Monday, November 18, 2013
President Kennedy’s Gift of Language and the Art of Prayer
As the first Catholic priest to serve as chaplain of the U. S. House of Representatives, I witnessed many historic events and led moments of prayer. On January 20, 2011, Members of both chambers and both political parties gathered with the Kennedy family and their friends in Statuary Hall to mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s famous Inaugural speech.
Everyone was frozen in silence as we listened to a recording of that young, strong voice who invited Americans to celebrate “not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom – symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning – signifying renewal, as well as change.” The words chosen seemed to spring from a sacramental background even hinting at the Paschal Mystery as a means for interpreting human history.
In fact, the whole speech was framed by his belief in a living and ever-present God both at its beginning and in the end. In his first paragraph, he said: “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath … Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
Near the end of his speech he extends this Catholic vision of concern and service to a “grand and global alliance…that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind.” Then he asks: “Will you join in that historic effort?”…
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country….Knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
Kennedy’s choice of words made a great difference. As I sat there it was an affirmation of my own efforts to find secular language for prayer in Congress. So filled with a Catholic perspective of humanity, personal power, the needs of the world and the priority concern for the weak and the poor, President Kennedy’s words still stirs the heart and imagination of America.
To establish a common language for prayer I never worked to be “politically correct.” I steered clear of political issues and looked for a deeper understanding of “Divine Providence” used by the nation’s founders and more compassion for the problems facing members of Congress and our nation.
Since sworn in as chaplain, I exhort people to pray for those in government. But I am often stunned by the response – “those crooks,” “those numbskulls.” That makes me wonder if people really do pray at all for government or if they know how to draw from Kennedy’s example and find for themselves a positive way of praying. By reflection on our prayer I believe we could change the polemic in Washington and wipe away the negative attitude across the nation. When praying for government, I suggest we do two things. First, suspend judgment – leave that to The Almighty. Truly name the issues as sacrifice and let go of them as you place them before God. Name those in leadership and trust the Lord knows them – at least better than you do. Second, take steps daily to pray as someone truly free. In the presence of God, pray without an agenda. Do we really think that God needs our advice on how to settle disputed questions? Perhaps God is more interested in converting our hearts into loving care for our huge and diverse country than hearing our political opinions.
In our public prayer, we Catholics pray for the pope and bishops as well as for civic leaders because of their important positions whether we know or agree with them or not. They always need our faith-filled and hope-driven prayer.
Remember: the same Spirit which animates our prayer unites us and gifts us with peace.
Father Daniel P. Coughlin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and was the first Catholic chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, 2000-2011.