Praying against a bad leader

I recently heard of a senior U.S. prelate (denomination unknown) who regularly prays that his president may suffer a mild heart-attack – not so severe as to threaten his life (or his capacity for conversion), but severe enough to require his permanent retirement from office. I wonder how many similar prayers are offered, from the rising of the sun to its setting, for a visitation of ill-health upon pope or president, prime minister or pastor? 

Five hundred years ago, with a candour that might surprise us, Cardinal Cajetan asked how the members of the church might lawfully go about removing a hypothetically wicked pope (the pope at the time was Julius II, “il papa terribile”; his predecessor was a Borgia and his successor a Medici).

Cajetan argues that, unlike a heretical pope, a wicked pope could not be deposed by a council (as some wished) but he encourages both clergy and princes to offer “resistance and impediment to the abuse of power.” On top of this, however, he scolds his audience for neglecting the most effective means available to them: intercessory prayer.

Non-confidence votes, impeachment hearings, recall votes, and the like, have their place in the attempt to remove wicked leaders, but efforts should be focused on prayer—a divinely-sanctioned means of imploring divine providence. Cajetan is confident that “if it is necessary for the Church’s well-being that such a pope should be removed […] without doubt prayer would remove him.”

I have looked through the missal and found no examples of prayers for the removal of leaders of Church or state. We ask that “Christ may guide the minds of those who govern us to promote the common good according to his will,” and that the shepherds of our souls “may have the strength to govern wisely the flock entrusted to them by the Good Shepherd,” but we never ask God to remove any who may be unfaithful, corrupt, or incompetent.

This timidity is not known to the Psalmist, who trusts that “the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest upon the land of the righteous” (Ps 125:3), nor to the Virgin Mary, who rejoices that the mighty are toppled from their thrones (Lk 1:52).

Ours is not the first age to be painfully and undeniably aware that our leaders are not always shepherds after God’s own heart (Jer 3:15). In private, believers may seek all kinds of remedies, some more edifying than others. How might the public words of the liturgy address and even shape this issue? I offer the following work in progress:

1. For our church and/or nation,
that God may raise up shepherds
after Christ’s own loving heart,
and bring down from their thrones
those who seek only power and glory,
that the people may rejoice in leaders who are wise and just,
and be spared the yoke of the wicked and self-serving,
we pray to the Lord.

2. For all who govern in the church and in the world,
that Christ may send the Spirit of Truth into their hearts,
to strengthen in virtue any who falter in the right path,
to convict the conscience of any
who have failed to serve their people faithfully,
and to inspire those who are unfit for office to step down,
let us pray to the Lord.

Michael O’Connor is Associate Professor (Teaching Stream) in the Christianity and Culture program at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.

Featured image: “Antithesis Christi et Antichristi,” c. 1490-1510.


    1. Or 1789-2016?

      That said, I would dissent from the wordiness of these prayers. For the record, I don’t find Good Friday as edifying as perhaps a longer litany of those in need would be. No need to offer specifics in public prayer. For example, if a friend is dying, I will pray for N. I generally don’t ask for a miracle, for a quick death, or such. I don’t ask for the loved ones to let go or have a come-to-Jesus moment. “For N, and for those who accompany her today” seems quite enough. And if I’m making it general, “For the dying and for those who love them.” In each case, silence seems to work as an accompaniment.

  1. Sorry, but #1 could be perceived as extremely partisan and judgemental especially at times when a country or people are divided. Best to just pray for the leaders and trust that the prayer is heard. I could never assent to such a prayer.

    1. Another approach is to ask for deeper roots in, say, Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Courage and Prudence in understanding and aligning our response with the will of God to current events we find intolerable – to join our agency to that of God in an intentional act of will. In other words, don’t ask God to change other people so much as to allow ourselves to be changed.

      I can still remember visiting a dear friend in the East Bay area (CA) in November 2004, and we went to Mass together at his parish, which had the practice of opening up the Universal Prayer to the floor, as it were, and witnessing a parishioner invoke God’s protection upon Saddam Hussein (then in custody) but also called down the wrath of God upon George W Bush (who was about to be reelected two days later). I had strongly opposed the Iraq War, but this struck me as a great example of how the Universal Prayer ought not be used and what it was for. It’s not a time to incarnate the news cycle (or social media cycle nowadays) to register our concern on the Change.god petition board.

      1. “For our civil authorities and all in the service of our courtry, let us pray to the Lord.” From the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It’s all that’s needed. Simple, short, and complete.

      2. I don’t disagree. BUT, when declining to resist the temptation to Add More, my suggestion is to re-focus the object of such attentions from Them to Us – it’s one rarer situations where petitionary prayer may more fruitfully be focused on self than others.

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