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Learning to Pray with Catholic Tradition

How to use a fourfold method to reflect on various Church texts

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One of the great developments in prayer habits in recent years has been the rediscovery of lectio divina, the prayerful reading and reflection on Scripture. It was even more reinforced by Pope Francis’ 2019 motu propio Aperuit Illis, which established the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time as a world day of liturgical focus on the Word of God. It is a concrete effort to get the faithful and the clergy more regularly taking time to reflect on the sacred Scriptures and their importance for the Church.

This positive development offers one way to enhance our prayer lives, especially as priests. This article proposes a complementary idea: Can we also learn to “pray with the Tradition”?

Intimately Linked

To avoid confusion, some initial clarifications will be helpful. The idea of praying with words from the Tradition is not to be seen in opposition to, or in competition with, lectio divina of the Scriptures. On the contrary, the two should be seen as intimately linked. This is especially so because of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Dei Verbum explicitly acknowledges the work of one and the same Spirit that operates in both Scripture and Tradition (cf. No. 10). They are not totally separate realities. There is an overlap. The Tradition — note the capital “T” denoting the all-encompassing Tradition of the Church — helped to shape the Scriptures, and vice versa.

A second caution is that I invoke the practice of lectio divina as an analogous rather than an identical method of praying with the Tradition (see table). If it is not exactly the same process, it is nevertheless similar and can also bear good spiritual fruit. The most familiar form of lectio divina is the Benedictine four-step method, as expressed in the included table. It is usually seen as a progression from direct contact with the Word through the act of reading to pure contemplation of God. The goal is not necessarily didactic. Rather, it should lead to a deeper appreciation of the Word of God as a living reality, which still bears a meaningful message.

By analogy, I suggest that a similar fourfold method can also be used to pray with the Tradition. Instead of a Scripture passage, the object of reflection would be a text from the Tradition, which could include magisterial documents, allocutions of popes, patristic writings, conciliar documents, apostolic exhortations, encyclical letters, mystical treatises, etc. One difference with traditional lectio could be that praying with the Tradition is perhaps more didactic in orientation.

But we should not minimize the importance of learning something from prayer that might affect our mind, as well as our hearts or souls. The Church herself lends support for this practice, as seen in the Office of Readings in the breviary, where multiple kinds of texts from the Tradition are proposed as worthy of reflection.

My third caution is that, similar to the Scriptures, some texts of the Tradition will not lend themselves well to such prayerful exercise. All priests know that some Scripture passages can be difficult to pray because they express ideas contrary to contemporary moral teaching, or hold culturally conditioned ideas that are not conducive to contemporary settings. There is a solid reason why the framers of the breviary left out verse nine from Psalm 137!

Likewise many texts from the Tradition over the centuries would not make good objects of prayer. I doubt one could make a fruitful spiritual reflection on the Inquisition or certain papal bulls. We should also keep in mind the hierarchy of magisterial teachings in the Church. Not all have equal authoritative weight. Thus conciliar documents, especially those from Vatican II, take precedence over encyclical letters, apostolic exhortations or motu propios.

Finally, some might object that such an exercise is too academic and not spiritual enough. To this objection, I simply recall the practice of the Church Fathers. Their commentaries on Scripture, for example, show a constant back and forth movement between study and prayer. The two cannot be divorced. Careful study leads to prayer, and prayer leads to a deeper thirst for knowledge of the Word.

Some Examples

To provide some concrete illustrations of various texts from the Tradition for such an exercise, I offer here four examples that I have found fruitful for my meditation. While we cannot run through the exercise of prayer itself, these excerpts offer a glimpse of some of the riches of the Catholic Tradition that can be beneficial for one’s spiritual life.

1) Dei Verbum (1965)

This document, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, was one of the most important documents to emerge from the council. Many experts agree that its opening prologue, which was inserted only late in the process, basically serves as the introduction for all 16 documents of the council. Its emphasis on the personal nature of divine revelation and on God’s gracious invitation to humanity to live in relationship tremendously reoriented Catholic reflection on revelation, which had previously emphasized a propositional approach related to revelation.

“Hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith, the sacred synod takes its direction from these words of St. John: ‘We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have fellowship with us and our common fellowship be with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ’ (1 Jn 1:2-3). Therefore, following in the footsteps of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council, this present council wishes to set forth authentic doctrine on divine revelation and how it is handed on, so that by hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love” (No. 1).

2) Sacrosanctum Concilium (1962)

A second conciliar document also contains passages worthy of meditation — namely, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. This document was the first one approved by the council fathers. Its effect was almost immediate because it impacted the shape of our liturgical celebrations, especially the Mass. One passage, in particular, is quite striking and warrants deeper reflection. It explains the multiple ways in which the risen Lord is really present in the Eucharist. In an era when many Catholics seem uninformed or lukewarm about the importance of Eucharistic presence, this passage warrants further reflection.

“Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,’ but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt 18:20)” (No. 7).

3) Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992)

For priests, one of the most refreshing documents on the priesthood is St. John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis. I have used various passages from this seminal document on priestly formation for priest retreats, and I am always amazed at how few priests seem familiar with it. Many think of it only as a text for seminary formators. Not so. It contains several deeply spiritual passages on priestly identity and spirituality. It is the most important post-conciliar document on priestly formation, and its well-known teaching about the four key dimensions of formation — human, spiritual, intellectual, pastoral — has impacted other types of formation in the Church (deacons, catechists, etc.).

One passage, in particular, speaks about the priest’s prophetic identity as a proclaimer of the Word. Although the entire paragraph (No. 26) warrants reflection, here are key excerpts.

“The priest is first of all a minister of the word of God. … For this reason, the priest himself ought first of all to develop a great personal familiarity with the word of God. Knowledge of its linguistic or exegetical aspects, though certainly necessary, is not enough. He needs to approach the word with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in him ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16) — such that his words and his choices and attitudes may become ever more a reflection, a proclamation and a witness to the Gospel. … The priest ought to be the first ‘believer’ in the word, while being fully aware that the words of his ministry are not ‘his,’ but those of the One who sent him. He is not the master of the word, but its servant. He is not the sole possessor of the word; in its regard he is in debt to the People of God. Precisely because he can and does evangelize, the priest — like every other member of the Church — ought to grow in awareness that he himself is continually in need of being evangelized.”

4) Gaudete et Exsultate (2018)

Pope Francis has his own unique style of preaching and teaching. He has already given the Church a large compendium of teachings worthy of deeper reflection. One of the most novel of his texts is surely his post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the “call to holiness in today’s world.” Rooted in Vatican II’s universal call to holiness, many passages of this down-to-earth document practically speak to contemporary issues. Reflection on these can help us in our ministry of calling others to take seriously this call to holiness.

“To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to

think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain” (No.14).

I hope that these few samples may spur others to consider “praying with the Tradition.” 

FATHER RONALD D. WITHERUP, PSS, is superior general of the Society of St. Sulpice and author, most recently, of “Galatians: Life in the New Creation: A Spiritual-Pastoral Commentary” (Paulist Press, 2019).

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