Notre Dame Mass in New York City, Shamrock Series

Notre Dame Mass in New York City, Shamrock Series
St. Patrick's Cathedral

November 17, 2018

Gospel: Luke 18:1-8

We are here in New York on a great day when we enjoy our family, friends and the whole Notre Dame family. We all take time out of a busy, exciting day to gather here at the historic St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in this busy, bustling city. In the midst of all this activity, in our lives in and the city around us, we take time out for prayer. We bring ourselves — with all our joys, cares and concerns — before God in prayer.

Why do we do this? We could have slept in. We could have started the festivities earlier. In today’s Gospel, Jesus reflects on perseverance in prayer, and approaching prayer with true faith. He tells the story of the widow who sought justice from a judge who had neither fear of God nor respect for human beings. But because of the widow’s persistence, he renders a just decision to the woman just to stop her pestering.

“How much more will God do for those who call out to him in prayer?” Jesus asks.

Sometimes, though, we find that we do bring our concerns to God with great persistence, but things do not seem to change. We pray for the friend with cancer, for the family member who is struggling, or for a burden to be removed from our life. We pray faithfully, and we pray hard. Yet, it often happens that the friend is not healed, the family member continues in her or his struggles, or the burden is not lifted from our shoulders. We were just as persistent in prayer as the widow in today’s Gospel, and we did not get what we asked for.

Perhaps, though, God does in fact answer our prayers, but not in the way we asked. There is a lovely book entitled “Grotto Stories,” containing many wonderful stories about peoples’ experience of prayer at the Grotto at Notre Dame. One story is of a young man in his senior year at Notre Dame during the height of the Vietnam War. He knew that he would be eligible for the draft when he graduated. At that time, there was a lottery, broadcast on radio and TV, that assigned draft numbers by birth dates. If your birthday was drawn early in that lottery, you could be sure that you would be drafted and sent to Vietnam. If your birthday was drawn later, there was a good chance you would avoid the draft.

Right before the drawing, this young man went to the Grotto to pray that his birthday would be chosen late, and he would not be sent to Vietnam. “Please, Lord,” he pleaded, “do not let my birthday be drawn early. Let someone else’s be drawn and let them be drafted.”

He paused and was silent for a moment, and in that moment he heard a voice in his mind saying, “Like who? Who do you want me to send in your place?”

He knew at that moment that he had God’s answer: He would be going to Vietnam. When he went back to his dorm room, he learned that his birthday was the very first one chosen. Despite that, he felt great peace and closeness to God. He knew the path God had chosen for him, and that God would give him the strength to walk it.

This is the thing about prayer: We go to prayer to ask God to change the world around us — to remove a burden, to heal a disease, to help a family member. But if we come to prayer with faith and an open heart, we often find the prayer does not so much change the thing we are praying about, but it changes us. God does not take away the burden, but gives us the strength to bear it. He does not heal the friend with cancer, but give us the strength to walk with that person. He does not change the family member so much, but helps us be steadfast in loving them.

Our prayers are often answered, but answered in God’s way, not ours. Prayer gives us a heart open to the answer God gives us, and to find strength, peace and even joy in that answer.

There is a beautiful prayerful reflection that captures this truth about prayer. It was composed by a nameless Confederate soldier during the Civil War. It goes as follows:

I asked for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I had asked for,
but everything that I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered;
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

Notre Dame is a special place for so many reasons. It is special because of the beautiful campus, our superb faculty, the strong community and our championship athletic teams. Yet I believe that what most makes it special is that at the heart of campus — at the Grotto, the Basilica, the many chapels — there is genuine prayer. There are places where people bring their deepest concerns, hopes, longings and present them to God. And God responds, often not by changing the world around them, but by changing their hearts.

Let us ask as we go on with Mass that we open our hearts to God in faith and that He might enable us to accept what He gives us. And I pray in thanksgiving for each one of you for being here this morning to do what we do at Notre Dame: to join in prayer together.