On 16 March 1978, the Italian politician Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Italian Red Brigade on his way to a session of the House of Representatives in Italy He was a close friend of Pope Paul VI. Behind the scenes, the Pope was a main player seeking his release, even secretly offering a large ransom for his freedom. In St. Peter’s Square, the pope voiced his anguish, “do not despair, we pray: Holy Virgin, Queen of the Heavens, Give strength to our intercession [and] to your prayers.” But the reply was silence. In May of that same year, Moro was killed. When he presided at his friend’s funeral Mass Paul VI’s anguish was so great that when the missal was presented to him for the Opening Prayer, he did something without precedent. He cast the missal aside, and from the depths of his heart, he pronounced his own prayer:
“And who can listen to our lament, if not you, O God of life and death? You did not hearken to our supplication for the safety of Aldo Moro, this good, meek, wise, innocent and friendly man; but you, O Lord, have not abandoned his immortal spirit, sealed by faith in Christ, who is the resurrection and the life.”
It was a prayer both of prophetic disillusionment and at the same time one of Resurrection hope. I know of no other prayer by a pope more powerful than this one. Three months later Paul VI himself had died.
This experience of Paul VI highlights for us the question, “Does God listen to our prayer?” We come before God with anxious, ardent hearts longing that he might hear and answer our need. We hear the declaration in today’s gospel, “You may ask what you will, and you shall get it.” But when we do ask, the response is often of silence, and we are left disheartened in our need. Are our prayers ever effective? The temptation to form a conclusion about God’s disinterest, or even of God’s existence, cannot be avoided. The silence in response to our prayer exposes us.
Sooner or later in our relationship with God this is the question we must confront because it raises all our presuppositions about the nature of prayer and about the nature of God. It forces us to ask about the essence of prayer, and the question, “Who is God?” I reflect on the experience of being at the bedside of a young girl of 16 who, on her way to work, suffered a freak car accident. She had been brought into intensive care with little chance of survival. As her anguished family arrived, it became apparent that she was medically dead. Technology kept her breathing and her heart pumping, but her brain activity had ceased. In their anguish, her distraught family prayed with all their heart for the girl to recover. To the observer, it is clear she wouldn’t. Inevitably, therefore, it was only a matter of time before the family would be asked to agree to turn off life support. And the time came.
What had happened to this family’s prayer? Had it made a difference? This is the question with which many of them struggled. For some of them, their prayer made no difference to the situation, though it made a huge difference to them. Some of them could no longer believe in a God who might allow such an innocent person to suffer. Other family members continued to believe but the silence of God was interpreted as God being non-caring or even as punishing.
Though hopefully we might be spared this kind of trauma, nonetheless, sooner or later each of us must face the same question, even if in less dramatic circumstances. Life’s experiences keep pushing the boundaries of our sense of God, keep forcing us to confront the images of God we have had in our life, keep testing their adequacy. And as our sense of God is tested so is our understanding of prayer. For our practice of prayer flows directly from our imagination about God. If we imagine God, even subtly, in mechanistic terms, as the divine operator, presiding in control over the universe and its laws, and who, by persuasion, can manipulate creation, then our prayer becomes one of continuous intercession and expectation, with either delight at the achieved results or resignation at the failure to achieve what we so desperately need.
“You may ask what you will, and you shall get it.” I want to suggest that it is in the very confounding of the expectation in this statement of Jesus that we find its meaning. We don’t always get what we ask for. And it is this that precisely forces us to confront the question about God. Who are you? “Who am I?” “I am the powerless One. I am the crucified One. I am the One who suffers with you in your questions and in your agony.”
In sharing this once with a woman in the hospital, she replied, “Well, what good is that to me? I feel so powerless and helpless. I need someone who has more power than me, who can deliver me from my helplessness. If God is as vulnerable as me, what hope do I have? I am just left where I am.” To be honest, I would have to answer yes – with this reply to our prayer we are left where we are in some ways. What has changed, though, is that in this extraordinary reply to our prayer we are no longer alone. AnOther is with us in our suffering, One is with us in companionship and compassion. And it this that makes all the difference. When we know we are not alone, when we know anOther is with us, for us, yes in a communion of life with us as the vine is with its branches, we experience our deepest dignity. In this dignity, we are given the courage to make those decisions we, ourselves, need to make. We are given the hope to realize that there is always another horizon, a new beginning even in death. We are given the inspiration to continue to go out in love. With this reply to our prayer God is no longer the remote force of destiny that we must call out upon but now God is now one with us in our suffering and so we are enabled to continue loving even in the midst of our suffering. It is this that makes all the difference to us and to our world.
So often our prayer can be a way of escaping that life is unpredictable and, at times, even harsh. At times, our prayer can be an abdication of what should be our own responsibility, an avoidance of our own legitimate authorship of life. The apparent silence of God disallows us those luxuries. It forces us back into life –as it is – and to what decisions and actions properly belong to us.
But in the intimacy that we now have, all manner of things become possible.
 See Clive Gillis, “Paul VI and the murder of Aldo Moro: the sleeping past stirs,” British Church Newspaper 10 November 2006,http://www.ianpaisley.org/article.asp?ArtKey=paulvi, accessed 2 May 2015
 See Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, “Paul VI’s ‘Last Homily’” in National Catholic Register, 3 May 2015, http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/paul_vis_last_homily1/, accessed 2 May 2015.
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