The (Often Unseen) Power of Intercessory Prayer
A basic tenet of our faith is that prayer is powerful. Unfortunately, and all too often, we do not live as if we believe this. I cannot count how many times I have prayed without confidence, without attention, and without expectation. It is an easy trap in which to fall. Yet, prayer of intercession offers us a beautiful opportunity to bless others and to be renewed by the grace of Jesus.
Intercessory prayer can be defined as a prayer of petition on another’s behalf. As such, it is a request we make for another’s benefit. The Catechism states that, “In intercession, he who prays looks ‘not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,’ even to the point of praying for those who do him harm” (CCC 2635). Intercession is then an attempt to intervene or beseech a blessing for another as we ask for a gratuitous gift of God because of his love for us.
The Two-Fold Power of Intercessory Prayer
Intercessory prayer has a two-fold power. First, it looks to the interest of others. It seeks the good, even for those that may do us harm, and the benefit to others is obvious. It can bring about healing, conversion, and employment. It can help the barren conceive. In fact, our faith teaches us that “When we share in God's saving love, we understand that every need can become the object of petition” (CCC 2633).
However, intercessory prayer can also have a profound impact upon us, as we are often changed by the process of intercession. This may be less obvious, but no less real. The Catechism states that, "...by prayer of petition we express awareness of our relationship with God. We are creatures who are not our own beginning, not the masters of adversity, not our own last end. We are sinners who as Christians know that we have turned away from our Father. Our petition is already a turning back to him" (CCC 2629).
Hence, the act of intercession, is a recognition of our relationship to God. Oftentimes this requires us to reorient ourselves and recognize our own limitations, insufficiencies, and dependencies. This is a necessary reorientation that must be repeated routinely for all Christians (especially in the modern world), where we often have the power to control and conform the world to our will. The beauty is that when we do reorient ourselves, “Intercession … leads us to pray as Jesus did (CCC 2634).
When Intercessory Prayer Doesn't Work
If intercessory prayer is so powerful, why doesn’t it always work? St. Augustine once answered this question by giving 3 reasons. First, we pray for the wrong things. The Catechism states that, “Christian petition is centered on the desire and search for the Kingdom to come…” (CCC 2632). Unfortunately, our immediate desires are not always in accord with the search for the Kingdom to come. Sometimes, we pray for things that are not in our own best interest. Sometimes the things we want, if received may lead to unknown spiritual loss.
Second, we pray in the wrong state. Often we pray while living in a state of persistent sin or at least without repentance. “The first movement of the prayer of petition is asking forgiveness…” (CCC 2631). Intercessory prayer can be a powerful means of bringing forgiveness into the world.
I would like to propose a powerful spiritual practice. Pray and intercede for those who have harmed you. It should be noted that this does not mean we have to forget or ignore the harm or even like the person for whom we are praying. However, when you begin to pray for the good of those who have harmed you, your heart begins to soften. You begin to see their actions in a different light. You begin to take their actions less personally, attribute less ill intent, and even begin to gain understanding. All these are the first fruits of a forgiveness that will release you from the harm your pain and anger can do to yourself. In this manner, intercessory prayer offers a path to freedom.
Finally, St. Augustine says that we ask in the wrong way. What does this mean? Often we don’t pray with confidence and perseverance. Boy does this hit home for me. All too often, I pray not really expecting anything to happen or am dissuaded by things not happening fast enough. I don’t pray with consistency and perseverance. I pray for others one day and not the next. My forgetfulness is a sign of my lack of earnest confidence that my prayer matters because I have not truly learned to “pray as Jesus did” or with a complete charity for others. As an action point, I would add that if you want to multiply the power of your intercession, add fasting to your prayer for others. Our parish priest never ceases to speak of the great wonders that have been accomplished by prayer accompanied by fasting.
Two of my favorite types of intercessory prayer are prayer for healing and prayer for conversions. There are numerous examples of healings, both in Scripture and church history, which can be attributed to the intercessory prayer. However, secular evidence also exists. Studies have shown that patients who are visited and prayed for obtain better outcomes than control group patients who do not receive prayer. While these healings are often not complete, the benefits are real none the less.
If you still need to be convinced of the power of intercessory prayer, I would recommend the book “Healing: Bringing the Gift of God's Mercy to the World” by Mary Healy. It provides insightful teaching on how and why we should pray for others and is also filled with numerous examples of real-life fruits of intercessory prayer.