Practical Skills for Crafting and Engaging Students in Prayer
by Barbara McAtee
"As I grew older I loved the good God more and more, and very frequently did I offer Him my heart, using the words my mother taught me. I strove in all my actions to please Jesus and was most watchful never to offend Him." (Story of a Soul, p. 38)
Much of the instruction of our students in "praying" tends to be rote memorization of prayers, responses at Mass, and perhaps Scripture verses, without improving their ability to understand or apply to their lives what they have memorized. Especially in the younger grades, we expect students to memorize a great deal of material in many subjects, because we know that this material is necessary as a basis for further learning and understanding.
This is also true when developing and deepening a life of prayer. While the beginning may seem habitual and rote, the students, with the guide of an adult "pray-er," will willfully and continually deepen their relationship with God until it becomes a union of love, praying "by heart."
Our Catechist Manuals are full of ideas for praying with our students and suggestions of prayer formats: where to pray, how to pray, and when to pray. But our "template" is family prayer. As members of the family of the Church, in the community of our classes, we pray as families pray.
The concrete example and living witness of parents is
fundamental and irreplaceable in educating their children to pray. . . .
Let us again listen to the appeal made by Paul VI to parents: "Mothers,
do you teach your children the Christian prayers? Do you prepare them,
in conjunction with the priests, for the sacraments that they receive
when they are young: Confession, Communion and Confirmation? Do you
encourage them when they are sick to think of Christ suffering to invoke
the aid of the Blessed Virgin and the saints? Do you say the family
rosary together? And you, fathers, do you pray with your children, with
the whole domestic community, at least sometimes? Your example of
honesty in thought and action, joined to some common prayer, is a lesson
for life, an act of worship of singular value. . . . Remember, it is
thus that you build up the church" Familiaris Consortio, no. 152. (General Audience Address, 640).
He says, "Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth" (Ps 46:10).
One of the more important things we may do as we prepare our students to enter into conversation with God is to offer them an experience of silence. Today's students have little experience with silence. Helping them to quiet their minds and hearts is a great gift that enables them to speak and to listen to God's voice.
Two frustrated parents were concerned about their youngest son fidgeting and chattering through Sunday Mass and asked Father for his help. The following Sunday, the behavioral change in their son was nearly miraculous. What had Father done to affect this transformation? Father said, "I just told him that if he was very, very still and quiet, he could hear God speak to him."
It is important to teach our students to visit quietly with Jesus, in silent contemplation before him in the Blessed Sacrament. We encourage them to share the deepest desires of their hearts, for while he already knows these thoughts and desires, he especially loves to hear these from his children. Share the very words of the saints with the students at their appropriate learning levels, because we know that the saints can guide us to Christ. Take them to Jesus in the tabernacle; guide them in how to share their hearts with Jesus; encourage them to make brief visits to Jesus there on their own. Tell them to give Jesus "Prime Time" in their hearts and in their lives.
The need to prepare our students for times of prayer in quiet and stillness is crucial, because it is often in the silence of our hearts that God speaks to us.
Times to Pray
We learn to pray at certain moments by hearing the Word of the Lord and
sharing in his Paschal mystery, but his Spirit is offered us at all times, in
the events of each day, to make prayer spring up from us (CCC, no. 2659).
Listening to both St. Paul and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we should live in a spirit of prayer, praying always.
We must remember God more often than we draw breath. But we cannot pray "at all times" if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it. These are the special times of Christian prayer, both in intensity and duration (CCC, no. 2697).
When with our students, we guide them in praying unceasingly by looking for situations that call us to pray, in the classroom, in the cafeteria, on the playground, or in other daily situations. When a possibly contentious situation arises between students, or while urging students to live like Christ and respect one another in a way that would please God, call the students to prayer. Share an appropriate Scripture verse after quieting them. Allow them to think about the verse, explaining to them its meaning when necessary. Do not be afraid to briefly "preach" on a verse or two, as our vocation as catechists calls us to witness to our students, breaking open and unpacking the Scriptures. Show them that God wants to hear from his children at all times, in all circumstances. Children can be introduced to lectio divina at a young age and be taught to unpack the Scriptures by themselves. This is a valuable skill that will stay with them their entire lives.
It is common in catechetical situations to involve our students in Intercessory Prayer. We start our catechesis with the Sign of the Cross, the sign of our faith, usually followed by a formal prayer, and ask our students whom they would like to pray for. It is crucial that they understand the importance of interceding for the living and deceased friends and members of our family, all the Body of Christ. These people depend on our prayers for them at all times.
Formal and Informal Prayer
We know that there is a need for both formal and informal prayer, both vocal and silent prayer. The Catechism tells us, "The Tradition of the Church proposes to the faithful certain rhythms of praying intended to nourish continual prayer. Some are daily, such as morning and evening prayer, grace before and after meals, the Liturgy of the Hours. Sundays, centered on the Eucharist, are kept holy primarily by prayer. The cycle of the liturgical year and its great feasts are also basic rhythms of the Christian's life of prayer." (CCC, no. 2698)
Recognizing that prayer is a gift from God, and that God calls man first, we are moved by the Holy Spirit to respond to his invitation to be in relationship with him. While we might fill our lives with busy-ness, with study of everything in the world but him, "yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer" (CCC, no. 2567).
We make sure that our students know the formal prayers (the Our Father; the Hail Mary; the Glory Be; the Acts of Faith, Hope, and Love; the Act of Contrition; the Apostles' Creed; the Nicene Creed) because we pray these in community, in worship together as the family of the Church. These prayers can also assist us in times of dryness, as we learn from reading the lives of many saints.
Praying with Sacred Scripture
In Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels, we do not simply learn about Jesus, but are brought into intimate contact with him. "The Church 'forcefully and specially exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn 'the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ" (Phil 3:8) by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. . . . Let them remember, however, that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that a dialogue takes place between God and man. For 'we speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles.'" (CCC, no. 2653)
Praying with the Sacred Liturgy
"There exists a deep and vital bond between the prayer of the Church and the prayer of the individual faithful" (Familiaris Consortio, no. 61).
While it can be difficult for young people and children to comprehend the Eucharistic Liturgy, we do our best to prepare them for this source of grace by teaching them the responses at Mass and catechizing them in the meaning of the Scripture readings, as we steep them in knowledge of Jesus as the Savior foretold in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Covenant.
God's pedagogy shows us that he revealed himself to his chosen ones only insofar as they were able to accept his revelation. We catechize our students in the same way, grasping how they can relate to God as he reveals himself to them on their own level of understanding.
We help our students pray the Liturgy when we involve them in celebrating the liturgical seasons, showing them that we do not just live the year that the secular world lives, but "God's year," celebrated in the Church as has been done for centuries. Use liturgical colors and the readings of the saints' feast days, sanctifying time with the students in your classrooms. A return to truly celebrating the saints' feast days is a memorable way of praying with the saints.
Guiding our students in these ways can help them to transform their daily lives in God and to join in prayer with the saints in heaven, the souls in Purgatory, and the Church on earth.
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 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 "Story of a Soul" translated by John Clarke, O.C.D. copyright © 1975, 1976, 1996, Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites ICS Publications, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio,copyright © 1982, Libreria Editrice Vaticana; Used with permission. All rights reserved.