by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
In preparing our archdiocesan input for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on youth: “Young people, faith and vocational discernment,” I participated in several listening sessions with young adults in different areas of the archdiocese.
One statement by one of the participants at our listening session at the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center made a deep impression. A young woman shared that she had attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools but had never learned to pray.
Receiving spiritual direction from one of the Apostles of the Interior Life at the St. Lawrence Center had opened the door for a much richer and deeper prayer life.
No doubt, part of the reason for her spiritual growth was her own maturation that made her capable of a deeper communication with God. Yet, still it concerns me that we are failing to help at least some of our students develop a rich interior life by the time they graduate from our schools.
As Catholics, we have inherited a rich devotional life that includes the rosary, Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Mercy chaplet, Stations of the Cross, Mother of Perpetual Help devotions, acts of contrition, etc.
Teaching young people how to pray, however, is different from making certain that they are acquainted with particular devotions and prayers. Do not misunderstand. It is imperative that we teach our youth these time- proven prayers. However, we must also do more.
Every year at each of our high schools, I lead an all-school Holy Hour in the context of eucharistic adoration. I do this in part because I want to give them my personal encouragement to develop a love for praying in the presence of our eucharistic Lord.
Our youth ministry staff has developed models that help engage young people in this time of prayer. During the homily at these Holy Hours, I also have an opportunity to exhort our youth to develop a rich prayer life.
Just this past Saturday, leaders of the American Heritage Girls invited me to lead a eucharistic Holy Hour with their members and parents. It was truly inspiring to observe the natural desire of these young girls to draw close to our eucharistic Lord.
During a recent visit to Bishop Miege High School after our eucharistic Holy Hour, I had the opportunity to meet with student leaders — freshmen through seniors. I asked them if they felt their Catholic school experience had helped them develop a strong prayer life.
We had a great conversation. I was encouraged to hear about some of the positive experiences of the students, as well as their suggestions on how we can better assist with their development of a rich interior life.
One student made a particularly helpful suggestion. She asked for assistance in knowing how to listen to God. I loved her request because it revealed she knew that having a healthy and strong prayer life cannot consist of one-way communication.
Prayer cannot simply be reduced to handing God a list of things that we want him to do for us and others.
I was also pleased to hear another student share that, in one of their classes, they had learned lectio divina, a Benedictine method of praying over small sections of the Bible and allowing the Holy Spirit to draw our attention to a particular verse or phrase in which Our Lord speaks to our heart in a way that is particularly applicable to the unique circumstances of our life. This is certainly a very beautiful and time-honored way in which God speaks to us.
One of the essentials of being able to recognize the voice of God in our prayer is silence. Sadly, our culture and society do not afford us many natural opportunities for silence.
Living in this Information Age, we are bombarded constantly with exterior noise. We have to make a conscious effort to turn off all the outside distractions so that we can tune into what God desires to speak to our hearts.
One of the great blessings that we have in the archdiocese that several other dioceses in our nation covet, is the Spiritual Mentorship program conducted by both the Apostles of Interior Life and the Holy Family School of Faith. This program helps participants develop a rich personal prayer life and equips them to accompany others who are seeking to listen better to God’s voice.
On Monday, April 9, Pope Francis just promulgated an apostolic exhortation entitled “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”) — On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World. At the writing of this column, I have not had the opportunity to study carefully this exhortation, but part of our Holy Father’s message is that our prayer should impact other areas of our lives.
As the name implies, holy individuals — men and women of prayer — will naturally be joyful. Pope Francis also stresses that a measure of the authenticity of our prayer life is our capacity for mercy and compassion for others.
Catholic families need to be schools of prayer, where basic prayers and devotions are learned but, more importantly, prayer from the heart is nurtured and shared. Every day, several times a day, we should speak to God about everything that is going on in our lives.
Similarly, we should be attentive, listening to how God is revealing himself to us daily through the events and our encounters with others. For the Catholic, prayer is as essential for our daily living as oxygen and water!
Pope Emeritus Benedict during his pastoral visit in the United States in a talk to American seminarians said that the so-called vocation crisis is really a crisis of prayer. If we teach young people how to pray, they will know how to listen to God’s voice in their hearts.
If in reading this column you realize that you need to work on your own prayer life, this awareness is itself a great gift. The first step is to plead with the Lord as did his first disciples, “Lord, teach me to pray!”
Then, be silent and wait to discover where his answer leads.