- Trying to square the circle
The opening days of the Synod on the Family have revealed distinct differences of opinion between the participants. How can their commitment to church teaching be matched with compassion for those who struggle with it?
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Can prayer bring an end to conflict? Can it stop the slaughter and mayhem in Gaza or Ukraine played out – rather voyeuristically - on our TV screens everyday? Do the people caught up in the violence and killing listen to the appeals of religious leaders for prayer?
In the final scene of the 1986 British drama film The Mission the Portuguese army arrive in Paraguay to claim territory from the Jesuits and drive out or enslave the Guarani, the evangelized indigenous inhabitants. The two main characters, the Jesuit superior played by Jeremy Irons and the former slave-trader and now novice Jesuit brother played by Robert De Niro, confront the hostile force in radically different ways. The De Niro character returns to his old ways and meets sword with sword. The Jesuit Superior meets force with love and reconciliation. He walks into battle armed only with the Blessed Sacrament. Both die. Yet the image of the priest and the Blessed Sacrament amid the carnage and mayhem of a fractured and fallen world endures.
But does it change anything? I remember a conversation with some sixth formers about people who live within enclosed religious orders – like the Tyburn nuns. “What’s the point of praying for peace in the world?” Remarked one of them. “Only the threat of being totally out-gunned or bombed into submission changes things”. Another voice piped up: “Sir, did people pray that Hitler would stop killing people?” “I suppose they did,” I replied, rather crestfallen. “And do you think it stopped him?” Continued the skeptic. I opted for a non-committal shrug.
And that is it, in a nut shell. We have no way of knowing what, if any, effect prayer has, particularly in a society seemingly obsessed with the material and the empirical. What, eventually, leads people to the negotiating table? Is it public outrage, sanctions or the work of the Holy Spirit? We should expect religious leaders to ask us to pray for peace but what might we think of political leaders if their only offering was to ask for our prayers?
I recall telling some parents that it is not always a good thing to ask their children to pray for people who are very poorly because if death happens then children can sometimes feel that they have not prayed hard enough or, perhaps, had forgotten to pray on that particular day. The effects can be far-reaching.
There is no doubt – in my own mind – that personal and daily prayer helps me to be a more content and grounded person. It encourages me to reflect upon how I treat others and how I live my life. I am not sure that it affects situations and issues beyond my immediate and limited relational and geographical hub. Maybe it does.
Daniel Kearney is a former headmaster