In the sermon titled “Intercession,” St. John Henry Newman reminds Christians of their privilege and duty to intercede before God on behalf of others.
Yet he points out that … “(…)our first prayers ever must be for ourselves. Our own salvation is our personal concern; till we labour to secure it, till we try to live religiously, and pray to be enabled to do so, nay, and have made progress, it is but hypocrisy, or at best it is overbold, to busy ourselves with others.” Newman explains that this does not mean that prayer for others must always come after praying for oneself; on the contrary. He explains that in order to pray for others more effectively, we, who may be in an habitual and deliberate state of sin, must pray for ourselves in order to pray for others. It would be incongruous and unlikely to pray well otherwise.
This is corroborated by scripture: St. James says, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” Likewise, St. John says, “Whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” [James v. 16. 1 John iii. 22.]
This is the teaching of Our Lord. Jesus promises us that if we abide in Him, what we ask of the Father will be done for us — the condition for this being our “obedience, mature, habitual, lifelong holiness.” Through our friendship with Christ we have, so to speak, “power” over Him. Newman reminds us of examples of intercessory prayer in the lives of Elijah and Moses, and refers to the mediatorial prayer of Jeremiah, Moses and Samuel.
In particular, Newman writes of Abraham’s faith as a condition for an answer to his prayers. He wishes to set before us that faith is the foundation for a person to practice intercession for others:
“Abraham is our spiritual father; and as he is, so are his children. In us, as in him, faith must be the foundation of all that is acceptable with God. ‘”By faith we stand,”’ by faith we are justified, by faith we obey, by faith our works are sanctified. Faith applies to us again and again the grace of our Baptism; faith opens upon us the virtue of all other ordinances of the Gospel—of the Holy Communion, which is the highest. By faith we prevail ‘”in the hour of death and in the day of judgment.’”
Above and beyond Abraham and the patriarchs, our model for intercession is Christ Himself. Newman explains: “Christ died to give us a share in his divine life: ‘“He died to renew him after His own image, to make him a being He might delight and rejoice in,’ to make him ‘”partaker of the divine nature,’” to fill him within and without with a flood of grace and glory.’” And He bestows on us the privilege of intercession which makes us resemble Him. A century later, in this same line, St. Josemaría Escrivá would say that the Christian is called to be another Christ, Christ Himself.
Regenerated by Baptism and receiving grace through the sacraments we grow in the likeness of Christ. “[The Christian] is made after the pattern and in the fulness of Christ—he is what Christ is. Christ intercedes above, and he intercedes below.” Rather than ask ourselves if we are holy enough to intercede for others we should concern ourselves with exercising the gift of intercession and becoming worthy of this gift.
Newman argues that much depends on our generosity to pray for others, the results of which we shall not know in this life. We cannot complain of national or personal difficulties if we have not done our part in prayer. In Romans chapter 12, we are encouraged to love one another with brotherly affection, and this includes prayer. Prayer needs not a special building or a certain time, but can be done throughout each day, even from a sickbed or a crowded grocery store aisle.
As so many individuals and families face the suffering and death of loved ones, our faith in God’s power and attention to our prayers can be tested.
We may ask ourselves, “How might God’s answer to our prayers for the end of the Covid-19 pandemic materialize?” The answer may come in some miraculous manner, but most likely it will be through the untiring work of healthcare professionals and researchers — including development to new treatments and vaccines — and the charity of many persons with the help of our prayers.
But how much are we praying? And are we praying to God with faith? It is hard when church buildings are closed and we cannot attend Mass, but we believe that we can really unite ourselves to Jesus in the Mass that priests are offering. He who is our Mediator offers himself to the Father for the world. We can watch the Mass online each day and make a good spiritual communion praying for our world and especially those who are suffering most.