting life right, still inviting each of us to change our hearts and “come follow me.” Fundamentally, our prayer seeks to change our hearts gradually into Christ’s own. As we pray in the Litany of the Sacred Heart, “Jesus, meek and humble of heart. Make our hearts like yours.”

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “The fundamental act of religion is prayer, which in the Christian religion acquires a very specific character: It is the act of self-surrender by which we enter the Body of Christ. Thus it is an act of love.”

This change within us occurs as we abandon ourselves in imitation of Christ’s sacrificial love. That is a love that desires only what God wants, because all is gift from him. It’s not a love “all about me.” Rather, it requires dying to self — the greatest form of which, as Christ said and did, is to lay down your life for others. “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his it will save it,” says the Lord (Lk 17:33).

The allurements of modern society propose quite the opposite, yet Christ is “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). Only through prayer do we allow the love of Christ to reign, where we encounter the only solution for healing the root of all evil. It is the only way in which we can restore what has been lost — the seedbed for building a society where love triumphs and all life is valued and respected. All else will pale in comparison.

Until the world allows Christ’s love to transform it, what can change? We will keep on deciding which laws of God are a good idea and which aren’t, or debating what type of murder is acceptable and which is not.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves. The Enemy is on the prowl, and he’s allowed to flourish in a society that gets its priorities wrong most of the time. The peace we seek will not come by our own efforts alone, nor by magic or force. Peace will reign only when Christ reigns in every human heart — for he “is our peace” (Eph 2:14).

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Venerable Father Patrick Peyton famously summed up the path to that moment: “A world at prayer is a world at peace.”

And so, in a society shattered by evil all around, we must turn nowhere else but to Christ for the change we seek. He will work through us to build a culture of life and love, if we allow him. But it is up to each one of us.

And it is only possible through prayer.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s The Catholic Answer. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.