Praying for loved ones


On October 17, the Pew Research Center released the results of a survey that showed that 65 percent of American adults now say that they’re Christians, down 12 percentage points in just the last 10 years. Those describing themselves as atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular” are now at 26 percent of the population, up from 17 percent in 2009. And while Catholics were 23 percent of Americans a decade ago, they constitute today — despite large-scale immigration from Catholic countries — just 20 percent of the adult population.

These are staggering declines, and we have all seen the troubling consequences of these shifts. Many Catholic churches, schools, convents and seminaries are now shuttered. Masses in those parishes that have survived often have plenty of empty pews on Sundays. Family members and friends whom we know and love are no longer practicing or believing. 

At an institutional level, these tendencies occupy the attention of bishops, chanceries, pastors, parish councils, Catholic superintendents, principals, teachers, and many concerned faithful. At a personal level, however, they occupy a great deal of the minds and hearts of parents, grandparents godparents, spouses, siblings, sons, daughters and friends, as they pray for their loved ones whose choices have helped establish those trends. 

Prayers for loved ones do work miracles. 

We see it throughout the Gospel. At the pleading of moms and dads, Jesus exorcizes a girl (Mt 15), raises another from the dead (Lk 8), heals one boy of epilepsy (Mt 7) and another of life-threatening illness (Jn 4). At the entreaty of a Centurion He heals a slave (Lk 7) and at the faith-filled ingenuity of friends, Jesus healed a paralytic of his sins and made him walk again (Mk 9). Jesus hears and responds to prayers of intercession for loved ones. 

We’ve seen in the lives of the saints how prayers for others have similarly worked many moral miracles of conversion. St. Stephen’s prayers for those who were stoning him were efficacious in the life of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 7). St. Monica’s 17 years of preserving prayer for the conversion of her husband and additional 15 years for her son Augustine not only led to their new life but also to her becoming, too, a great saint. St. Therese of Lisieux’s prayers for an impenitent condemned criminal Henri Pranzini led, it seems, immediately before his execution, to his asking for a crucifix and kissing Christ’s wounds. 

Such miracles still happen. I’ve been privileged to witness it on deathbeds and in Confessionals routinely. 

Just a month ago a priest friend had such prayers answered for his estranged father, who asked him to hear his Confession and died reconciled in more ways than one. Jesus tells us to pray with insistence and confidence. He gives the Parables of the Friend at Night (Lk 11) and the Importune Woman (Lk 18) to stress how we should “pray always without losing heart,” guaranteeing that “everyone who asks, receives.” That doesn’t mean we always get exactly what we ask when we ask. There’s free will on the part of the person for whom we’re praying and God may have a better plan than for what we’re begging. But He promises not to turn a deaf ear. He cares for us more than He does the lilies and the sparrows. He loves our loved ones more than the most loving parents of all time have loved their children. 

Let’s get to some practical tips about praying for those who have chosen to stop, or drifted away from, the practice of the faith or others who need prayers to take it up for the first time. 

First, so that our prayer doesn’t get reduced simply to prayer of petition, which can narrow our relationship with God, we should exercise all five different forms of prayer. We should praise and bless God for how lovable and merciful He is. We should thank Him for His saving will, patience, fatherly solicitude, and for sending His Son and the Holy Spirit to make conversion possible. We should ask His forgiveness for all those sins — ours and others’ — that have led those we care about to turn away from the faith. We should make petition for ourselves, to grow in patience and hope as we pray perseveringly and seek to become an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Finally, we should make intercession for our lost sheep, that God will have mercy on them and perhaps send someone who can reach them at the depth God wants to and bring them home. Our intercession should be simple and straightforward: “Lord, the one that You love needs your help.”

Second, we should recognize we aren’t praying alone. Christ has prayed for our loved ones from the cross and intercedes for them at the Father’s right side. The Blessed Mother prays for her children more than St. Monica prayed for Augustine. Guardian angels are praying. Cloistered religious in convents across the globe and so many others — essentially the whole Church in Heaven and on earth —are praying. We should take confidence. 

Third, if they’re engaging in sinful behavior, they need to know the moral truth, but don’t need to be reminded of it all the time. We can’t reduce people, in our prayer and interactions, to their sins. When they know we look at them as good, they’re generally open to our kind encouragement to become better. When we praise them for what they do right, for their areas of virtue, then they can receive our gentle call to conversion as coming from a fan rather than a critic. In short, in our prayer and conduct, we should try to draw them toward the beauty of the faith, to the Good News, rather than to “scare the hell out of them” by focusing excessively on sin and the death to which sin leads. 

Fourth, as we see with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus (Lk 24), the reasons why people leave the faith often contain the seed for their return. This should influence both our prayer and action. The two disciples couldn’t understand how the supposed Messiah could have be slaughtered by the same Romans they anticipated He would extirpate. After Jesus appeared as an unknown wayfarer and helped them to grasp that the Messiah had to suffer, what seemed to be a great contradiction became a great confirmation. If people leave, for example, because of hypocrisy in the Church, we need to share their hatred of hypocrisy and help them discover those who live the faith with integrity. 

Fifth, our prayer and life should radiate hope. The conversion of the Good Thief reminds us that as long as they’re alive, there’s still time. Things can happen, like hitting rock bottom, or a diagnosis of a serious illness, that can lead to people opening up to God anew. Even after people have died, since God is eternal, our prayers in time can impact the past, and so we should persevere praying with hope in God’s mercy and saving will. 

The Pew Research Center study is ultimately a summons for the whole Church to pray more and with greater insistence. The Lord has given each of us plenty of people to pray for. And, as we intercede for others, like with St. Monica, the Lord will strengthen our faith as well. 

Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at

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