Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on May 8, 2018 (the second of the former “Rogation Days”) at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan.
Yesterday we considered the origin and meaning of the Rogation Days and likewise reflected on the significance of the prayer of petition. As promised, today our attention will be directed to the most perfect prayer of all, after the Holy Mass, namely, the Lord’s Prayer or Pater noster.
Following the pattern of the Roman Catechism from the Council of Trent, the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise ends up with a meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, which Tertullian termed “the summary of the entire Gospel.” First, we are presented with a rationale for considering this prayer central to Christian spirituality, and it is nothing less than this: “This prayer which comes to us from Jesus is truly unique. . . . the only Son gives us the words which the Father gave to Him” . This is obviously in response to those who would argue either that this prayer is a construct of the Early Church or that its contemporary usefulness can be questioned. At the same time, we are warned about its proper use: “Jesus did not leave us a formula to be mechanically repeated” . The devout recitation of this prayer inserts us into the entire Tradition of the Church as we learn from the Didache that from her earliest days the Church prayed this composition of Our Lord three times a day, just as the Jews prayed the venerable “Eighteen Benedictions.” The Lord’s Prayer has also always formed part of the Divine Office, the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation and, of course, the Eucharistic Sacrifice [2767-2770]. A last preliminary remark notes the “eschatological” nature of this prayer, that is, that it is eminently suited for the “final times” or “those days of salvation which began with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and which will be accomplished with the return of the Lord” .
Pondering the words themselves begins with a comment on the liturgical text used to introduce the Lord’s Prayer. The congregation is urged to remember that what they are about to say is incredibly bold, and so, “we dare to say. . . . Our Father. . . .” The only way we can utter these words is through the grace of Christ; in other words, we do not speak to God in this manner by natural right but only by virtue of our supernatural adoption in Christ and the Holy Spirit . This stirs up within us what the Catechism identifies as “filial confidence, joyful assurance, humble boldness, certitude of being loved”  – all gifts of God to His dear children redeemed by His divine Son.
Father: “The first word of the Lord’s Prayer is a blessing of adoration before it is a request” . In this word, “we thank Him for having revealed His name, for having given us to believe in it, and for dwelling within us.” The Catechism teaches that our ability to relate to God as our Father is rooted in our having been reborn and adopted; thus, this is not a natural right or capacity but one conferred by grace. Hence, “this gratuitous gift of adoption demands on our part an on-going conversion and a new life,” with the development of two basic dispositions: “the desire and the will to look like [Christ]” and “a humble and confident heart which makes us ‘turn and become like children’ [Mt 18:3]” [2784-2785]. It is significant that the text does not engage in the least those who argue that there are problems for some in addressing God as “Father”; the implicit answer is that this mode of address is divinely revealed and those who have such difficulties need to reflect on what their problems are with the very fundamental notions of Christian revelation, Tradition and the deposit of faith.
In appending the adjective “our” to “Father,” it is not a question of “express[ing] a possession but of a totally new way of relating to God” . More to the point, in this manner “we invoke the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, the communion with the Holy Trinity, and the divine charity which is spread abroad by the Church into all sections of the world” . In an ecumenical key, the text observes that “in spite of the divisions among Christians,” this prayer to “our Father” presents “an urgent appeal to all the baptized” to work for the unity of all believers . We are also reminded that the use of “our” is an invitation for us to “abandon individualism” since “for this prayer to be recited in truth, our divisions and oppositions must be overcome” . This Father Whom we invoke is “in heaven,” which – although a place – is “a mode of being”  or, better yet, “the majesty of God and His presence in the hearts of the just. Heaven, the House of the Father, constitutes the real fatherland where we are headed and to which we already belong” .
This prayer continues with seven petitions (remember, St. Matthew as a Jew writing for Jews would have considered seven to be the symbol of perfection; therefore, we have in reality the perfect prayer). With great insight, the Catechism says that “the first wave [of three petitions] carries us toward [God], for Him: thy name, thy kingdom, thy will! This is the property of love – to think first of Him Whom we love” . Similarly, we do not directly impose ourselves into these; we simply ask that these be done. “The second wave” concerns us and our welfare, and so we find the pronoun “us” in evidence throughout.
When we pray, “Hallowed be thy name,” we are not asking that this be accomplished, for it already is. Rather, we are seeking the recognition of that holiness “by us and in us, as well as in every nation and in every human being” . The “kingdom” spoken of in the next petition is not concerned with a geographical location but with the rule or dominion of God over men’s minds and hearts. Therefore, “this is principally a question of the final coming of the Kingdom of God through the return of Christ.” Very quickly, the text adds, however, that “this desire [for the final consummation] does not distract the Church from her mission in this world, but engages her more fully in it” . To bring about God’s Kingdom here on earth and to look forward to its final fulfillment suggests “a decisive battle between ‘the flesh’ and the Spirit” . And then directing advice toward those who have a predominantly or even completely “this-worldly” approach to questions of justice and peace, the Catechism says: “In a discernment according to the Spirit, Christians must distinguish between the growth of the Kingdom of God and the progress of the culture and society where they are engaged. This distinction is not a separation. The vocation of man for eternal life does not suppress but reinforces his task of putting into practice the energies and means received from the Creator to serve justice and peace in this world” .
As we ask for God’s will to be done “on earth as it in heaven,” we must really unite our voices to that of Jesus, “for it is in Christ, and by His human will, that the Will of the Father was perfectly accomplished once and for all” . And just what is His Will? “The accomplishment of the plan of salvation in the life of the world” .
With the fourth petition, we move into concerns specifically related to human affairs. The “give us” has the ring of “filial trust” to it. “‘Our bread’ refers to the earthly food needed for our life and also signifies the Bread of Life: the Word of God and the Body of Christ. It is received in the ‘today’ of God, as the indispensable, super-essential nourishment of the Banquet of the Kingdom which the Eucharist anticipates” . This desire for bread also has a necessary social dimension, demanding “an effective responsibility toward their brothers, as well as in their personal behavior and in their solidarity with the human family” . The fact that the bread we seek is “our” bread is likewise a reminder that this loaf is “one for many,” which expects that we “share material and spiritual goods, not by constraint but by love” . As important as attending to the famines of the world is, the Catechism does not hesitate to call our attention to an even greater and more pressing hunger in the world for the Word of God, that Word which is Jesus Christ in the Eucharist .
Next, we pray for forgiveness with the understanding that our willingness to be forgiving toward others is the pre-condition for our reception of mercy, so that this prayer can “transform the disciple into the image of the Master” . We are warned that the mercy we desire “can penetrate our heart only if we have known how to pardon our enemies after the example of Christ and with His assistance” .
The traditional English translation of the Lord’s Prayer offers a special problem with the sixth petition (as we saw in a mini-controversy last year in this regard): “Lead us not into temptation.” The Catechism even acknowledges the difficulty of properly translating the Greek original here and holds that a correct understanding involves ideas like “do not permit us to enter into temptation” or “do not allow us to give into temptation” . It goes on to explain that we need the Holy Spirit to enable us “to discern between ‘being tempted’ and ‘giving into’ temptation” . Furthermore, in this line we are asking the Holy Spirit to give us “the grace of vigilance and final perseverance” .
“Deliver us from evil” is also critical to understand in a theologically precise manner. Our prayer is not merely for release from some abstract evil force or power abroad in the world. It concerns “a person, Satan, the Evil One, the angel who opposes himself to God. The Devil is the one who throws roadblocks in the way of God’s design and of His work of salvation accomplished in Christ” . This is a very clear teaching aimed at some theologians who have argued against the existence of a true, personal spirit of evil, rather than a vague malevolent force. In even sharper relief, we read that this petition seeks release “from all evils – present, past and future – of which he is the author or instigator” . Although Pope Francis is not given to great clarity in thinking or speaking, he has been most eminently clear on the reality of a personal Devil.
The meditation on the Lord’s Prayer concludes with a passage on the doxology attached to it in the Byzantine tradition (note well that this ending is not a Protestant invention but something the so-called Reformers picked up from the Christian East): “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever.” The three realities thus attributed to God are exactly what the Devil had promised to Christ [cf. Lk 4:5-6]. Christ, on the other hand, “restores these to His Father and our Father, until the Father restores the Kingdom to Christ, when the mystery of salvation will be definitively consummated and God will be all in all” . The Catechism ends with the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem on the Lord’s Prayer: “Then, the prayer being finished, you say: Amen, signifying. . .’That this may come to pass,’ what is contained in the prayer which God has taught us” .
In the silly 60s and 70s, not a few would-be catechists argued that recourse to formulaic prayers like the Pater noster reflected spiritual immaturity and fostered the very kind of mindless rote recitation condemned by Jesus in the Gospels (cf. 6:7). Nothing could be farther from the truth. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman tackled that red herring over 150 years ago:
Let us recollect for how long a period our prayers have been the standard forms of devotion in the Church of Christ, and we shall gain a fresh reason for loving them, and a fresh source of comfort in using them. I know different persons will feel differently here, according to their different turn of mind; yet surely there are few of us, if we dwelt on the thought, but would feel it a privilege to use, as we do (for instance, in the Lord’s Prayer), the very petitions which Christ spoke. He gave the prayer and used it. His Apostles used it; all the Saints ever since have used it. When we use it we seem to join company with them. Who does not think himself brought nearer to any celebrated man in history, by seeing his house, or his furniture, or his handwriting, or the very books that were his? Thus does the Lord’s Prayer bring us near to Christ, and to His disciples in every age. No wonder, then, that in past times good men thought this form of prayer so sacred, that it seemed to them impossible to say it too often, as if some especial grace went with the use of it. Nor can we use it too often; it contains in itself a sort of plea for Christ’s listening to us; we cannot, so that we keep our thoughts fixed on its petitions, and use our minds as well as our lips when we repeat it. And what is true of the Lord’s Prayer, is in its measure true of most of those prayers which our Church teaches us to use. It is true of the Psalms also, and of the Creeds; all of which have become sacred, from the memory of saints departed who have used them, and whom we hope one day to meet in Heaven. (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Sermon 20.)
May this review of the nature of prayer be a salutary help in our looking forward not only to Our Lord’s glorious Ascension to the Father but to His even more glorious return at the end of the ages.