Pope Francis on Praying

Pope Francis gave a sermon on praying. Both the National Catholic Register and the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) covered it. They had different slants on the Pope’s message, which in turn was quite different from Jesus’ teaching on the subject.

The Register/Herald emphasizes the Pope’s claim that “The prayer of man, this yearning that is born so naturally from his soul, is perhaps one of the most impenetrable mysteries of the universe.” The article concludes with the Pope’s exhortation: “the most beautiful and fair thing that we all have to do is to repeat the invocation of the disciples: ‘Teacher, teach us to pray!’ It would be nice in this time of Advent, to repeat it: Lord, teach me to pray!”

Pope Francis alludes to Matthew 6, where the disciples ask Jesus how they should pray. Jesus first provides some general guidelines. Then he says, “this is how you should pray,” and proceeds to teach them what has become known as the Lord’s Prayer, as we discuss below. Pope Francis basically ignores both this prayer and Jesus’ introductory instructions.

To Jesus, prayer is not mysterious. It is talking to God, who “knows what your needs are before you ask him” (6:8). Just talk to him! But first, “when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father [not Jesus] who is in secret” (6:6). Jesus tells his followers, “do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing up in synagogues and at street corners for everyone to see them.” Had Jesus foreseen the existence of churches, he would have prohibited them as well. No rosaries, no churches, no synagogues – just a private chat with God. No priests, no intermediaries. 

NCR stresses Pope Francis’ emphasis on learning: “Even if we have perhaps been praying for so many years, we must always learn!” Learning presupposes feedback. Unless you know the result of your prayers, you can’t improve them. And if your prayers simply enter the void, your perception of their effects is based on noise and/or wishful thinking. Classical experiments in operant conditioning rewarded pigeons or rats at random times, independent of what they were doing. The animals mistakenly believe that some particular action of theirs triggered the reward, and went around repeating that action. Skinner called this superstitious behavior; the results are not only a waste of time, but often quite comic. This may account for a good deal of religious behavior.

Jesus and The Lord’s Prayer

When his disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, he taught them the following prayer:


“Our Father in heaven,

May your name be hallowed;

Your kingdom come,

Your will be done,

On earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us the wrong we have done,’

As we have forgiven those who have wronged us.

And do not put us to the test,

But save us from the evil one.” (Matt 6:9-13, Revised English Bible)

Most people who pray ask God for some kind of goodie. Jesus excludes that, with one exception. He allows his followers to ask for their daily bread. But even here, Jesus contradicts himself. A little later in that chapter, Jesus says, “Do not ask anxiously, ‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What shall we wear?’ These are the things that occupy the minds of the heathen, but your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well” (6:31-33).

According to Jesus, virtually all Christians act like heathens – especially evangelicals, who overwhelmingly ask God for goodies. Note that Pope Francis said nothing about the kingdom of God. The word ‘kingdom’ is never mentioned. Nor does he stress forgiving those who sinned against you. In fact, Pope Francis – and virtually all Christians – ignore the very things that Jesus stressed. While Pope Francis emphasizes mysteries, the real mystery he should be puzzling about is the kingdom of God. But no one worries about this. Why bother? After all, God moves in mysterious ways.


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