Do we have a prayer?

Must even every disaster now that befalls us become an excuse for further division and ideological maneuvering?

Apparently so.

The slaughter of innocents in San Bernardino, California, had barely sunk into our consciousness when we were subjected to more arguments about gun control, about immigration and national security, and now about prayer.

It appears that some of our fellow citizens have taken umbrage at politicians who ask for prayers for the victims of our all too frequent mass shootings. After a number of Republicans issued such anodyne statements this month, the New York Daily News ran a huge headline saying: “God isn’t fixing this: As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.” Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, responded by calling for a boycott of the Daily News, and the war was on.

The debate on the face of it is as silly and beside the point as the manufactured controversy about Starbucks’ Christmas coffee cups, but is also much sadder. It did, however, make me reflect on what we mean when we say we are praying for someone or something. The invocation of prayer can be as meaningful or as empty as our actions that follow such an invocation.

I remember as a child contributing to a “spiritual bouquet” (do they still do such things?). I would contribute maybe one Rosary and then a hundred “spiritual ejaculations.” In my fourth-grade calculus, Rosaries were long, but anyone could rattle off “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” a hundred times while playing four-square or dodgeball at recess. Whether I actually rattled them off has escaped my memory, which makes me think it was more like a press release’s invocation of prayer: Well-intentioned if nothing else.

Prayer comes more quickly in times of trouble, just as the churches filled up for a while after 9/11. I don’t say that such prayer is without value. This is, in Pope Francis’ words, life in the field hospital. Prayer comes easiest when we are on the stretcher or in the waiting room. We see it in Scripture all the time: in the miracle stories, in the parables, in the psalms. Prayer is also a comfort we extend when we can extend little else: We tell the grieving and the ill that we will keep them in prayer.

As I get older, I take the responsibility of prayer more and more seriously, yet at times, the tragedies of life pile on top of each other and crowd each other out. Which is both human and unfortunate, for we are told over and over that we need to be persistent in prayer.

In Luke 18, there are two stories that underscore this: the blind man who will not be silenced in calling out to Jesus and the widow who keeps bugging the corrupt judge. Of course, we do not always get what we want, or what we think we want. Like Jesus in Gethsemane, sometimes the cup does not pass, and we are asked even then to cling to God’s mercy. But I do wonder if we as a Church need to more consciously commit ourselves to be united in persistent prayer.

So let’s celebrate the season of Christmas with joy, but on the upcoming feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28), let’s join together also to pray for all the victims of terrorism — not just in Israel 2,000 years ago, but San Bernardino and France, in Lebanon and Syria, in Tunisia and Nigeria.

And let’s persist in praying for an end to terrorism in the days and weeks to follow.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s publisher.