Saturday, August 13, 2011

Prayer and Conversion

Isaiah 56:1,6-7
Psalm 67:2,3,5,6,8
Romans 11:13-15,29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

It’s striking that last weekend we hear Our Lord speaking to Peter, saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” and yet today we hear him say to the Canaanite woman, “O woman, great is your faith!” This pagan woman, who, we tend to think, should not have been a person possessing much faith, is praised by the Lord Himself. I can only imagine the shocked faces of the Apostles, especially Peter, whose faith was so recently challenged and found lacking. And yet as we look at the faith of this woman, we find in her a beautiful model of intercessory prayer.

First, she recognizes a need. She sees that her daughter is plagued by a demon and needs to be freed from that horrible oppression. And so she seeks for someone or something to bring about this freedom and as the Lord draws near she cries out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David.” In calling Him ‘Son of David’ she is recognizing the fact that Jesus is the Messiah since it was believed that the savior would come from David’s lineage. Though a pagan, this woman sees the truth of the person of Jesus and entrusts her daughter’s cause to Him. She makes clear her desire to Our Lord – she wants her daughter freed from the demon. Here the Lord does a curious thing; He doesn’t even say a word. He just continues on. To our modern ear this seems to be a harsh thing to have done, as if the Lord was so unconcerned about the woman and her daughter that He simply carried on. The reality, though, is that the Lord does this so as to allow the woman to show the depth of her faith and to allow it to increase. From the disciples’ plea asking Jesus to tell her to go away we can deduce that she kept up with them. Rather than give up because the Lord didn’t respond at her first request, she redoubles her efforts. She even jumps into the conversation that the Lord is having with the disciples; Jesus is actually speaking to the twelve when she bows down in homage and pleads “Lord, help me!” What faith indeed! The boldness of this woman is incredible to contemplate and for this the Lord finally engages her. After this brief dialogue where she argues that the Gentile people should not be totally ignored, Jesus sees that the woman had faith stronger than most of those He had encountered in Israel and rewards her fervent intercession by granting her request. She knew what she wanted, took it to Our Lord, persisted in asking for it, and was finally granted it.

As we see the bigger picture of our readings today, we hear the voice of Our Lord challenging us to take up this type of prayer for others. In our first reading God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, saying, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul recounts how he glories in evangelizing the Gentiles because some of the Jewish people come to know Christ out of jealousy for their reception of the Gospel. It would be easy for us to simply be content and complacent with how things are. I find it easy myself to say with regard to spiritual things, “Well, I’m way better off now than I used to be” and for that reason let myself off the hook when called to do something more. The Lord doesn’t want disciples who are content with how things are going; He wants disciples who are willing to step out there and bring others to know Him or to know Him more deeply. Sometimes this comes in a bold or dramatic way. But more often than not, it comes in a gradual conversion. And this is where we come in.

None of us has to look very far to find people that could be brought closer to Christ and His Church. They’re in our homes, at our job, walking with or around us every day. I can almost guarantee that every one of us has someone in the family that “used to be Catholic” or does not have a deep relationship with Our Lord. I’m sure most of us probably have a friend or co-worker that has strayed from the narrow path a bit. And of course there are also those billions of souls – atheists, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and countless other religions – who are not part of the Church that was founded by Jesus Christ and do not have the fullness of Truth and grace of the sacraments to help them attain salvation. It is for all of these people who are in the midst of our daily life that the Lord invites us to pray.

Often we think that conversions are brought about by inviting someone to Mass, passing on a book or cd, or talking about our faith. Certainly these are necessary things for us in the process of bringing people to the Church or back to the Church, but they are not the primary thing. As Patrick Madrid points out in his book Search and Rescue: How to Bring Your Family and Friends into – or Back into – the Catholic Church, we must start with prayer. In that book he cites a wise bishop who responded to Saint Monica’s frustrations about Saint Augustine’s unwillingness to convert as she wanted with that beautiful statement: Talk less to Augustine about God and more to God about Augustine. We must pray. And we must pray like the Canaanite woman in the gospel.

Recall her method: she saw the need, brought it before the Lord in faith, persisted in prayer, and was rewarded. The call of the Lord to us today here at St. George parish is to do the same in seeking to bring about conversion in our loved ones. Identify them, bring them before the Lord and pray for them. Continuously. And when the fruits don’t show at first, pray more. Pray morning offering prayers for their conversion, offer our prayers for them while at Mass, pray the rosary for them, ask the saints to pray for them, ask their guardian angel to open their hearts to God’s grace. The ways to pray for others are countless, we need only make use of them.