Msgr. Michael Heintz
The Human Condition
December 6, 2016 // Uncategorized

Personal prayer, public prayer and the presence of Christ

Msgr. Michael Heintz
The Human Condition

By Msgr. Michael Heintz, PhD

There is no such thing as “private” prayer. There is – and certainly should be – deeply personal prayer, but really no such thing as “private” prayer. All Christian prayer, if it is true to its name, is initiated by the promptings of the Holy Spirit received in baptism, who prays in and through the hearts of the baptized — who together are constituted as the body of Christ, the Church.

Two things are worth noting here: First, all prayer begins with God’s initiative. It’s graced — in the Tradition, the Holy Spirit is often referred to as “uncreated Grace” — and second, the Church is constituted by God’s action, not by mere human choice or conscious decision. All prayer then, personal or public, is done in communion with the body of Christ, the Church, as the Spirit draws us in Christ to an ever-deeper communion with the Father.

Public, liturgical prayer should shape, inform and nurture our personal prayer. That is, rather than accommodating our experience of liturgical prayer to our experience of personal prayer — and thus asking, for example, whether the liturgy of the Church “meets my needs” or “touches me personally,” we should allow the public prayer of the Church continually to affect our experience of personal prayer, drawing us out of ourselves and uniting us more deeply to the self-offering of Christ to the Father. Our needs, like our tastes, should themselves be the subject of ongoing conversion.

The prayer of the Church par excellence is the Mass. The eucharistic liturgy, the Church tells us, is in fact the most effective thing the Church does. As Pope Benedict made clear in his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” the entire social mission of the Church, its apostolates of active charity and social justice, for example, derive their purpose and meaning – and their eschatological effectiveness — from the sacrifice of the altar, where the fullness of love is revealed not as an human ideal but as a divine person. That’s one of the reasons Mass is offered daily and why Catholics are encouraged to participate regularly — even daily, when possible — at the Mass. Ask anyone who, over the course of time, has had the opportunity to become a daily communicant, and each will no doubt tell you that the opportunity to celebrate Mass daily has made a profound difference in their life.

At every celebration of the Eucharist, Christ is present in four distinct ways: in his Word proclaimed; in the person of the priest or bishop, who acts in persona Christi; in the assembled people of God; and most especially (“maxime” is the word used in the documents of the Church, literally, “most of all”) in the consecrated elements, the bread and wine upon which the Holy Spirit is invoked (the technical term for this is “epiclesis”) and which are substantially changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is this last, substantial presence of Christ that in fact constitutes the Church and that makes Christ present among his people. It’s not that, because we have gathered as the Church that somehow the Eucharist reveals Christ’s presence; rather, it’s because Christ reveals himself in the breaking of the bread, as He did to Cleopas and his otherwise-unknown companion on the road to Emmaus, that we acknowledge Him present in the assembled people of God.

The Third Eucharistic Prayer itself, following the Institution Narrative and Consecration, entreats that, “Grant that we, who are nourished by his Body and Blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ;” it is the Holy Spirit who constitutes the Church by configuring us to Christ through our sharing in the Eucharist. St. Augustine, in one of his homilies (Sermon 272), suggests to his congregation that it is “their Mystery” that is placed on the altar and that they are to “become what they receive” — their identity (and ours) is derived from the paschal mystery. Our participation in the Eucharist is what incorporates us, quite literally, into the body of Christ, the Church.

While the Mass is the source and summit of our life as Christians, there are manifold ways of praying in the Catholic Tradition. Most notably there is the Liturgy of the Hours, sometimes called the Divine Office or the Breviary, which is the official prayer, one might say, of the Catholic Church. We might marvel at the devotion of Muslims, who pray five times daily. Yet Christians have, for centuries now and long before the Qur’an was composed, been praying as many as seven times daily.

The Liturgy of the Hours, with its rhythm of feasts, seasons, psalmody and canticles, seeks both to sanctify each day and to rescue us from the tyranny of secular time, in which time is no longer seen as a gift, but a commodity to be managed and manipulated. Deacons, priests, bishops and religious are committed to the praying of this prayer with fidelity precisely for the well being of the Church and the salvation of the world. It’s a great consolation to realize that at any one moment, somewhere in the Catholic world, this prayer is being prayed for you — and for me.

There are, of course, many other modes of prayer and devotional life that distinguish the lives of Catholics: the rosary, Lectio Divina, novenas and litanies, and a host of other ways of praying that adorn the Church. But this panoply of styles and approaches must all be seen as somehow participating in the one prayer of the Church and as always taking their orientation from and ultimately being directed to, the celebration of the Eucharist. Even when alone, one is never praying alone. There are times when a priest may celebrate Mass without a congregation, but even in such cases, we believe that the entire Church, including the angels and saints, are somehow present in that celebration. A homebound person living alone, who may devoutly pray each day, is an integral part of Christ’s body, the Church, at prayer, offering itself to the Father in union with Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. A young married couple, in their prayer together, pray in communion with the entire Church, including all other married couples praying together, whether they realize it or not. A newly-ordained priest, saying the Divine Office alone in church one morning, is praying with the Church Universal, and all these individuals are not merely individuals when they pray: They pray as part of Christ’s Body, in communion with the whole Church on earth.

For those interested in deepening their life of prayer in and with and through the Church, I suggest two very fine books: Thomas Dubay’s “Prayer Primer: Igniting a Fire Within” and Jean Corbon’s “Wellspring of Worship,” both published by Ignatius Press and available online or in stores.

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