OBJECTOR: Don’t Catholics engage in many standard and repetitious prayers, both in their Masses and in their private lives? Aren’t prayers in your religious services dictated by the Church? And don’t Catholics use things like the rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet to pray? These types of prayers seem to me to be mechanical and insincere as well as against scriptural teaching.
CATHOLIC: For the sake of clarity, I think it’s important to distinguish between standardized prayers and repetitious prayers. The prayers that are used publicly in a Mass or other religious ceremony (e.g., consecration of a Church building) are prescribed by the Church, but they are not repetitious in the way that the rosary or the Divine Mercy chaplet is.
OBJECTOR: It’s hard for me to see how standardized prayers could be from the heart. If a priest has to read a prayer from a book, how can he really be sincere?
CATHOLIC: I can assure you that a prescribed or written prayer can be just as much from the heart as any prayer off the cuff. And when a priest reads or recites a prayer in the Mass, he can be as sincere as if he had composed the prayer himself. One of the most important reasons that the Church provides these prayers is that it doesn’t want the people of God to be misguided by the individual inclinations or, even worse, the false teachings that an individual priest might fall into unknowingly. Standardized prayers are a way of exercising the pastoral care of Christ in his body, the Church. I hope you’ll agree that we cannot and should not judge the sincerity of another person’s heart by the prayers he uses, especially when those prayers come from a tradition that we are not familiar with.
OBJECTOR: Perhaps we should not be quick to judge another’s sincerity, but the use of repetitious prayers is clearly against Scripture. Read Matthew 6:7–8. “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Jesus says explicitly that we should not “heap up empty phrases.” You may be aware that the word battalogeo is used only once in the New Testament: here in Matthew 6:7. It seems to be a word of special importance. It also can be translated “to babble on” or “to repeat endlessly.” If the Hail Mary is not a vain repetition, I don’t know what is.
CATHOLIC: That is an interesting text, but why did you stop at the end of verse 8? In verse 9, Jesus says explicitly, “Pray then like this.” He then goes on to teach us to pray the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father). If Jesus was against standardized prayers, why did he give us one to pray? And I presume you would agree that he wanted us to pray this on many occasions.
OBJECTOR: Perhaps, but I think Jesus was giving us more a model of prayer here than something we should repeat mindlessly.
CATHOLIC: I agree that the Lord’s Prayer is a model of prayer, one that we can use as a basis for other prayers. But since he says explicitly, “Pray like this,” I don’t think we can exclude a repetitious use of this prayer. After all, if this is a perfect prayer coming directly from the mouth of the Lord himself, we might be in danger of ignoring his command if we don’t pray it often.
OBJECTOR: Well, I don’t have any objection to praying it, but we should clearly avoid the “babbling” and “vain repetitions” that Jesus condemned in Matthew 6:7–8. The many repetitious prayers used in Catholic piety are obvious examples of violating Jesus’ prohibition.
CATHOLIC: Then I suppose you also would condemn Eastern Orthodox Christians who use the Jesus Prayer. This prayer is very simple: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” In eastern Christianity, the monks and lay people would repeat this prayer throughout the day as a way of communing with God.
OBJECTOR: I have never heard of that prayer, but yes, I would say that any Christian who uses repetitious prayers like that would be violating Jesus’ words. How can such a prayer really be meaningful? It can even deceive a person into thinking that he is praying from the heart when in fact he is just babbling phrases.
CATHOLIC: Not all repetition is vain. Consider the prayers spoken of in Revelation 4:8 offered day and night without ceasing: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” Another repetitious prayer pleasing to God is contained in Psalm 136: “For his steadfast love endures for ever.” This phrase is repeated over twenty-five times. Finally, Matthew 26:44 tells us that Jesus himself prayed the same prayer three times in the garden in Gethsemane.
OBJECTOR: Your examples from Scripture are heartfelt prayers directed to God, not vain prayers directed to Mary.
CATHOLIC: You may feel comfortable in judging the hearts of other Christians, but I do not. I don’t think one person can know whether another person is really sincere or not in his prayer. I prefer to follow Jesus’ command: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1). Charity toward our fellow Christians should presume sincerity until we have clear evidence to the contrary. Remember what God said to Samuel the prophet: “For the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
OBJECTOR: Well, I agree that we cannot judge another. But as you said, “until we have clear evidence to the contrary.” It’s clear enough to me that saying the Hail Mary fifty-three times in about twenty minutes counts as vain repetition.
CATHOLIC: I suppose that would be natural for you think since you have never had any experience with such prayers. From your standpoint it looks impossible to be praying from the heart when such repetitious prayers are used. But you don’t understand that the purpose of the rosary is to meditate on the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
The fact that the Hail Mary begins with the words from Luke 1:28, 42 recalling the pivotal event in salvation history—when Jesus became incarnate—is reason enough to pray these words day and night. But there is even more to this devotional prayer. For example, in the first sorrowful mystery, we meditate on Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane. The other meditations guide us through the other mysteries of our faith.
OBJECTOR: Well, the only kind of prayers that I think can be truly from the heart are freely composed or extemporaneous prayers.
CATHOLIC: Perhaps a reminder is in order here that non-Catholic Christians often lead others in a standardized “Sinners Prayer.” Furthermore, no Christians would deny that reading Scripture over and over again for the purpose of entering more deeply into the life of Christ is pleasing to God. So perhaps there is a subtle bias against Catholic standardized prayers. Whether using standardized or extemporaneous prayer, Catholics have the same goal of always praying from the heart.
OBJECTOR: If that is true, then I would say that there is a disconnect between their intention and the methods or types of prayer used. These standardized and repetitious prayers cannot be from the heart. Maybe these prayers are just another example of the “traditions of men” that Jesus condemns in Mark 7:8.
CATHOLIC: These prayers allow us to participate in the prayer of the whole body of Christ, since many others use the same prayers. It has the effect of binding our hearts with our fellow believers. But it is also important to know that standard and repetitious prayers are just a small part of the wealth of the Catholic Church’s teachings on prayer.
OBJECTOR: Well, all that non-Catholics are exposed to are these kinds of prayer s.
C ATHOLIC: Maybe so, but to the insider, to the person who prays as a Catholic, there is a much richer treasure of prayer life. As an example, take the fourth century bishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom. He says that “prayer and converse with God is a supreme good; it is a partnership and union with God. The prayer from the heart—continuous throughout the day and night” (On Prayer, 6). You can see that this father of ancient Catholicism instructs us clearly in prayer from the heart. Whether we use repetition or free-flowing thoughts, the important thing is that our prayer rises from a loving heart to a loving God. This is the essence of the Catholic understanding of prayer. In fact, Chrysostom goes on to say, “I speak of prayer, not words. It is the longing for God, love too deep for words, a gift not given by man but by God’s grace.” The apostle Paul says, “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Whether we are at worship in Mass, in a group of Catholics praying, or at home in our closet, our desire is to reach out to God. St. John Chrysostom leads us to the ideal of prayer in obedience to Paul’s command in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray constantly.” Listen to him again:
“Our spirit should be quick to reach out toward God not only when it is engaged in meditation; at other times also, when it is carrying out its duties, caring for the needy, performing works of charity, giving generously in service to others, our spirit should long for God and call him to mind, so that these works may be seasoned with the salt of God’s love, and so make a palatable offering to the Lord of the universe. Throughout the whole of our lives we may enjoy the benefit that comes from prayer if we devote a great deal of time to it.”