Prayer Before Action A Reflection on the Bishops’ Retreat

by Father Peter Mangum, Diocesan Administrator

We just celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and have brought the Season of Christmas to a conclusion. May the graces of that blessed season of peace and joy remain with us throughout 2019!

I think back to the Baptism of our Lord, which concluded the Christmas season. What was Jesus doing right after He was baptized? The Gospel of Luke tells us: “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,” He saw the Holy Spirit descend and heard His Father’s voice, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

Jesus speaks with His Father, and then Heaven opens above Him. Prayer first. The next thing Jesus did, according to Sacred Scripture, was to go off into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, “filled with the Holy Spirit” it says, where He prayed and fasted, (“went on retreat” we could say) and only then did He start to teach!

The importance of prayer before action is seen throughout Sacred Scripture: the need to be prompted by the Holy Spirit and filled with the Holy Spirit before acting is essential to move forward in the way God wants us to.

How wonderful our long tradition in the Catholic Church is regarding the necessary relationship between prayer and action, and the importance of prayer preceding action (a lesson for us all). How many of us come up with our plan of action and then get on our knees and ask the Lord to help us accomplish it? But we’re supposed to get on our knees first, find out what the Lord wants us to do, and then, guided by the Holy Spirit, we get to work.

I was away the first week of January with the bishops of this country on a retreat at a seminary north of Chicago. This was at the request of Pope Francis who wanted all the leaders of dioceses (as a group) to take time together in prayer (as a group) on the crisis of faith and conscience and credibility related to the abuse scandals, cover-ups and lack of action. The pope was so insistent on this that he sent Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the very holy Capuchin preacher to the last three popes, to direct the retreat under the theme of “He Appointed Twelve, to be with Him and to Send Out to Preach” based on Mark 3:14. Here’s the same pattern: Jesus appointed 12 disciples (whose successors are the bishops) first to be with Him, and only after that to go about the ministry!

photo/ Catholic News Agency

At the very start of the retreat, an eight-page letter was handed out to us from the pope, dated the day before. It was written to the bishops for the beginning of the retreat. In it he says that the bishops’ “credibility… cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources.” (emphasis mine) This is precisely what the bishops, acting in a very American pragmatic way and without praying first, were trying to do back in November at the USCCB meeting where Pope Francis told them to postpone the vote for new procedures. He goes on to say that the Gospel demands a change of heart, and that the time and space a weeklong retreat together can provide for silence, prayer and penance is so essential to undertake necessary reforms, and to receive the grace, courage and freedom to reform themselves and the Church.

The pope’s goal was to draw the group of very different men and their ideologies, theologies, ecclesiologies and ways of doing things, closer to one another and our Lord to seek together to find the wisdom and strength necessary to meet the great challenges ahead.

I must admit, I didn’t realize how divided many of the bishops actually are, against each other, or against various groups of bishops, and even with their issues concerning the pope. I asked several bishops about this and they simply responded, “Yes, it’s true.” The pope knows it is true, as he addressed it in his letter, and he knew that huge decisions the bishops face could not be made by a group who were divided; they could not come up with a plan of action and just pray it worked.

Our retreat master, a man steeped in Sacred Scripture and the early Church Fathers, spoke to us several times each day, both in formal conferences and in the homilies at Mass. There was time for quiet reflection, including silent meal times, adoration, Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as talks about the need for “Intimacy with Christ” as our first priority and what it means for the successors of the apostles “to stay with Jesus” on a personal and existential level, and to share Jesus’ “Ardent Prayer for Unity.”

We all participated in a beautiful Penitential Service led by one of the cardinals, themed “The Church on Her Knees,” highlighting the need to personally seek forgiveness and seek forgiveness as a group. There were multiple opportunities for confessions throughout the week, to which many of us availed ourselves.

Through it all, every bishop was so aware of the pain of everyone who has been let down by the Church.

The pattern was established for us all: Prayer and discernment first, then action. Retreat was essential — not to surrender and hide from reality, but to retreat to all that is real and most important, mindful that the future does not rest with any of us alone, but that it belongs to God.

A lasting conversion for the Church will not come without prayer. So this retreat ahead of next month’s Vatican summit on this very issue, (and the gathering of U.S. bishops in June) has given the bishops an opportunity to pray before acting, to heal divisions, work together, and discern the path forward under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit we heard about at the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, who prepared the Son of God for ministry, but only after He prayed and spent time in retreat.

Now that the prayer and reflection has happened, my prayer and yours (I am sure) is that the bishops have the grace to understand where God is leading the Church and the courage to go there!

In our own lives we hope to follow the same pattern: to get on our knees first and find out what the Lord wants us to do, then, guided by the Holy Spirit, we get up and get to work.

One Response to Prayer Before Action A Reflection on the Bishops’ Retreat

  1. Sandy says:

    Beautiful words of encouragement. Through the renewal also it is most wise and encouraged to pray first for all situations and allow the Holy Spirit (living God) to guide us.

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