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Will more prayer than activity produce success?

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (‘CCC’), paragraphs 1803 and 1833, defines virtue as “habitual and firm disposition to do good.” An old adage alleges that patience is a virtue, but how patience (in the usual sense of that word) can be equated with habitual and firm disposition to do good is unclear to me. A tendency towards doing good can co-exist with impatience (in the usual sense of that word). Patience (in the usual sense of that word) can be eroded by sustained inability to achieve the desired result(s) of doing good. According to a headline in May 2023, Pope Francis had said ‘No’ to efforts aimed at success; the translation which followed the headline showed, however, that he had said that sowing seeds and proclaiming the Gospel through good works is not “just a matter of initiating projects and strategies that prove successful and effective,” but also of “of engaging in an ongoing process of missionary conversion” (whatever that means; his brief explanation was opaque). “Just” disproved the headlined allegation that efficacy and success are unimportant or improper objectives.

People who wish that everything be conformed to Catholic (with emphasis on the capital C) principle have had an unhappy time since the mid-1960s, and the situation becomes continually more entrenched. The question of how it can be rectified, which seemed debated so urgently in the early stages of the emergency, has faded – so overpowered by the resilience of the new orthodoxies that resistance is either judged futile or not even considered.

This has weighed on my mind for a long time, as I (i) stood behind collective ‘barricades’ which were easily circumvented and/or pushed aside, and (ii) engaged in counter-attacks of my own devising. So I was particularly interested in a recently-heard talk by a priest who considered this subject. He outlined symptoms of the problem. He said that practical means of counter-cultural resistance had not worked and will not work, because people in positions of power are unwilling to be out of step with the ‘spirit of the age’. Despite believing that practical action is useless, he repudiated fatalistic [be] ‘quiet-ism’ (almost all-pervasive, in my experience). The remedy which he recommended was that of increased time spent in prayer.

He said that Padre Pio had been asked to name the world’s greatest problem, and had said “Man’s lack of prayer.” Developing the point, the priest invoked the Israelites’ victory over the Amalekites in the battle of Rephidim.[1] Moses’ prayer during the battle seems to have been the reason for the victory, although one may wonder why the result depended on the prayer being accompanied by constant elevation of his arm(s) or hand(s). The priest invoked also the Christian victory over the Turks in the battle of Lepanto. Such successes were, he said, not won by the human participants but by God.

St John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross was another example cited. Apparently he advised people who, by preaching and exterior work, are busily trying to puts things right that they would benefit the Church and please God far more if they spent at least half of that time in prayer; that apparent successes by natural methods would be of little worth; and that prayer exceeding activity would accomplish far more with far less effort, because good works can succeed only by the power of God.

The same idea was put in different words in 1974 when a publisher and distributor of orthodox Catholic literature told me “I have lost faith in mere men. We must address only God.” Later he became a prominent advocate of the Fatima message.  

There has been enormous deterioration since the early 1970s. In comparatively-recent times  a very committed opponent of legally-established grave sin has said candidly that rectifying the situation is beyond human efforts, and he too  seems now to focus almost entirely on advocating acts of piety and reparation, but despite a seemingly-good response from the ‘audience’ the relevant ills remain. Are there too few praying, or are they not praying enough, or is success lacking because prayer is being regarded as a substitute for human efforts instead of as a supplement to them? We do need to ‘anchor’ our practical activities in religion. Our Lord said that without Him we can “do nothing,”[2] but His disciples did more than pray.

I remember a cartoon of a woman kneeling beside a bed. A child was standing in a doorway, facing her. A caption or ‘word-bubble’ provided their exchange of words. The child was announcing some sort of emergency, and the woman replied “Sh-h-h. I’m saying my prayers.” Similarly, in a talk about “Lukewarm Catholicism,”[3] Father William Casey asked rhetorically what his listeners would do if they were seated at home and someone entered and reported that the house was on fire. Would you, Father asked, say that there have always been fires, that it would burn itself out, or that God would put it out?

Other examples come to mind. As this is being written, the traditional ‘exams season’ is beginning. What would we, and God, think of candidates who – believing that success was beyond their ability – spent much more time praying than studying? It is said that St. Joseph of Cupertino’s prayer was rewarded when his examination questioned him about the only matter of which he had any knowledge; probably most examinees hope for that, but justice (and nature) usually requires that the results should reflect the effort made. What would we, and God, regard as a fitting reward for competitors in sport who spent more time praying than practising, or for an election candidate who spent more time praying than campaigning?   

Piety must be always pleasing to God, and no properly-formed Christian should discourage an increase of it, but many situations which are unsatisfactory (a very broad word) arise because of people who have unsatisfactory minds.[4] If those people prove unwilling or unable to change their minds, the remedy is to remove them from positions which empower waywardness. God could do that on His own, without waiting for requests, but “has not willed to reserve to Himself all exercise of power.” [5] Although omnipotent, He acts through people. Although dependent on Him, and obliged to honour and pray to Him, we are not justified in ‘passing the buck’ to Him.

I believe that it is St. Ignatius who is reputed to have said “Pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you.”

The work can take various forms, each of which would on its own be insufficient but collectively might make a difference. The ‘spirit of the age’ is a formidable obstacle, but the people who are now in control were once battling a different ‘spirit of the age’. At least in the early stages (where Catholic counter-revolutionaries are now – such has been the ‘180-degree’ adverse transformation), challengers to the current ‘spirit of the age’ can reap rewards if they take advantage of situations which exist independently of their efforts; in other words, by capitalising on circumstances in order to change others.

For example, take an unchallenged modern norm: contraception. Advocacy of contraception had very little support, and much strong opposition, until the early 20th century. Today’s world must be mystified to learn that the pro-contraception campaigners were at first opposed, for differing reasons, by socialists, feminists, the medical profession, and the otherwise-fragmented Christian community, but by the 1920s in Britain the subject was “being debated in political Parties and women’s organisations.” [6] The success of the formerly-“tiny, isolated, and deeply unpopular group with sordid connotations”[7] happened because the opposition was weakened from within by people whose first allegiance was to contraception; the contraception-advocates were ‘specific issue antagonists,’ who devoted their time and energy to achieving prominence for contraception, using the machinery of their chosen organisations to do so.[8] The political dimension of that work was particularly important, because it enabled the campaigners to ‘clothe’ their persuasion in terms of public health: “Seeing the success of public health campaigns…, [contraception] advocates realised they could…have the kudos of a public health campaign by insisting that [contraception] advice be made available at local authority Mother and Baby clinics. (This ‘advice’ would be, in the first instance, simply to direct poor women to the nearest voluntary clinic. Eventually [the contraception-advocates] hoped that the [Mother and Baby] clinics would actually give contraception-advice, at public expense.) [So, for example,] agitation within the Labour Party was aimed at forcing the Ministry of Health to allow local authority clinics to give such advice.” [9] While this was going on, “[o]pposition from feminism and medicine seems to have faltered, and in 1930, the Church of England’s Lambeth Conference, which ten years previously had warned of the dangers of artificial contraceptives, condemned contraception only for selfish reasons,” [10] and “the Ministry of Health quietly issued an official memo in 1930, permitting [contraception] advice to be given for health reasons.” [11]

Illustrating the perversely-logical effect of accepted contraception, legal abortion came along, and was helped by a similar strategy of using other channels to promote the idea. Journalist Dillon MacCarthy, in his 1960s pamphlet entitled “Atheist Agenda,” mentioned that abortion-supporters in various women’s associations succeeded in getting meetings to pass resolutions favouring legal change, and by such methods the idea gained an increasing public ‘profile’ and conveyed an impression of increasing public support. Parliamentary Bills followed, and one was passed (more than ten million abortions later, there is not the slightest sign of even a first step towards restriction).

Much more recently, BBC radio broadcast another interesting, salutary example. It was, according to an episode of a series entitled “The Coming Storm,” an indirect effect of the Covid-19 pandemic. Opposition to being told what to do or not to do was based on belief that the danger was exaggerated and/or that counteraction was disproportionate. One debate, when schools were re-opening, was about whether children should wear masks in classrooms. In America, a group against that idea was called “Moms for Liberty,” which began in Florida and spread widely. They would go to public meetings held regularly by local School Boards (even if they had never attended them before), make speeches against compulsory masks, and publish their comments through the internet. In Florida (and probably elsewhere) their campaign succeeded. That ended the debate, but members of “Moms for Liberty” used their experience to raise other subjects. An important one was what children were being taught about gender. “The Coming Storm” included a recording of a lady telling the members of a School Board that “Children are being taught that there are nine genders. I don’t think you were taught nine genders in school.” Another recording was of a lady protesting that children were being given pornography, and asking when the School Board was going to stop it. Some listeners to the BBC programme will have been pleased to be told also that other subjects of complaint were contraception and abortion. Knowledge of what children were being taught had become more widespread because, as the programme mentioned, during ‘lock-down’ times when schools were closed lessons were sent through the internet to people’s homes; that ‘opened the eyes’ of parents.

Even better than this news of anti-corruption action was the fact that politicians (Republicans, of course) began not only to notice but also to help, by donating money and passing useful laws.

So a ‘grass-roots’ strategy, which began in a different context, at a humble, local level – on what the BBC programme described as “the first rung on the ladder of American democracy” – was later employed to achieve other purposes, and had success, especially by being adopted at a higher level.

The success of “Moms for Liberty” via American School Boards shows what can happen when people use channels which outwardly exist for impartial purposes (according to “The Coming Storm,” School Boards normal functions are to take decisions on budgets, buildings, and maintenance, and – crucially – the school’s curriculum).  That has been a strong-point of the revolution in modern times, but if enough counter-revolutionaries get involved they can ‘turn the tables,’ or (to mix metaphors) upset the carefully-arranged ‘apple-cart’.

Please note: ‘if enough of them get involved.’ Changes occur when people get involved. Often it seems that far more people are involved in the contradiction and defiance of Catholic principle than in the affirmation and defence of it. ‘Concrete’ changes have resulted from ‘concrete’ action, and ‘concrete’ action against them is needed if they are to be reversed. It is God’s work against the Devil’s work, but both God and the Devil act through people. We need to work with God and to talk with Him as we do so. We need to ask at all times for His guidance and grace so that we can work well, not so that He will relieve us of doing it.                       

[1] Exodus 17:8-13.  
[2] Jn. 15:5.
[3] St. Joseph Communications, Inc., 2002; www.saintjoe.com
[4] Pope St. John Paul wrote similarly in “Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,” section 16.
[5] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 1884.
[6] “Prophets and Priests,” Ann Farmer; The Saint Austin Press,” 2002, p.20. The title seems strange, but it was adopted because of (ibid., p.vi) “the almost religious zeal of the secular eugenicists and birth-controllers to influence the members of the society in which they lived…” – a zeal which very few of their nominal opponents today seem to have.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., p.20-21.
[10] Ibid., p.20.
[11] Ibid., p.21. In modern times, all limits were abolished, and – like abortion – contraception is now not even questioned, far less restricted.

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