But like any powerful tool, words of prayer must be respected and worked mindfully, and with our full awareness, if they are to be used well.
Have you ever caught yourself operating on autopilot while praying one of the communal prayers of the Mass? It is easy to become distracted while we are doing something so familiar. It is not an unusual thing to find oneself automatically droning "Lord, hear our prayer" while being utterly detached from the fact that at that moment we are a church offering up intercessory prayer -- real supplication -- for others, or that our prayer, especially when part of the most perfect prayer of the Mass, has power.
But like any powerful tool, words of prayer must be respected and worked mindfully, and with our full awareness, if they are to be used well. To call on the Lord and demand, "Hear us!" is no small thing. It engages, and ultimately co-operates with, the very source and force of life and all creation.
As the great Yoda once said to Luke Skywalker, "A Jedi's strength flows from the Force." Just so with us Christians and how we use the lightsaber of sacred words. Think about that the next time your parish lector cues the assembly to supernatural engagement.
I mean no harangue here, because priests are as susceptible as anyone. True, we read the well-known prayers at Mass for formulaic accuracy and to be unified with the whole Church, but any priest will tell you that sometimes -- especially if a pastor has a great deal on his plate or a weary priest has been up late answering an emergency -- he is grateful to have those prayers in print, because even he can find himself distracted and losing his place.
The liturgy of the wandering mind. The struggle is real.
Even outside of prayer, the words we Catholics use when we talk about the faith -- phrases like "state of grace" or "full of grace" -- will pass over our lips without us ever wondering, "Well, what is 'grace,' after all? What did Gabriel mean by it? What do we mean?"
I'd like to use this column to wonder about our words, and to hopefully get you wondering about them, too, engaging with the powerful force of them, and who they serve, both in the church and in the world.
We began the year with great solemnity honoring Our Lady as the Mother of God, and who better to turn to as we pray for God's mercy and for peace in our world?
We revere Mary and offer our concerns into her keeping, under her many titles. Perhaps the greatest one, used more in the Eastern churches than in the West, is "Theotokos," which is understood variously as "Mother of God" or "God-bearer." As such, it follows that Mary is also the Mother of Mercy (for, as Pope Francis taught in "Misericordiae vultus," "Jesus is the face of the Father's mercy"). She must be, because she is the Mother of Jesus, Who is all All Mercy.
What good words those are, and what good news, for how greatly are we, our church, and our world, in need of God's mercy? Sinners are we -- and without mercy, yes, without Mary's willingness to carry the eternal Son of God in her womb -- making her the Mother of Mercy -- we would have no mercy, no hope of it.
As Jesus hung on the cross, he gave his mother to us, the church. He said to John: "Behold your mother" (Jn 19:27). And as he bowed his head and breathed his last, mercy rained down upon the world like a torrent. In dying and in rising to new life, Jesus guaranteed mercy if only we would ask, and in exchange for our true contrition.
In your darkest hours and when faced with your own sinfulness, ask our dear Mother of Mercy to whisper your needs into the ear of her Son. She will do it. And he who is the face of the Father's mercy will hear and answer her pleas.
- BISHOP REED IS REGIONAL BISHOP OF THE WEST REGION OF THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON, PASTOR OF GOOD SHEPHERD PARISH, WAYLAND AND PRESIDENT OF ICATHOLIC MEDIA.