The Prayer the Catholic Church Needs

In this time of crisis, renewal, and reform in the Catholic Church, various liturgical and devotional prayers are being promoted by church officials – for atonement, reparation, repentance, healing, and so forth. Are they the right prayer for the right people at the right time? Several questions can be raised.

First, who needs to repent? Who needs to fast? Who needs to pray more? Everyone? Or the clergy? Or the bishops? Asking laypeople (or priests) to atone for sins they did not commit, or to repent for actions they did not do, could well provoke bewilderment or even resentment. Any prayer proposed for groups of people has to be appropriate to their situation and respectful of their sentiments. If there is a place for fasting and penance by lay people because of the bonds uniting all members of the Body of Christ, that place has to be carefully thought through and its rationale compellingly laid forth.

Second, what are we praying for? The Atonement, reparation for all our sins, was won for us once-and-for-all on the Cross. What terms and titles rightly express our response to God’s gracious work and avoid falling into Pelagian self-reliance?

Third, which kinds of prayer are rooted in the common faith and practice of the people, and thus likely to resonate deeply in their hearts and unite them as the Body of Christ? Which prayers rather are partisan and narrow, reflecting one devotional school of thought or one ideological agenda? Imposing “traditional” devotions on people who are not accustomed to them could well impede the work of unification and renewal. At worst, it could reflect the top-down hierarchical insensitivity which has contributed in part to this crisis.

Fourth, when is prayer an encounter with the living God who moves us to righteous action? When, rather, is it a diversion or distraction? Spiritualization of deeply human and political realities is not always a good thing. Even heartfelt apologies, expressions of remorse, and public displays of repentance could be perceived as efforts to move beyond the difficulty too quickly without confronting it responsibly. At their worst, such things could be seen as strategies for officials to remain in power and avoid accountability.

Fifth, who best discerns what prayer the church needs? Bishops need to be close to their priests, and pastors need to be close to their people. Broad-based discernment is essential in discerning what prayer the Church needs. Impositions from above could serve to divide rather than unite.

Some of the prayers being promoted in various parts of the U.S. Catholic Church seem questionable to me.

Take the Prayer to St. Michael, which was recited after Low Mass from 1886 until 1964. Sure, we need the intercession of St. Michael and all the saints to resist evil. The Prayer to St. Michael is part of my prayer life. But the Church doesn’t need preconciliar devotional practices that could unwittingly reinforce the illusion that abuse by priests and cover-up by bishops was not a serious problem long before the 1960s. And given that the liturgical reforms of the 1960s correctly prioritized liturgy over devotions, could we not draw upon more central liturgical sources? Do we have nothing to show for more than half a century of liturgical renewal?

[And as Deacon Bauerschmidt writes in the comments below: “It might seem to imply that the public flogging that the Church is currently undergoing is itself a kind of satanic attack, rather than the Church having to lie in the bed that her leaders have made. The request to defend the Church might be taken as a call to close ranks and reject all criticism rather than uproot what is rotten in the Church.”] 

Take Ember Days. Do these have meaning for many Catholics today? Has anyone under 60 even heard of them? I personally regret that Ember Days were not retained in the U.S. after the Second Vatican Council. But it is a fact that they were dropped. Why revive them now? Do they meet the needs of lay people? Or are they being reintroduced more for the sake of hierarchs? Do parts of the clerical establishment secretly long to escape to an easier, earlier time? Surely that is not the attitude needed by members of the hierarchy in confronting the real problems before them.

Perhaps what the pope and bishops most need from us right now is our fervent prayers to the Holy Spirit for them. They have the unenviable, seemingly impossible task of formulating institutional reforms in ways as yet unknown and unimagined. Members of the hierarchy need courage, wisdom, creativity, and sensitivity as they head into thoroughly uncharted territory.

It is precisely in situations such as this, when the way forward seems most unclear and confusing, that the Holy Spirit enflames hearts, enlightens minds, and loosens tongues. The Holy Spirit is, as the Veni, Creator Spiritus has it, the font of life, fire of love, almighty hand, light for the senses, love for hearts, strength in infirmity, and guide.

If the bishops were to ask us to pray that the fiery, impetuous, upsetting, re-creating, consoling, loving Spirit come upon them and guide them, it would signal several things to us: that they do not have all the answer and need divine guidance; that they need the support of the entire Church; that they are thinking of the future rather than dwelling on the past; that they do not know what the future holds; that they are open to anything that comes from the Holy Spirit; and that they place their hope in a God who is often surprising but always faithful.

Our liturgical life gives us many resources for calling upon the Holy Spirit: the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus and its translation “Come, Holy Ghost” (as well as other translations);  the sequence and Taize mantra Veni Sancte Spiritus, Bianco’s “Come Down, O Love Divine,” and more. Perhaps one of these could be sung after the Prayers of the Faithful at Sunday Mass? Or as a closing hymn?

Or perhaps a Collect from the votive Mass of the Holy Spirit? The liturgical reform does not foresee the addition of an oratio imperata after the Collect of the day. But in these circumstances, perhaps the celebrant could say after the Collect, or after the Prayer after Communion, “Let us pray for the renewal and reform of the Catholic Church,” and then pray the prayer to the Holy Spirit.

Whatever the merit of these modest suggestions – and of course any such suggestions would need to be discussed by many people before moving forward – surely it is a good thing for all of us to pray for our church leaders. They need it, and I’m sure they would appreciate it.

Come, Holy Spirit.


  1. Yesterday’s second reading struck me in regard to the current situation. Faith without works is dead. Talk is cheap if it is not paired with action. Masses of Reparation and other public events give the appearance of doing something, but if these are not paired with concrete institutional reform, these prayers will ring hollow in heaven and on earth.

  2. This is a wonderfully thoughtful response to the efforts by various bishops to ‘do something’ in response to the fall-out from the reports of clergy sex-abuse and cover-ups that have appeared in multiple countries. With good intentions, it seems bishops are rushing to offer a pastoral program of action in response to these reports without the type of careful thought and reflection evidenced here. The bishops feel the need to ‘do something’ and so in haste to ‘do something’ what they propose for the clergy and people of God often seems formulaic and disconnected from the reality with which people are struggling.

  3. I don’t think the problem with the Prayer to St. Michael in this context is not that it is preconciliar or devotional, but that it might seem to imply that the public flogging that the Church is currently undergoing is itself a kind of satanic attack, rather than the Church having to lie in the bed that her leaders have made. The request to defend the Church might be taken as a call to close ranks and reject all criticism rather than uproot what is rotten in the Church.

    1. Fritz – I totally agree with you. I knew something didn’t sit right with me about the apocalyptic prayer, and you named it. Thanks for your comment.

    2. I agree–in our diocese we have been instructed to pray the St. Michael prayer right after the prayers of petition, and it doesn’t sit well with me. It implies, as you say, a lack of any human responsibility for the various problems we face in the church and in the world and fosters a sense of paranoia with respect to the world beyond the church walls.

      1. Well said Ellen. Joan Chittister has gone deeper to look at more of the rot:

        Praying to St. Michael to protect us from evil does little to locate, burn and cauterize the cancerous tentacles of unbalanced patriarchy and power abuse. That transforming work is what the Holy Spirit does.

        When has anyone ever heard of the feminine face of God, in Whose Image 51% of the world’s population has been created? When do Mass readings uphold the roles of women, ad contra calling the Samaritan woman (the first empowered by Christ to preach to her neighbors, and denied by the Apostles) and Mary of Magdala (empowered by Christ to preach the Good News to the Apostles, and also denied by Peter) whores?

        This is the Mystical Body’s #metoo moment, regardless of gender; and the response of the perpetrators is deeply lacking (let the roosters convene to discuss what changes they will institute to protect the coop?). We have seen one public ACT of contrition and wheelbarrows full of “i did not know” words.

        I am from the show me state. #enoughwordsshowme #itispasttime #weallare ChristsBody #thechurchisallofusnotthemoverus

    3. I don’t know if that’s a charitable interpretation of the purpose. I haven’t seen any examples of people thinking that the public treatment of the Church is demonic, but rather that the acts of abuse and lack of oversight perpetrated Her priests and bishops clearly are.

      I haven’t seen any examples of individuals praying that the Church would be protected from criticism, but have seen many instances of petition for internal cleansing and protection from the continued influence of evil. But, that’s just been my limited impression.

  4. We had the Adoremus Eucharistic gathering last weekend across the river from me in Liverpool.
    It “culminated” with a Eucharistic procession through the streets of Liverpool, cardinals, many bishops a throng of priests and an estimated 10,000 people took part in the procession.
    I didn’t.
    To my mind it was a harking back to the era when much of the abuse and covering up took place and almost a defiant “in your face” to the world after the revolting and continuing disclosures.
    One archbishop was interviewed on TV and told the world that the Church would continue to preach to the world despite the abuse.
    My word, but there’s an arrogance and/or lack of sensitivity that needs addressing.

    1. I was under the impression that most of the abuse and cover-ups took place in the 70s, a time few would consider the heyday of Eucharistic Processions.

      That isn’t to say abuse and cover-ups weren’t rotting the Church from the inside out for many decades before, but I wouldn’t try too hard to create an association between some devotional practices and abuse.

      1. I am sure that while it may be true that most of the abuse and cover-ups that we know about occurred in the two decades following Vatican II, I am also quite sure that there was just as much abuse and covering-up — perhaps even more — in the decades preceding the Council when the prevailing attitude was ‘keep quiet for the good of the Church’, ‘it must be your own fault’ and ‘surely Father is untouchable’, with the result that we simply never heard about much of the abuse that took place.

        The fact that there seems to be less these days either means that the spotlight on everything we do has acted as a preventative (thank goodness), or that people are now more clever about concealing it (I sincerely hope this is not so). The ultimate answer is not only to abolish the seminary system and tackle clericalism at its root but also to achieve total transparency across the Church.

      2. Paul is likely right. In the US the Jay Report was only about living victims. Blame-the-60s doesn’t really strike me as a causation. I mused about what the real graphs of abuse might look like here (

        The main thing we can say is that in the US, abuse began to drop in the 80s, and the correlation would seem to be better psychological testing, a feature many conservative commentators have complained about because it ejects “good” men from seminaries.

      3. I’m not sure there’s much evidence supporting the idea that there was as much or more abuse prior to the 1960s. At least in the U.S., the 2002 John Jay Report and the recent PA Grand Jury Report both note there was a dramatic increase in (reported) abuse in the 1950s, with the high watermark variably between 1960-80, before dramatically returning to relatively low levels by the end of the millennium (but obviously that number ought to be 0). The key word though is “reported” abuse, which it isn’t always, and the difficulty in obtaining reasonably accurate records further back than what either reports studied, in which both abusers and victims would be long since deceased. Beyond hypothetical theories, the sad truth is we will probably never know.

        I’m also not very convinced that the existence of seminaries is the root of this problem. It’s a lot harder to be admitted to seminary now than it once was, and I think it’s fair to suggest that the declines in recent instances of (again, reported) abuse is at least partly due to these already decades old reforms. Is the whole seminary system beyond reproach? Of course not. But I have yet to hear a convincing argument that making seminaries magically disappear really is the panacea to end abuse.

      4. Those places where students for the priesthood pursue their academic studies in a university or college context alongside male and female lay students are much, much healthier, it seems to me. The seminarians sleep in separate accommodation, but learn, eat, pray and socialize together with their peers.

      5. Paul, you might be pleased to know that what you describe has long been the case in most of the U.S. Both major seminaries in the two dioceses I recently lived in have degree and auditing programs for laypeople, where they attend theology and philosophy classes alongside seminarians. Even the two Benedictine-run seminaries in my region have done this for at least the past few decades. The old stereotype of cloistered clergy-only seminaries has long been on the way out here, in part as seminary administrators seek ways to offset declines in priestly candidates.

      6. Patrick, I might be pleased to know it, if it were true. But alas what you are talking about is something a little different.

        I was referring to a university or college situation where the seminarians may have a separate hall of residence for sleeping but apart from that do everything in common with lay students. Detroit used to be like that at one time. Only a tiny minority of seminaries/houses of formation operate this model, and they are mostly religious order houses. I have taught in a U.S. seminary, so I have some knowledge of them.

        You are talking, if I have understood correctly, about a “regular” seminary where lay people come in and learn alongside the seminarians but do not live there. That, while a laudable first step, does not have quite the same ethos as the model I describe above, and can easily maintain the clericalism of a traditional seminary while permitting lay men and women to share in the academic studies.

        Having students for the priesthood on exactly the same footing as lay philosophy and theology students does make a difference.

  5. Why do we need to pray for the Spirit to come, if it has always been at work among us though not always acknowledged? “The Spirit of the Lord fills the world,” as the Entrance hymn for Pentecost reminds us in quoting Wisdom 1,7. A closer approximation of this reality for me has been the revival hymn “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us.”

    1. Agree Paul Schlachter. The Spirit always comes or is at least poised and ready. We need to pray to submit to the Holy Spirit. The following popular devotional might do with small adjustment to “we” :
      O Holy Spirit beloved of my soul… I adore You.
      Enlighten me, guide me strengthen me, console me.
      Tell me what I should do…give me Your orders.
      I promise to submit myself to all that You desire of me and to accept all that You permit to happen to me.
      Let me only know Your will.

    2. “Why do we need to pray for the Spirit to come, if it has always been at work among us though not always acknowledged?”

      I’m glad you’ve raised this question, as I’ve always found this a bit vague. And on the other hand, the epiclesis in the Eucharistic Prayers seems to be a plea to God to send his Spirit upon the gifts to make them holy.

  6. I know several parishes where the people have been saying the prayer to St. Michael with enthusiasm for years. It is an excellent, evocative prayer, and a timely reminder of the existence of evil and the Evil One.

    I have little doubt that a loss of the sense of evil, including a disbelief in the possibility of damnation, contributed to the crisis.

  7. One really great thing would be to stop using the third option of the penitential rite: the Kyrie interspersed with tropes.
    At my parish, at least, it now seems strange to say the confiteor, and to then hear a proper Kyrie.

    “thru my fault, thru my fault, thru my most grievous fault…”

    1. But it is not through MY faults–however grievous some of them may be. Fr. Ruff’s point is precisely that the laity are not the ones responsible for the horror that some young people experienced or for the mess that we are in but rather the bishops.

      And statements about the loss of the sense of sin, though an interesting hypothesis, cannot be treated as accurate without some background data. I am reminded of how a couple of decades ago the Notre Dame Center, I believed, did a survey about why American Catholics no longer went to confession. The results: 75% of the laity said that it was because they experienced God’s forgiveness in other ways–which might actually be regarded as a recovery of a former approach to the forgiveness of sins; parish clergy were divided 50-50 between alternate ways of experiencing forgiveness and loss of a sense of sin; 75% of the bishops thought that it was a loss of a sense of sin.
      In other words, the shepherds and the sheep were poles apart. So it should not be surprising that their suggestions do not fit the situation.

    2. I believe the constant use of the confiteor form of the penitential act has contributed to the decline in sacramental confessions. Form three best captures the purpose of this act which is to praise God for his great mercy. I always introduce the penitential act by inviting the assembly to bow their heads in prayer, renew their sorrow for their sins, and to seek the grace of God’s mercy and love to turn away from their sins. Then follows a short (45 seconds) period of silence before calling upon the Lord.

      1. “I believe the constant use of the confiteor form of the penitential act has contributed to the decline in sacramental confessions.”

        I might dispute that. Anecdotally, the parishes that I’ve seen use Form A frequently (often every Sunday) tend to be the ones that have the most open-confessional hours and longest lines. That, and Form C has long since displaced Form A in all but the more traditional parishes in my region (which again, I observe tend to have the longest confession lines). I won’t kid myself into thinking that the form of the Penitential Act has any causal relationship to a parish’s use of sacramental confession, but I doubt Form A has hurt it.

  8. I agree that the prayer of St Michael is not quite the prayer of this moment. It is too easy for bishops suggesting this prayer for all parishes to say at the end of Mass that it deflects the source of the evil. What would happen if a priest or bishop were to say to his people “if I get too clerical in my commanding and directing that it starts to be abusive, then say this to my face so I can own my actions.”

    No matter how much one believes in the power of the St Michael Prayer it did not protect abusive clerics from themselves in the early 60’s. And to think there was no abuse going on in the 1886 church allows the wise institution a blissful ignorance. Simply ask the Native American Tribes.

    I submit the sin is abuse of power and the clericalism that finally could not hide the abuse of memory in our day will show up in other ways in our future. It is time for our bishops who 16 years ago voted to protect themselves to acknowledge that this lust for power and protecting that power has harmed children all along the way. Throw up charts and numbers and progressive and traditional seminaries excuses and one will realize that child abuse has very little to do with it. It is the loss of power that scares the Church to death.

    We are told now “we have safeguards in place.” Well let’s be honest and say that there were supposedly safeguards in place in the 60’s when priests fondled and molested children. Everyone knew it was wrong. We just put our trust in men (and some women) who knew that God wanted the reputation of the Church to be greater than destroying the life of a child.

    And now they want us to start praying to protect us from Satan. Again we are the not the source of the evil but the sorry victims. Really? I know, someone will ask me to chill out with a Snickers bar. Apologies offered.

  9. I’m grateful for this conversation. Words matter, especially when parishioners’ most common connections with diocesan offices and bishops are official statements. Our parish staff grappled with many of the above issues, particularly the use of the word “reparation.” Two fruits of our discussion were 1) to compose our own prayer to Mary, Mother of Sorrows and to use it as the closing prayer of the universal prayer during weekend Masses in September, and 2) to use John Bell’s “We Cannot Measure How You Heal” during the month of September. I’d invite feedback on the prayer…it’s such a tough issue to which to respond, and we need to work together to do so authentically!

    Prayer to Our Lady of Sorrows
    for Victims of Sexual Abuse

    Our Mother of Sorrows,
    you wept as your Son’s Body
    was wounded and scarred.
    Together with you,
    we grieve alongside children and adults
    who are victims of sexual abuse.
    We lament the trust that has been betrayed
    and the wounds of body, mind, and soul
    that they suffer.

    Holy Mary, Mother of God,
    we bring our sorrow, anger,
    confusion, and disbelief
    to the altar of your Son, Jesus.
    Pray for us as we seek the Holy Spirit’s
    transforming love and guidance
    to purify the Church
    and to heal all who suffer with these wounds.
    2018, Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart Church, Ankeny, Iowa

  10. To further complicate the question: today’s bishop of a given diocese may not be the bishop named in a grand jury report. Does a successor bishop bear responsibility in some way for what his predecessors did or failed to do? At the very least, I think the question needs to be thought through, and the answer may not be the same for every diocese.

  11. Although I am not able to lay my hand on it at the moment, I saw a news item recently, the upshot of which is that, according to some polling research, many Catholic consumers of the news do not correctly apprehend that the instances of abuse reported by the Pennsylvania grand jury report were instances of past abuse; they assumed that these were all cases of contemporary, on-going abuse. So yet another factor to consider as we try to discern how best to pray: do our people have an accurate understanding of what they’re being asked to pray for?

  12. Thanks for that observation, Jim. News coverage was framed, in my estimation, as the exposure of things previously hidden. The John Jay report in 2004 (?) issued a report on all cases of clergy abuse of minors and coverups by bishops that they collected from virtually every diocese and religious order. Even if that report were deficient in some respects, it was a good faith effort to report to the church the extend of the sex abuse scandal. The media gave scant attention to the number of abuse allegations since the 2002 charter that called for safe environment policies in every Catholic parish and institution. While one case is too much on a perfectionistic standard, we have made tremendous progress. The media also failed to report that the vast majority (90% or more) of priests have never been accused of misconduct.

  13. The previous comments have all been interesting. Some have been provative. I am bothered by two things. First, the question raised by the fourth point: when is prayer an encounter with the living God who moves us to righteous action? When, rather, is it a diversion or distraction? It is the same question that I would ask anyone who has said after a mass shooting: Our prayers and thoughts are with the families of the victims. And what about righteous action? Second, the idea of adding another prayer to the liturgy. If done at the end of mass, what would be the point, when there are still so many parishes where people leave before the closing hymn even begins (but of course we all know that is not really part of the mass) or immediately after having shared in the eucharist? Perhaps they would stay if they had taught what eucharist ir. Okay, I will step down from my soapbox now.

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