The words we pray

Question: How important is it when reading a prayer that we understand all of its meaning?

-- Hugh Sweeney, by e-mail

Answer: On the one hand, it is very important that we understand the prayers we say, whether read or repeated from memory.

Prayers are not magical formulas that have power in themselves. Their power comes from God and from our cooperation with him.

The power of prayer comes from the degree to which we put our hearts and souls into what we say when we address God and in the extent that we take seriously whatever God does in response to our prayers. We must keep in mind here that God's response to our prayers will not always be what we expect and often may not be easily discernible.

On the other hand, there is a sense that we never fully understand the prayers we say. Consider the Our Father -- not a human invention, but something given us by Christ himself.

Numerous commentaries have been written on the Our Father over the centuries, and no commentary ever fully exhausts its meaning.

Many of the most popular prayers we are familiar with were taught to us in childhood. We learned to say them even before we fully understood them. The lack of full understanding does not make the prayers of children less true. Over the years, children "grow" into the prayers they have been taught.

This truth underscores the importance of introducing children to the prayers of the liturgy and of Catholic devotion. These are also the prayers that stay with people as their mental faculties fade and prayer becomes more difficult.

The prayer of an elderly person who struggles to grasp what he or she is saying is surely acceptable in God's sight.

Political activity

Question: I have a problem with the fact that some of the leaders in the Church are too active in politics. What do you think?

-- Nat Crowley, by e-mail

Answer: Most thoughtful people will admit that a long and sorry history of interaction between the realms of the ecclesiastical and political exists. But that does not mean that there should not be an appropriate connection between the two.

The system we have in the United States -- the separation of church and state, with each respecting the freedoms and rights of the other -- is a great improvement over other historical models and it works rather well.

Were the Church (and I assume that you are talking here about Church leaders) to be disconnected from the realm of the political, it would be dispensing with its duties to work for the common good of society and for the transformation of the world. The Church has no choice but to promote its concern in these areas. Simply put, the Church exists for the good of the world.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (and the Internal Revenue Service) goes to great pains to ensure that the American episcopate and its individual members do not get involved in politics inappropriately, let alone "control politicians and government policies."

In our society, the only means through which the Church can be influential in the political realm is by public discussion and persuasion, as well as by inviting Catholic politicians to educate themselves on the tradition to which they belong. Some bishops are more vocal in this matter than others, but I think overall the record is good.

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.