Catechist in Services - Rita Burns Senseman

Catechetical Sunday 2016 PosterUtilizing Different Styles of Prayer

by Rita Burns Senseman
Director of Religious Education
St. Benedict Parish, Terre Haute, IN

I recently witnessed a catechist teaching a fourteen-year-old how to pray. The catechist said, "What I do at night is just close my eyes and rest in the arms of God. I let God's arms surround me and I just rest there." The curious, yet slightly skeptical girl eyed the catechist. "Let's try it," Trudy, the catechist, said. And the small group that was gathered there closed our eyes and silently rested in God's love. 

The masterful catechist was helping her class prepare for contemplative prayer, leading them in quieting their hearts and minds, and directing their "gaze of faith fixed on Jesus" (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no. 2715). By her example, she demonstrated how contemplative prayer requires an external and internal silence that allows the pray-er to hear God's voice in his or her inner stillness, like a close sharing between friends (CCC, no. 2709). Finally, she invited the class to sample what such a close sharing might feel like, silently resting in God's love. Prayer is a constitutive part of catechesis, and is one of the tasks of catechesis (National Directory for Catechesis [NDC], 61). Indeed, prayer is the "ordinary environment" for catechesis and in turn, "Catechesis teaches the Christian how to pray with Christ" (NDC, 61). 

Prayer makes catechesis better, richer, and more complete. When catechists, parents, teachers, and pastoral ministers incorporate different modes of prayer into homes and catechetical settings, the catechesis is enhanced and faith is deepened. Imagine how the session above would have been truncated and the fourteen-year-old left unconvinced, if the catechist had not actually led the group in contemplative prayer at that moment. Thus, catechetical leaders and parents must seize every opportunity to utilize the many different styles of prayer that our repository of Christian tradition has at its disposal. Rather than talking about how to pray, actually using a variety of prayer forms is the best way to teach prayer. 

Furthermore, the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA) identifies "three kinds of prayer" that by their very nature encompass other forms of prayer (USCCA, 473). Highlighting these three modes of prayer—vocal, meditative, and contemplative—will provide a framework for exploring how to utilize different styles of prayer in the home and in catechetical settings.

Vocal Prayer

Week after week, the RCIA session started the same way: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Loving God, we thank you for. . . ." And the group of catechumens, candidates, sponsors, and catechists would name that for which they were thankful. 

There is something very familiar, comfortable, and knowable about vocal prayer, be it a traditional Catholic prayer or a spontaneous prayer spoken from the heart. Starting a meal, a class, a meeting, a retreat, or any gathering with vocal prayer is commonplace for many. And, yet, for others it may not be so commonplace. Many a catechist and teacher is surprised, or maybe not so surprised, by the number of children who do not pray at mealtime or who do not pray at all. Those who minister to children might make it a simple goal to encourage parents to use mealtime (NDC, 113) as a time for vocal prayer. 

Pope Francis speaks to the ways in which families can utilize various forms of prayer. The Holy Father describes how in the messiness of family life, a family can still pray. In his General Audience of August 26, 2015, Pope Francis acknowledged that contemporary "family time is a complicated and crowded time, busy and preoccupied," yet he urged parents to teach their children "to make the Sign of the Cross," to recite the Rosary, and to read the Gospel (Pope Francis, General Audience, St. Peter's Square, August 26, 2015).The pope encourages "the whole of family life" to be spontaneously prayerful. Families can pray using traditional prayers, but they can also pray with "an unspoken thought, or an invocation before a holy image, or a kiss blown to the Church" or "kisses to Jesus or to our Lady" (Pope Francis, General Audience, St. Peter's Square, August 26, 2015). 

In addition to prayer within the family, beginning and ending a class or other catechetical gathering with vocal prayer is often part of the ritual life of the group. In particular, praying the Lord's Prayer is a favorite vocal prayer, for it is the "quintessential prayer of the Church" (CCC, no. 2776) and "the 'most perfect of prayers'" (CCC no. 2774, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas). No wonder we use it so often, as indeed we should. 

However, catechists and parents should be reminded to use the many other prayers in our repertoire. In addition to the Big Three (the Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary and Glory Be), the USCCA has a fine collection of traditional Catholic prayers in Appendix B, as do most textbook appendices and many other books of prayer. The key is to actually use the prayers and pray them often, in the home and in the classroom. Too often the catechist or the parent runs out of time, and prayer is the task that gets omitted. Yet, even when time runs short, "the spirit of prayer gives time back to God . . . [and] it rediscovers the peace of necessary things" (Pope Francis, General Audience, St. Peter's Square, August 26, 2015).

Furthermore, song is a type of vocal prayer that catechists and parents can use in all kinds of situations. Singing is a marvelous way to give praise and glory to God. "Sing praise to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and melodious song" (Ps 98:5). Singing can be a form of personal prayer and it can also orient us to worship, since song is an "integral part of the solemn liturgy" (CCC, no. 1156). Or, to paraphrase the well-known wisdom of St. Augustine, "Singing is praying twice" (CCC, no. 1156). Thus, encouraging parents to sing their favorite Christian hymns and psalms to their young children and providing catechists, youth ministers, and prayer leaders with easy access to music would go a long way in encouraging the usage of this twice-holy type of prayer. 

Although it is visual, rather than vocal, gesture is a bodily prayer that is also important in the Catholic tradition. Genuflecting, bowing, raising arms, standing, or kneeling for prayer and folding hands are meaningful gestures and in themselves can be prayer. Thus, teaching children to stand reverently for an opening prayer in the classroom or teaching an inquirer to bow humbly before the tabernacle are examples of important gestures to include in catechesis.  

Meditative Prayer

Mr. Davis spent just five minutes leading his third graders through a guided meditation in which the children imagined Jesus with them on the playground. As the meditation ended, he asked his students to open their eyes and come back to the classroom. "But I don't wanna come back," replied Dakota.  

Meditation is a style of prayer that uses "thought, imagination, emotion and desire" (CCC, no. 2708). The possibilities for using meditation are as unlimited as our imaginations. One often thinks of meditation as needing an extended period of time, a quiet place, and a disciplined psyche. Yet, meditation can be incorporated into the chaotic classroom, the stressful workplace, the frenetic home, and even the car, as long as it's parked! Pope Francis encourages families to meditate on the Gospel "while reciting the Rosary" (Pope Francis, General Audience, St. Peter's Square, August 26, 2015). In addition, a quick search on a mobile device will reveal a huge number of applications to help, not only with rosary meditations, but also with many other types of prayer and meditation, including lectio divina.

Another effective form of meditation, as in the scene described above, is guided imagery. Guided imagery, or guided meditation, is a manner of prayer in which the person praying is guided by a leader, by the Scriptures, by spiritual writings, or by some other means, to use his or her mind and imagination. Some pastoral ministers and parents shy away from using this form of prayer, thinking that one must be a spiritual master to guide one's self or another in meditation. However, "Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly" (CCC, no. 2707). As catechists and parents, we owe it to those we catechize to show them the beauty of meditation.

Contemplative Prayer

Returning now to the opening story of the catechist and the fourteen-year-old, one notices that contemplation requires silence and time. Whereas a spontaneous or traditional vocal prayer is rather brief, contemplation takes a little time. It takes a little time to quiet one's self, one's students, one's children, or one's peers so as to enter into "a time of silent listening and love" (USCCA, 474). It really just takes getting used to silence and the best way to get used to silence is to practice it. Take time in the classroom, in the home, in adult formation gatherings, and in youth ministry settings to let people rest in silence. Trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to pray on behalf of those who "do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26). 

Finally, trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide all those leading prayer and all those who seek God in prayer.

Devotional Prayer and St. Mother Theodore Guérin (1798-1856)

In 1843, in the midst of a terrifying storm at sea, St. Mother Theodore Guérin relied on the security of a familiar devotion: the Way of the Cross. Mother Theodore recounts in her journal the harrowing night she and her sisters spent on the Atlantic Ocean. She writes: "What strength the soul draws from prayer! In the midst of a storm, how sweet is the calm it finds in the Heart of Jesus" (Journals and Letters of Mother Theodore Guérin, 152. Sr. Marianne Mader,
Sisters of Providence Archivisit, St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. Gave the date of
December 31, 1843 as the exact date of St. Mother Theodore's journal entry. Telephone
communication, October 22, 2015.).

Intercessory Prayer: A Task of Evangelization

A type of prayer that receives special mention from Pope Francis is intercessory prayer (Evangelii Gaudium [EG], no. 281). He urges us to use intercessory prayer as a way "to take up the task of evangelization and to seek the good of others" (EG, no. 281).

Copyright © 2016, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use. 

Excerpts from Pope Francis, The Family-24. Prayer. General Audience, copyright © 2015, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Evangelii Gaudium, ©  2013, LEV .Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006. Used with permission. All rights reserved. 

Excerpts from Journals and Letters of Mother Theodore Guerin by Sr. Mary Theodosia Mug © 1937, 1978, Sisters of Providence, St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.