Q: Father John, how can I convince family members who have fallen away from the faith to come back to God and the Church?
A: You can't. Only God can do that. But you can help. Here are some thoughts about how.
There is more going on in this question than meets the eye. Almost every believer faces a question like this at some point in their journey. It can take different forms. Some of my priest colleagues have been ordained for years, and their parents are still estranged from the Church. Some extremely faithful Catholics are still stuck in sibling feuds that seem to have no end in sight. One faith-filled, dedicated, and extremely intelligent grandmother I know was devastated when her very well-educated son refused to have his first child baptized. Her first reaction was, "What did I do wrong?" Her second reaction was to beg God to change her son's heart. She prayed and prayed, for years. When she died (recently), her grandchildren were still un-baptized and her own soul was in torment because of it. Was it her fault that her prayer wasn't answered? Should she have done something different? Did she not pray enough?... Questions like these can assault us ferociously. We need to know how to deal with them.
The Issue at Stake
The issue has to do with intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is praying for others, interceding for them. Examples of this kind of prayer are found throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Moses interceded for the people of Israel after their reversion to idolatry (the golden calf incident, cf. Exodus 32). Many of Christ's miracles are performed in response to people interceding with him on behalf of someone they love who is suffering (e.g. raising Jairus's daughter from the dead, Luke 8). The long tradition of the Church encourages us to pray for others, to "Never get tired of staying awake to pray for all God's holy people..." as St Paul puts it (Ephesians 6:18). This may seem obvious, but it isn't. Some modern schools of spirituality discourage this type of prayer, as if it were an immature, materialistic way to relate to God. Not all. God has revealed himself as Father, and we are very needy children. When we bring our needs and those of our loved ones to him in prayer, we are exercising our confidence in him, our Christian love, our hope, and our faith - these are the core virtues of our Christian adventure. God is pleased when we intercede for others in prayer.
That's the background; now let's get down to brass tacks. Three key elements go into healthy intercessory prayer.
The Starting Line?
First, it has to begin from an awareness of God's goodness, faithfulness, and omnipotence. This is expressed in the first place by praying for things that are in harmony with God's will. It would be an insult to God to ask him to send someone to hell, for example, since he wills the salvation of all people. This awareness is also expressed in the one of our prayer: we should pray with confidence. Jesus put it succinctly: "I tell you, therefore, everything you ask and pray for, believe that you have it already, and it will be yours." The Old Testament offers beautiful examples of this aspect of prayer. When Judith and Esther are interceding for Israel in the midst of national crises, they spend the first half of their prayer calling to mind all the wonderful things God has done for Israel in the past. They are stirring up their confidence in him, tuning into God's wavelength.
The Mysterious Core
Second, intercessory prayer should be offered with complete trust in his wisdom. In other words, we have to realize that although God always answers our prayers, he doesn't always answer them as we want him to. He may say no. He may say not yet. He may say yes. The Irish have a phrase that they tack onto expressions of hope and desire: "...please God." We should tack this onto our intercessory prayers. "Lord, if it be pleasing to you, bring my father back to the sacraments..." When we are asking God to intervene in someone's life, we are touching an awesome mystery. God never violates human freedom. And so, when he moves hearts, he does so in a way that we cannot fathom. We have to remember this as we approach him with our needs and petitions; otherwise we end up becoming dictatorial and presumptuous.
The Sign of Authenticity
Third, we have to back up our prayer with our life. This has two levels. First, there is the level of our own Christian journey. The closer we are following Christ, the more powerful our prayer: "The heartfelt prayer of someone upright works very powerfully" (James 5:16). If we are failing to make a decent effort to fulfill God's will in our own lives, our prayer that God's will might be done in someone else's life will be hampered by spiritual dissonance. Second, there is the level of our collaboration in achieving the very thing we are asking God to bring about. If we are praying for the conversion of a family member, for example, we should always ask ourselves what we can do to give Providence more room to work. This collaboration may take the form of talking to the person we are praying for, trying to give them reasons to come closer to the Church. It may also take less direct forms, like finding ways to help them in their life's struggles, to serve them with sincerity and kindness, as Christ would have us. We should always ask ourselves if there is a "next step" we can take. It is possible to overdo it on this score - to end up badgering someone instead of encouraging them. We have to ask God for light and just do our best, trusting that God will put it to good use.
A Final Conundrum
But let's say we are have been praying for a particular intention for a long time, with all three elements more or less in place. How long is long enough? Does continuing to pray for the same intention show a lack of confidence in God, a refusal to take "no" for an answer? How can we know when we should move on and leave it in God's hands?
No hard and fast rules can guide use here. Jesus commanded us to be persistent in our prayer (cf. the parable of the unjust judge, Luke 18). St. Monica prayed incessantly for ten years before her son, St. Augustine, returned from his prodigal peregrinations. Yet sometimes, we wonder if we just need to move on. Here the wisdom of the Church comes to our aid. If a particular intention is weighing heavily on our heart, we can presume that God wants us to pray for it. And we can do that in many ways. For example, we can have a Mass or series of Masses offered for it, or offer a special novena for that intention, or receive Holy Communion on nine First Fridays and pray for it, or make a pilgrimage for it... We Catholics have a treasure-trove of devotions and traditional pious practices that we can dip into in order to give some kind of objective parameters to our intercessory prayer. At the end of the novena, we can leave the intention in God's hands, confident that our prayers have been heard. Or, if the intention still weighs heavily on our heart, we can continue to pray for it. The Holy Spirit will guide us, giving us his interior peace as we faithfully follow his lead.
In the end, however, we cannot control other people's freedom, not even through our prayer. If we find ourselves refusing to accept that simple fact, we need to take a healthy dose of humility and let God be God.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC