Prayer with a global outlook

Prayer makes us more than observers, writes Andrew O’Connell

A couple of years ago an elderly man was interviewed for television at the Gable Wall at Knock Shrine. He explained that he had come there that day to pray. The first prayer he had offered, he said, was a prayer of thanksgiving for the freedom to come to Knock. His second prayer, he said, was for the people suffering in Syria.

He said it softly, with a lovely Mayo accent and with a striking sincerity. I remembered that man during the week when I heard a panellist on a radio programme casually dismissing faith and caricaturing the prayer of Irish Catholics as the mindless rattling off of memorised words and an exercise in self-absorption.

It’s a pity that the radio commentator hadn’t heard our friend at Knock. They would have encountered something quite profound in that man’s prayer of thanksgiving for the freedom to be able to make a pilgrimage. It was more than a prayer. It revealed an attitude towards life – an attitude not built on a sense of entitlement but on a sense of gratitude. Living life with a sense of gratitude inevitably encourages a sense of humility too – a humility which appeared to be absent in the radio commentator’s write off of faith.

Being thankful for the freedom to worship also indicates an appreciation of the history of our country. It reveals too an awareness of the reality that the practice of one’s faith can be a hazardous exercise in some parts of the world today. Far from being insular, faith develops a much broader understanding of reality.


Open our minds

In telling us that he had been praying for Syria, we also saw that Catholicism, often dismissed as parochial, has the capacity to expand our horizons and open our minds to the needs of other peoples in other places.

There has been a long tradition of this. The prayers that were whispered in Irish kitchens for the conversion of Russia and the extraordinary Irish interest in the missions showed that people of faith knew that the world did not end at the parish bounds.

The digital revolution has provided us with new means of communication such as Skype, Facebook and e-mail and has resulted in the amazing phenomenon of global connectedness.

One could argue that prayer has already been connecting people across great distances for a long time already.

Our friend in Knock demonstrated that prayer transforms us from being mere observers to actual protagonists.  And it might be a surprise to that radio commentator to learn that faith enables one to engage in international affairs while on one’s knees in prayer.


Just a coincidence?

I’m travelling to the Holy Land this week. Like many other parishes and groups who have travelled there in recent months we have been keeping a close eye on the situation in Syria.

The threat of US air strikes and the danger of a wider conflict receded quite suddenly at the beginning of September. Analysts will point to a slip of the tongue by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, which was seized upon by the wily
Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov as the origin of the plan to place Syria’s chemical weapons beyond use.

It shouldn’t be forgotten though that this dramatic turnaround happened only days after Pope Francis’ special day of fasting and prayer for Syria.

Was it a coincidence? Perhaps. But coincidences can also be understood as little miracles in which God chooses to remain anonymous.


Public Service

An RTÉ camera crew spent the best part of two days gathering footage recently for the lead in video which was aired before this year’s Mission Sunday TV Mass.

I was with the crew as they filmed several young adults around Cork who are involved in ministries associated with the Presentation Brothers, the hosts of this year’s Mass.

The crew worked hard and were genuinely eager to include as much of the activities of the young people that they could. It was late in the evening when we finished up at Col·iste an Spioraid Naoimh in Bishopstown where we had filmed a planning session of the Edmund Rice Action Camps, a group of young adults providing an annual summer holiday to children in need of a break.   

The State broadcaster frequently attracts criticism, some of it deserved, but it plays a valuable public service role particularly in the attention it continues to give to the broadcasting of religious ceremonies.