Pope Francis considers the "scandal" of seemingly unanswered prayers, even when what is prayed for is something good.
There is a radical objection to prayer, which derives from an observation that we all make: We pray, we ask, and yet sometimes our prayers seem to go unheard: what we have asked for – for ourselves or for others – is not fulfilled. We have this experience, very often … If the reason for which we prayed was noble (such as intercession for the health of a sick person, or for the end of a war, for instance), the non-fulfilment seems scandalous. For example,, for wars: we are praying for wars to end, these wars in so many parts of the world. Think of Yemen, think of Syria, countries that have been at war for years, for years, ravaged by wars, and we pray, but they do not come to an end. But how can this be? “Some even stop praying because they think their petition is not heard” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2734). But if God is Father, why does He not listen to us? He who has assured us that He gives good things to the children who ask Him for them (cf. Mt 7: 10), why does He not respond to our requests? We all have experience of this: We have prayed, prayed, for the illness of a friend, of a father, of a mother, and so it went. But God did not grant our request! It is an experience we have all had.
With this observation, Pope Francis on May 26 continued his teaching cycle on prayer, considering this week the “certainty of being heard.”
The Holy Father started by reiterating that prayer is not about getting what we want. He used a favorite image of his: That prayer is not a magic wand.
Prayer is not a magic wand: it is a dialogue with the Lord. Indeed, when we pray we can give in to the risk of not being the ones to serve God, but of expecting Him to serve us.
Our Lord sets us on the right path by teaching the Our Father, the pope said, with the intention: “Hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
Further, St. Paul notes that we don’t even know what to ask for.
… the Apostle Paul reminds us that we do not even know what it is appropriate to ask for (cf. Rm 8: 26). We ask for necessities, our needs, things that we want […] When we pray, we need to be humble: this is the first attitude for going to pray. […] we must tell ourselves, before praying, that [humility] is the right way; that God will give me what it is right to give. He knows.
“However, the scandal remains,” the pope acknowledged.
“When people pray with a sincere heart, when they ask for things that correspond to the Kingdom of God, when a mother prays for her sick child, why does it sometimes seem that God does not listen to them?”
A scandal that is mystery
We offer you the full text of the reflection that Pope Francis provided in answer to this mystery (the emphases in bold are our own). The Pope drew on Scripture to consider the “scandal,” saying that it requires “calm” meditation on the Gospels:
To answer this question, we need to meditate calmly on the Gospels. The accounts of Jesus’ life are full of prayers: Many people wounded in body and in spirit ask Him to be healed; there are those who pray for a friend who can no longer walk; there are fathers and mothers who bring sick sons and daughters… They are all prayers imbued with suffering. It is an immense choir that invokes: “Have mercy on us!”
We see that at times Jesus’ response is immediate, whereas in some other cases it is delayed: It seems that God does not answer. Think of the Canaanite woman who begs Jesus for her daughter: This woman has to insist for a long time to be heard (cf. Mt 15: 21-28). She even has the humility to hear a word from Jesus that seems a little offensive towards her: We must not throw bread to the dogs, to mere dogs. But this humiliation does not matter to the woman: Her daughter’s health is what matters. And she goes on: “Yes, but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters,” and Jesus likes this. Courage in prayer.
Or think of the paralytic brought by his four friends: Jesus initially forgives his sins and only later heals his body (cf. Mk 2:1-12). On some occasions, therefore, the solution to the problem is not immediate.
In our life too, each one of us has this experience. Let us look back a little: How many times have we asked for a grace, a miracle, let’s say, and nothing has happened. Then, over time, things have worked out but in God’s way, the divine way, not according to what we wanted in that moment. God’s time is not our time.
From this point of view, the healing of Jairus’ daughter is worthy of particular attention (cf. Mk 5: 21-33). There is a father who is in a hurry: His daughter is ill and for this reason he asks for Jesus’ help. The Master immediately accepts, but on their way home another healing occurs, and then the news comes that the girl has died. It seems to be the end, but instead Jesus says to the father: “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk 5:36). “Continue to have faith”: because it is faith that sustains prayer. And indeed, Jesus will awaken that child from the sleep of death. But for a time, Jairus had to walk in the dark, with only the flame of faith. Lord, give me faith! May my faith grow! Ask for this grace, to have faith. Jesus, in the Gospel, says that faith moves mountains – but, having real faith. Jesus, before the faith of His poor, of His people, is won over; He feels special tenderness, before that faith. And He listens.
The prayer that Jesus addresses to the Father in Gethsemane also seems to go unheard. “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” It seems that the Father does not listen to Him. The Son must drink fully from the chalice of the passion. But Holy Saturday is not the final chapter, because on the third day, Sunday, is the Resurrection. Evil is lord of the penultimate day: remember this well. Evil is never the lord of the last day, no: the penultimate, the moment when the night is darkest, just before the dawn. Then, on the penultimate day, there is temptation, when the devil makes us think he has won: “Have you seen? I have won!” The evil one is the lord of the penultimate day: on the last is the Resurrection. But the evil one is never lord of the last day: God is the Lord of the last day. Because that belongs to God alone, and it is the day when all human longings for salvation will be fulfilled. Let us learn this humble patience, to await the Lord’s grace, to await the final day. Very often, the penultimate is very hard, because human sufferings are hard. But the Lord is there. And on the last day, He solves everything.