Embracing Penitential Prayer

Kneeling opens our hearts to the very life and love of God

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RaabPrayer is not a commodity or an accomplishment. Prayer resides in the deepest silence of our being. Prayer is a relationship with divine love, and the words we utter come from our most profound needs. We don’t pray to make us look good.

One aspect of liturgical prayer, however, is that of witness. During Lent, embodied prayer witnesses Christ’s suffering and death. We model Christ as he completely surrendered to the Father’s love. Perhaps, such bodily prayer that speaks to our people could be a source of reflection for clergy in this penitential season.

Years ago, a young outreach intern asked me why priests don’t kneel more often in public. His question came from his rage about clergy sexual abuse. He told me that penitential prayer, real repentance, is needed for our Church to heal. His work among people in poverty compelled me to listen.

I have never forgotten his insight and his anger. In Lent, perhaps it is time for us priests to take stock of our public posture of prayer, not to be haughty or self-absorbed, but to reveal love and compassion. We must humbly witness to real suffering in our generation of war, gun violence, hatred and the sex crimes of our brothers. Our public postures speak loudly.

Kneeling is not just a pious action or a source of false power; it is a moment of surrender and honesty. Kneeling does not necessarily imply inner conversion. Kneeling tells the story that we don’t have clean-cut answers on our own. Kneeling helps us surrender to our rigid opinions. Kneeling helps us discover our own need for God. Kneeling helps us listen to the struggles of our people in a penitential longing for God.

Kneeling may help us all find a new opening for dialogue and common petition. Kneeling can take on political statements, especially in sports. Kneeling should never diminish people. Kneeling should never be seen as our unworthiness of forgiveness or love. Kneeling does not reveal people as undeserving of God’s presence or mercy. Kneeling does not tell people they are worthless or shameful. Kneeling is an openness of heart to the very life and love of God.

In Lent, how do we express public lament and grief among our people? What are the postures that express such prayer? We need heart-wrenching lament that expresses our real desire for God. How we use our bodies in prayer speaks loudly among our people.

Kneeling is a manifestation of the heart. In Lent, we focus on what is stirring within our hearts. Perhaps public prayer services of lament would help us in our discussions about gun violence, the divides about abortion, the ongoing questions of LBGTQ issues of our young people and the secrets of clerical sexual and financial violence within the Church. I wonder if kneeling in the sight of God may help us realize our role as leaders. Many people seek answers in religion, but I wonder if we could ask again what the central questions might be.

On Holy Thursday, we humbly come before our people to cleanse their feet as a sign of service and reverence. We are called by Christ Jesus to assume this posture in our priestly service every day of the year. Cleansing feet is a sign of our fidelity toward Christ. Foot washing speaks to every community as an ongoing sign of service, attention and love.

Would it be possible to find ways to extend such a ritual beyond the Triduum? How does kneeling before people help us as priests find our real place among our sisters and brothers who suffer, who are elderly or widowed, or who have suffered cancer or mental anguish? Kneeling becomes the posture of a pastor throughout the year only with love.

On Good Friday we kneel toward, or kiss, or reverence, the cross in some fashion. I usually pray with my arm extended over our people as they kneel before the cross. This is my identity as a pastor. I pray for people in this way because I know the situations, stories and circumstances of so many people’s lives. At the cross, I meet my Savior in people’s suffering.

In this Lenten season I fall to my knees for our parish communities and the universal Church. As clergy, we are few, but rich in dedication. We have nothing to lose but to surrender to God’s mercy for God’s beloved people. We bend our knees under heaven to find sincere surrender to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Savior.

FATHER RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC, is the former pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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