Fr. James Martin, SJ, Has the Answer …

… to the question: How should we think about and react to confounding and discouraging developments in our Catholic family? PRAY!

Dear God, sometimes I get so frustrated with your church.

I know that I’m not alone.  So many people who love your church feel frustrated with the Body of Christ on earth.  Priests and deacons, and brothers and sisters, can feel frustrated, too.  And I’ll bet that even bishops and popes feel frustrated.  We grow worried and concerned and bothered and angry and sometimes scandalized because your divine institution, our home, is filled with human beings who are sinful.  Just like me.

But I get frustrated most of all when I feel that there are things that need to be changed and I don’t have the power to change them.

So I need your help, God.

Help me to remember that Jesus promised that he would be with us until the end of time, and that your church is always guided by the Holy Spirit, even if it’s hard for me to see.  Sometimes change happens suddenly, and the Spirit astonishes us, but often in the church it happens slowly.  In your time, not mine.  Help me know that the seeds that I plant with love in the ground of your church will one day bloom.  So give me patience.

Help me to understand that there was never a time when there were not arguments or disputes within your church.  Arguments go all the way back to Peter and Paul debating one another.  And there was never a time when there wasn’t sin among the members of your church.  That kind of sin goes back to Peter denying Jesus during his Passion. Why would today’s church be any different than it was for people who knew Jesus on earth?  Give me wisdom.

Help me to trust in the Resurrection.  The Risen Christ reminds us that there is always the hope of something new.  Death is never the last word for us.  Neither is despair.  And help me remember that when the Risen Christ appeared to his disciples, he bore the wounds of his Crucifixion.  Like Christ, the church is always wounded, but always a carrier of grace. Give me hope.

Read the rest of Fr. Jim’s prayer HERE!

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  • Julia Smucker

    Amen! I love how this prayer validates the frustrations and also puts them in perspective by reminding us of the long view. The man has a way with words.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Oy vey!! The same stuff again. To wit:

    “We grow worried and concerned and bothered and angry and sometimes scandalized because your divine institution, our home, is filled with human beings who are sinful. Just like me.”

    NO! It is not just being “sinful”. That is a giant cop-out! It is a damaged and systemic pressure on individuals who act out because of that pressure. It is not just that they are “sinful” Really, is this a group of children or adults?? The world is for adults!

  • Ivan Kauffman

    If the scandal in Rome is as bad as it appears to be we’re going to have much need of this prayer.

  • David Nickol

    What is curious about this prayer is that Fr. Martin seems already to have all the answers, and he’s just asking God to remind him of what he already knows—a rather minor role for the Almighty, it seems to me. If Fr. Martin is not actually asking God to help him accept the status quo, he’s coming very close. It seems to me the Church is in decline and perhaps even in crisis. Fr. Martin seems to be saying that the Church has always traveled a rocky road, it’s still traveling the rocky road, and not to worry.

    • Mark Gordon

      It’s clearly a homily in the form of a prayer. He needn’t remind God, that “change happens suddenly,” for instance. That’s intended for us. So take it for what it is.

      As for worry, do you worry about the Church? I don’t. Not for a minute. It seems to me that anyone who believes in the Holy Spirit shouldn’t spend one minute in worry about the Catholic Church. On the other hand, if the Holy Spirit is just a childish notion – kind of like what sin is to Peter, above – then there’s great cause for worry, even despair.

      • David Nickol


        I have become a Catholic theologian so that I have license to disbelieve in the guidance of the Holy Spirit or anything else I want. But I do like what then Cardinal Ratzinger said in a 1997 interview when asked if the Holy Spirit selected the pope:

        I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope. … I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.

        It seems to me that human freedom to err or do evil, even at the highest reaches of the Church, is very great, and the guarantees offered by guidance from the Holy Spirit are minimal. So I see good cause for even the most devout to worry about the Church.

        • Mark Gordon

          HA! Good line about becoming a Catholic theologian. David, WHAT do you worry about when it comes to the Church? If you choose to answer, start a new comment thread below to avoid the skinny column!

        • Julia Smucker

          I also like this Ratzinger quote about the “elasticity” of the Spirit’s guidance (to similarly paraphrase Andrew Greeley, it would reflect a superficial view of this to imagine deep baritone voices saying, “Vote for Wojtyla”). But I think he’s talking about freedom rather than minimalism. Yes, that freedom comes with great and many dangers, and I confess I do sometimes worry about the Church. But that’s why I need these reminders of the big picture, the long view, and the virtue of hope.

          Your first sentence, David, makes no sense to me. I know I have become a Catholic theologian to be part of a living conversation that is much bigger than me – without renouncing epistemic integrity or personal conscience, to be not just an isolated “I” but a part within the “we”. If I wanted to claim “license to disbelieve in the guidance of the Holy Spirit or anything else I want”, I would have become a Unitarian Universalist.

          In the same vein, I can’t resist sharing a poem I’ve just read by Adrienne Rich:

          In Those Years

          In those years, people will say, we lost track
          of the meaning of ‘we,’ of ‘you’
          we found ourselves
          reduced to ‘I’
          and the whole thing became
          silly, ironic, terrible:
          we were trying to live a personal life
          and yes, that was the only life
          we could bear witness to
          But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
          into our personal weather
          They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
          along the shore, through the rags of fog
          where we stood, saying I

        • Rat-biter

          “…human freedom to err or do evil, even at the highest reaches of the Church, is very great…”

          ## And yet, try saying that to many Catholics, and they are shocked. It’s as though they wanted an occasionally infallible, but always impeccable, Pope – not on offer, if the rebuke of Jesus to Peter is any guide. Lord Acton had more sense than they. Writing to Mandell Creighton, an Anglican historian & bishop, he says:

          “Here, again, what I said is not in any way mysterious or esoteric. It appeals to no hidden code. It aims at no secret moral. It supposes nothing and implies nothing but what is universally current and familiar. It is the common, even the vulgar, code I appeal to.

          Upon these two points we differ widely; still more widely with regard to the principle by which you undertake to judge men. You say that people in authority are not [to] be snubbed or sneezed at from our pinnacle of conscious rectitude. I really don’t know whether you exempt them because of their rank, or of their success and power, or of their date. The chronological plea may have some little value in a limited sphere of instances. It does not allow of our saying that such a man did not know right from wrong, unless we are able to say that he lived before Columbus, before Copernicus, and could not know right from wrong. It can scarcely apply to the centre of Christendom, 1500 after the birth of our Lord. That would imply that Christianity is a mere system of metaphysics, which borrowed some ethics from elsewhere. It is rather a system of ethics which borrowed its metaphysics elsewhere. Progress in ethics means a constant turning of white into black and burning what one has adored. There is little of that between St. John and the Victorian era.

          But if we might discuss this point until we found that we nearly agreed, and if we do argue thoroughly about the impropriety of Carlylese denunciations, and Pharisaism in history, I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.

          The standard having been lowered in consideration of date, is to be still further lowered out of deference to station. Whilst the heroes of history become examples of morality, the historians who praise them, Froude, Macaulay, Carlyle, become teachers of morality and honest men. Quite frankly, I think there is no greater error. The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history. If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then history ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth, and religion itself, tend constantly to depress. It serves where it ought to reign; and it serves the worst better than the purest.”

          Lord A. would never survive as a Catholic in today’s servile Church :(

  • Ronald King

    Welcome back Mark. First of all I really like Fr. Martin’s work and his appearances on Colbert. What bothers me in the prayer is that word “frustration”. I could be projecting, but I do not think so, when I point out that frustration is actually rage in response to being powerless to influence healthy dialogue within the dysfunctional authoritarian/narcissistic power structure of the faith we love. If that rage is inhibited or suppressed then we have a distorted expression of faith which is seen as passive or aggressive rather than a passionate love for our neighbors. The Holy Spirit’s expression becomes inhibited either way and the gift of wisdom seems lost. The rage must be validated and then it becomes transformed into a passionate expression of love for humanity in which everything is transparent individually and communally. The light which shines will be luminous and lucid.

    • Mark Gordon

      Thanks, Ronald. In my professional opinion you are indeed projecting. I could prescribe something for that, if you’d like. 😉

      Seriously, I think frustration is a perfectly natural response to a situation where one’s expectations are contradicted by the messy reality of life. I suppose that frustration can mask or lead to rage, but Fr. Martin seems to be offering a four-part antidote to that: Zoom out to 30,000 feet and see the broader context, including the perspectives of others; be grateful for the good that we have already received; trust that the Holy Spirit will bring about perfect justice in her own time and on her own terms; and make a conscious effort, like the saints, to imitate Christ in all things.

  • Jordan

    AMEN! Thank your Fr. Martin. I like the point he makes here:

    “Why would today’s church be any different than it was for people who knew Jesus on earth? Give me wisdom.”

    Give me wisdom. Holy Spirit, guide your Church, guide your people. Every time I find an instance of a bishop who’s cozying up to conservative political leaders, I have to remind myself that the Church hierarchy is a temporal institution that will inevitably seek worldly power because power corrupts. The American Church isn’t brought to us by the letters G, O, and P. Christ is brought to us in his Word incarnate, the eucharist and sacraments, and the development of consciences to hasten the face of Christ on earth. I cannot let partisanship stand in the way of my adherence to the “whole cloth” of Catholic social teaching.

    This prayer gives me the strength to act according to conviction.

    • Mark Gordon

      I agree, Jordan. I’ve written elsewhere that political partisanship – not voting for one candidate or another, but political allegiance – is the “graveyard of Christian conscience.” And not just for Republicans, but quite obviously for Democrats, as well. I’m a Catholic-firster, and I know you are, too.

  • Brandon Watson

    I think this is a very odd prayer, bordering on pharisaic if not actually crossing the border. It’s hard to read it in a way that doesn’t ultimately summarize as: “O God, help me to understand that all these points on which everyone else is wrong is due simply to their sinful nature, which, I suppose, I have too, and help me to remember that this has been the way of things since Peter denied Christ, and to be patient in finally getting across to them that I’m right while trusting that you will vindicate me in the end.”

    Of course, part of the problem is perhaps just that ‘frustrations’ is generic, whereas in fact some frustrations are rational and some are irrational, some are due to real wrongs and some due to merely imagined wrongs, some arising from virtues and some from vices. So any generic prayer of this sort is going to be something that only genuinely humble and just people could safely pray, and all the rest of us would have to qualify like crazy except under very extreme circumstances.

    • Mark Gordon

      For crying out loud, it’s just a prayer. Sheesh. Let’s hear your alternative, or do you not bother to pray about these sorts of things?

      • Brandon Watson

        There is no such thing as ‘just a prayer’; besides, you said above that it was also a homily. And, again, the Pharisee’s prayer about the publican was even more obviously ‘just a prayer’, being said from the heart.

        I don’t in fact pray for such things, and any attempt by me to do so would be forced and affected, but this is a purely temperamental thing; to pray because one is frustrated can be quite reasonable. Precisely my point, however, is that no generic prayer about frustrations is genuinely possible because they are subjective and radically different, and that genuine prayer about frustrations must be specific to the real circumstances.

  • Ronald King

    Interpretation of the first line, “Dear God, sometimes I get so frustrated with your church.” might read like, “Dear God, sometimes I cannot love some of the people in your church.”

    • Mark Gordon

      It could indeed, Ronald, and I would find such an expression beautiful because the subtext is: “I want to love, but I’m finding it difficult. Help me, Lord, to love as you do.” What on earth is wrong with that?

      • Ronald King