Family Prayer … Just Do It!
by Patti Gallagher Mansfield
“Honey, someone wants you to write an article about how our family prays,” Al chuckled. That will be a short article, I thought. How does our family pray? Poorly! Gone are the days when I would glibly give advice on parenting. With three teenagers and an eight-year-old to keep us humble, Al and I have learned to say, “We’re just doing our best and trusting God… a lot.” Like you, we’re Catholic parents trying to raise Catholic kids in today’s anything-but-Catholic world.
Family prayer. How do you begin? Just begin! How do you do it? Just do it! I’m not being facetious or naive. Make up your mind, then do it. Sometimes we’re waiting for optimum conditions… once the baby’s older, when football season ends, after taxes. I’ve learned that there’s never going to be a perfect time free from stress, illness or an impossible schedule. “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly,” said Chesterton. So, quit making excuses and begin praying poorly.
Al and I fell in love while serving in the lay apostolate, so the whole notion of praying together was a given. For most Catholic couples, this isn’t the case. One of my friends recently persuaded her husband (a non-practicing Catholic) to come to Church for three minutes. She desperately wanted to be present as a family unit at a parish Eucharistic adoration service. I shared in her joy on this special occasion. But what pleases me even more is her commitment to family prayer on every other occasion. You see, each day Ann prays with her two kids. These little ones are growing spiritually because Ann isn’t hiding behind her husband’s lack of faith. She’s “just doing it.”
Or take my friend, Linda, who’s divorced and the mother of four. Every day she visits her handicapped twenty-year-old son in a rehabilitation home so that they can pray together. How moved I was on a recent visit to witness the peace and joy in Linda’s son. The presence of God in his room was palpable. I am in awe of her courage and faith expressed in this daily commitment to family prayer. God’s grace shines through in the most broken family situations when even two or three gather in His name. Didn’t Jesus promise it? “I will be in the midst of them” (cf. Mt. 18:19-20).
We Pray Liturgically
Every Sunday the Mansfields attend Mass in two shifts. We got into this habit when the children were very young and my husband found them too distracting. I came to enjoy my hour of quiet prayer without a baby in tow. Other Catholic families insist on celebrating Mass together. I remember rushing into Mass late one Sunday after our third child was born. Sitting in the front pew was another mom who had just given birth to her fifth. The baby was sleeping quietly in his carrier, the other children were lined up like little angels next to her husband and she looked disgustingly thin and well-rested. Some people can do that, I thought. Not us.
Al has been very strong in encouraging the children to follow along in their missalettes, join in the responses and dress appropriately. “Worship the Lord in holy attire,” the psalmist tells us. Marie-Therese is no longer in hand-smocked dresses on Sunday, but we feel that part of our prayer and witness as a family is reflected by our clothing. No cut-offs and tees, even if “everybody else is doing it.”
Patrick, our youngest, is preparing for his First Reconciliation and First Holy Communion this year. Unfortunately, for many children there will be no “Second Reconciliation”. They’ll receive Communion for years without ever confessing their sins. In our family we believe that there is such a thing as sin, that we commit it and need to express sorrow for it in regular confession. Al has made it a practice to bring the kids to Church for this sacrament. The kids know that we adults go to confession every month too.
We Pray Spontaneously
Our active involvement with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal has taught us the importance of spontaneous prayer. I’m talking about prayer that’s simple, from the heart, in our own words. It’s a personal expression of our faith and confidence that Jesus is near us and wants to act on our behalf. From birth (and even while they were in utero), we have prayed over our kids in a spontaneous way, often imposing our hands as a blessing. You’d be amazed at how readily children learn this kind of prayer. And they put us to shame with their expectant faith.
My friend, Ann, told me how five-year-old Kevin asked Jesus to “make the rain go away” when it threatened to ruin his baseball game. Ann, seeing the ominous clouds, tried to explain that sometimes our prayers aren’t answered the way we want. But Kevin kept on believing and by the first pitch, the sun was shining brilliantly!
Once Al had a headache and our seven-year-old son, Peter, offered to pray with him. “Jesus, please heal Daddy’s headache. Thank you, Jesus! Is it gone?” Peter repeated his prayer three times before the headache lifted. That’s perseverance! This same Peter, now seventeen, had some car trouble while he was alone on the road. “Did you pray?”, I asked him. “You bet I prayed!” came the ready reply. An auto mechanic “just happened” to pass by and offered assistance after that prayer. I’ve been encouraging him since he first got his driver’s license to pray to his guardian angel when he gets behind the wheel. In typical teenage fashion, he’s shrugged me off. But when he was in need, he remembered to pray and got results!
Marie-Therese and I headed off to buy her Confirmation dress last year and I expected a battle. You know, necklines…hemlines. Before getting out of the car, I suggested we pray. “You lead, M.-T.” Her prayer was to the point. “Jesus, please help us find a dress we can agree on.” Guess what? We did, quickly and painlessly. Without that prayer, we might still be at the shopping center!
We Pray On Our Knees
For the Mansfields, night prayer has always been on our knees… more or less. Sometimes the kids are slumping over a chair with only one knee on the floor, but “knees” are part of our “family tradition.” Al has made sure they know the traditional prayers of the Church, like the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be and Act of Contrition. When my four-year-old committed the prayer, “Soul of Christ”, to memory, I knew I’d better learn it as well. Praying rote prayer may seem boring and uninspired, but we feel it’s an important component in training our children in the Catholic faith. You can’t always count on these prayers being taught at school or CCD classes.
At night prayer we’ve sometimes prayed a novena. I remember the first year we had a kid in high school and were feeling the pinch. Al made copies of a novena to St. Joseph and we prayed for financial help. The youngest child distributed the copies and held his own upside down. He wanted to be included nonetheless. On the eighth day of the novena Peter asked, “Is the money coming tomorrow?” Talk about faith! In fact, a month later, an anonymous donor cancelled our high school debt. This was a sign to the whole family of God’s loving providence and St. Joseph’s powerful intercession. It meant so much more since they were all actively involved in the petition.
We Pray At Meals
While the kids eye the food impatiently, we pray the traditional grace before meals introducing a little variety here and there. At Advent we bring down the wreath and sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The kids fight over who lights the candles, but it’s still fun. On each person’s name day he or she has a dinner plate that reads, “You Are Special”, and gets a feast day gift. Marie-Therese has tried to count all Marian feast days as her own but we’ve limited her to only one! During the Easter season we always sing, “O Queen of Heaven, Be Joyful.” Now that we have two Latin scholars we’re singing the Regina Coeli version much to my husband’s delight.
We Pray On the Road
A car trip of any length for the Mansfields includes the Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet. Many Catholic families incorporate the Rosary into their daily prayer. I admire them. My mother recalls how the family Rosary was prayed in Italian every night as she was growing up. Sure, the kids are going to squirm or complain. Mine try to sit in the van so I can’t see them through the rear view mirror while we’re praying. Sometimes they sneak a book low on their laps in order to read while we’re praying. But it’s still a way of presenting ourselves and our needs to the Lord through Mary’s intercession. And that’s powerful. Let’s remember to keep a sense of humor. If you attempt family prayer, it’s a must.
Pray As You Can, Not As You Can’t
How do we pray? As I said at the outset, the Mansfields pray poorly. But at least we’ve decided to “just do it.” A good spiritual maxim for every family is this one: “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” Forget the ideal. Find what’s possible for your family. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you. After all, He is the best teacher of prayer. “For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us…” (Rm. 8). And this Holy Spirit is at work in our children; every now and again, we can catch a glimpse. Patrick was about four when we were at the airport together. “Look, Mom, there’s a man on crutches. He needs our prayer.” “Yes, Patrick,” I replied, “you lead”. Right there with the planes buzzing overhead this little one prayed aloud, “Dear Jesus, please bless this man and heal his legs. Thank you, Jesus.” Where did Patrick learn to pray that way? In a family that prays… poorly.