Part Four: Prayer in the life of faith
17 The last part of the Catechism deals with the meaning and importance of prayer in the life of believers (Section One). It concludes with a brief commentary on the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (Section Two), for indeed we find in these the sum of all the good things which we must hope for and which our heavenly Father wants to grant us.
The final of the four pillars of the Catechism is the section on prayer. As we saw last week the Catechism uses classical outlines to arrange its material; the third section on morality follows the outline of the Ten Commandments while going far beyond the original context and usage of the Commandments in developing a modern Christian school of theology. The same is true in the fourth section of the Catechism on prayer, in which the second part organizes itself around the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.
There is no footnote in the Catechism for this paragraph, so presumably the use of the Lord’s Prayer is taken as a given for any discussion of a prayerful format. Certainly this is true for the vast majority of Catholics for whom the Our Father (like the Hail Mary) is something of a prayer mantra; hence the great devotion to the rosary. Likewise, the editors of the Catechism no doubt saw great advantage in using the most familiar prayer in the Christian treasury as a teaching instrument, a strategy which has considerable pedagogical advantage. However, those of you following the Vatican II blog entries on Mondays and Saturdays are already aware that in the early 1960’s (and certainly before and after) there was great distrust by the Roman Curia of “theological experts” who were primarily scholars of considerable repute, many of whom had published before the Council and would themselves or through their students continue their work through the present day. The Curia’s main concern was the fear that the biblical and historical scholars might raise questions about aspects of Church teaching or practice that might prove embarrassing.
Over the last century or so Biblical scholars have given the Our Father the great attention it deserves. Recent analysis seems to concur that the Our Father—or at least the first portions of it—have strong historical probability as being among the ipsissima verba or very words of Jesus. And that’s where the problem begins, because the Our Father is a highly radicalized prayer, so much so that in the second half of the twentieth century the words of the prayer served as the inspiration of a number of works on Liberation Theology. I still have my copy of The Lord’s Prayer: The Prayer of Integral Liberation from 1983 but my 1977 copy of Thy Will Be Done: Praying the Our Father as Subversive Activity is missing, possibly confiscated by the Swiss Guard when I went to Rome in 2013 to get it autographed by Pope Francis.
I should add here parenthetically that while I respect the work of liberation theologians on behalf of the poor, my training was in Western European/U.S. conceptual style of religion and theology; in very recent years, however, particularly with the papacy of Pope Francis and the shift in U.S. and world economic trends, I have to say that the theological concerns of justice as put forward in documents like Laudato Si have caused me to reevaluate my somewhat limited worldview of the possibilities of Catholic theology.
My renewed interest in the Our Father, however, came by another route. I have been studying the historical/scriptural theology of Father John Meier, at this juncture A Marginal Jew II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles (1994, notably part two on Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom.) Meier’s research—now widely respected in the Catholic academic community—leads him to conclude that the most primitive layer of Jesus’ preaching accessible to historical method was his announcement that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Those of you following the Gospel of Mark through Cycle B have no doubt noticed this emphasis by Jesus. Consequently, Meier holds, Gospel references to the Kingdom of God or Reign of God must pay close attention to what the Kingdom of God would have meant to Jesus.
Somewhere along the line I have heard it said that Catholics would recoil in horror if they knew what they were really praying for in the Our Father. Meier writes that by the time Jesus parted ways with John the Baptist, he went forward with three components of his message well established: (1) the coming of the day of judgment was soon, imminent; (2) the world order as then known would be turned on its head, as described in the Hebrew Scripture apocalyptic, and (3) some form of baptism or washing was necessary as a preparation for this new and indescribable Kingdom of God.
Mark does not have an “Our Father sequence” as such (nor does St. John.) But Matthew and Luke do so, and even with Luke’s tendency to somewhat “domesticate” the starker elements of Mark, the Lord’s Prayer is a remarkable statement; the constraints of time keep us from a closer analysis today, but consider the phrase “thy kingdom come.” The petitioner is actually praying for two things, as the Gospels speak of the Kingdom as (1) already here, as in the miracles recorded by Mark, and (2) yet to come, as described in great and terrifying detail in the three synoptic Gospels. The Christian petitioner is acknowledging the opening phrase of the prayer, “Our Father in heaven,” by asking for a hastening of the end time when the name of God will be fully glorified before all.
The phrase “thy will be done” embodies the entire corpus of Jesus’ teaching, what Matthew would call the “the Law and the Prophets,” what Jesus says he has come to bring to perfection. The fact that the Hebrew prophets were without exception advocates of a just society means that the petitioner is calling for that manifestation of the kingdom where prophetic justice rules. There is a strong element of “enjoy it while you have it” in the Our Father, exemplified so well in Luke’s description of Lazarus the poor man who dies at the rich man’s gate. Luke’s account of Abraham’s words should give us a chill: “My child, remember that you were well off in your lifetime, while Lazarus was in misery. Now he has found consolation here [in the Kingdom] but you have found torment.” (Luke 16:19-31)
I wonder if the Catechism’s editors will drive this home when the time comes.