When Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world and announced that he’d be the first pope in six centuries to retire, primarily due to declining health and increasing infirmities, tens, if not hundreds of millions of people around the world (mostly Catholics) prayed for the pope’s well-being. At which point the pontiff slapped himself on the head and said, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
That’s a joke. The Pope didn’t say that. (At least I don’t think so). In fact, the odds are pretty good that he’d been praying about his health for quite some time. Which made me wonder what those tens of millions of others thought they were accomplishing by praying for him. I mean, the pope’s one of a handful of beings on the planet who is supposedly on God’s speed-dial. If the Almighty hadn’t interceded to boost Benedict’s immune systems by now, even with all the cardinals joining the choir, why would He intervene because some shoemaker in Poland suddenly beseeches Him? Or is the mentality that it’s like those White House online petitions, where if enough people sign on, the President himself responds? That Jim Morrison was wrong, and you can “petition the Lord with prayer?”
Personally, I think prayer has gotten a free ride for way too long. (milleniums, actually). I’ve had folks pray for me, usually to change my ways and against my will. Never worked, thank God. Governor Rick Perry invoked a “prayer day” to end the devastating drought in Texas, but “Big God” proved no more effective than Big Government. Millions flock to Lourdes every year to be healed, but even the Vatican only records 23 cases ever where it ascribes a “cure” to divine intervention. Two popes ago, when John Paul II (popes and Superbowls, the last two uses for roman numerals) was ill and lingered on for over a month, hundreds of millions prayed daily for him. The net result was his condition deteriorated exactly as you would expect for any man his age.
If any medicine or therapy had this “failure” rate, the FDA or some other government agency would’ve cracked down on it years ago. Actually, in one regard, it has, prosecuting Christian Scientist parents who relied exclusively on God to heal their sick child (and subsequently died). Otherwise “prayer” never has to prove its effectiveness. Christopher Hitchens, when he was dying of cancer, expressly “forbid” folks from praying for him, in part because if somehow his cancer did go into remission, he didn’t want anyone being fooled into giving “God” the credit.
Yes, I know: prayer is also meant to “comfort,” which is why we engage in it so much after a tragedy, like the Sandy Hook massacre. But it’s the outpouring of caring from the community that delivers any succor: the praying is superfluous.
But that’s precisely why prayer’s had such a long run: it gets credit for things that would (or wouldn’t) have happened anyway. The guy sitting next to me on the plane crossing himself before take-off arrives safely, but so do I, a blasphemous heathen. The religious and atheists alike both meet their “soul mates,” but only the former gush, “She was the answer to my prayers.” And in those many, many instances where the outcome is not the one prayed for, it’s dismissed as “God said ‘no,’” or Him working in those darned “mysterious ways” He seems so oddly fond of.
So people will continue to pray for Benedict XVI. Some for his quick recovery, some for him to change his mind and stay on, and no doubt some anti-popists, for his rapid demise. In the end, they will all seemingly cancel each other out, and nature will take its usual course. No one will notice, and nothing will change.