Nine years ago my son, who was brought up a Catholic and went to Catholic schools, got married in a registry office when neither he nor his wife was practising the faith. They now have three children, who are not even baptised. I have been praying for many years for their conversion but am tempted to give up. Is it worthwhile to keep on praying?
It is always worthwhile to keep on praying, for many years or even for a lifetime.
There are some prayer intentions that are of short term realisation: praying for someone to get over a severe bronchitis, to be able to buy or sell a house, to find a job when they are out of work.
Other intentions will take longer: for a couple to have a baby after several years of marriage without children, for a young man or woman to find a suitable spouse.
And other intentions require the prayer of many years: the conversion of someone who has given up the practice of the faith, the gift of faith for a non-Catholic, the return to marital life of a couple who have been separated for many years.
For how long should we keep on praying? St John Chrysostom gives us the answer: “When I tell someone, ‘Pray to God for that, ask him, beg him,’ they answer, ‘I’ve already prayed for it once, or twice, or three, or 10, or 20 times, and got nothing.’ Don’t stop, my brother, until you get it; petition ends when you receive what you are asking for. Stop praying for it only when you receive it. Better still, don’t even stop then. Until you get it, keep on praying for it; and when you have got it, thank God for it” (Homily on the Canaanite woman, 10).
We know that intentions like the conversion of someone or the return to married life of a separated couple can take many years and we should never give up praying for them. We should continue to pray daily, with great patience and perseverance, all our life if necessary. We can learn from St Monica, who for some 15 years prayed and shed many tears for her son Augustine to give up his immoral lifestyle and become a Catholic. Finally her prayers were answered.
Our Lord himself urges us to persevere in prayer, giving us two parables in the Gospel of Luke.
The first parable involves a man going at midnight to ask his neighbour for three loaves of bread because a friend has just arrived and he has nothing with which to feed him. The neighbour answers that he and his family are in bed and the door is shut so he cannot grant his request. Jesus goes on: “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you…” (Lk 11:8-9).
In other words, we should keep on insisting, pestering God until he grants us whatever is his will.
St Luke prefaces the second parable with the words: “And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Lk 18:1). He goes on: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Vindicate me against my adversary.’ For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming” (Lk 18:2-5).
Jesus goes on to ask: “And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily.
Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:7-8) The message is clear. We should continue praying day and night for as long as necessary. In this way we show Our Lord that yes, he will find faith on earth – in us. Not to continue praying is a lack of faith in the power and mercy of God.
So it is clear that that we should pray “without ceasing” as St Paul urges us (cf. Col 1:9, 1 Thess 5:17) for whatever length of time – weeks, months, years, a lifetime. That is, to continue praying until our prayer is answered.
God always hears and answers us. Even if we do not receive the answer we want, the longer we pray the more we grow in holiness by virtue of the prayer itself. This in itself is an answer to our prayer.
Sometimes Our Lord may let us pray for a long time without giving us what we want, precisely because he sees how much good the prayer is doing us.