PEORIA, Ill. – It began as three men deciding they needed to pray more for the priesthood. Encouraged by papal biographer George Weigel and a Chicago commodities trader, it's now grown into a nationwide response to the past year's Church scandals.

Two priests and a layman from the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., have composed a Pentecost novena for priests in a “back-to-the-future” effort to move the Church into renewal by returning to the simplest prayer.

Father Christopher Layden, associate pastor of the Church of St. Patrick in Ottawa, Ill., and the two others wrote the prayer for priestly renewal, obtained ecclesiastical approval from Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria and secured a Web site, www.novenaforpriests.com, to circulate the novena as widely as possible. The novena is to begin May 31.

Father Layden was encouraged by writer and ethicist Weigel, whom he met while still a seminarian at the North American College in Rome, when Weigel was working on the papal biography Witness to Hope. Weigel devoted his April 23 column to this “nationwide surge of prayer” and asked others to pass it on.

Chicago commodities trader Chris Skokna did – quickly. When he found the novena Web site, he immediately e-mailed it to 25 people.

“Everyone should welcome this,” Skokna said. “It's so charitable, praying for our priests.”

His parish, St. John Vianney in Northlake, Ill., is planning to pray the novena as well.

“It's a beautiful prayer, and [it] calls for an active faith,” pastor Father Charles Fanelli said.

One of the novena's earliest supporters, Bishop David Ricken of Cheyenne, Wyo., is planning to connect it with a pilgrim statue of St. John Vianney he is acquiring from the saint's shrine in Ars, France. In the coming months, the statue and novena will travel throughout the Cheyenne Diocese in an ongoing prayer vigil for priestly renewal. In the meantime, Bishop Ricken is circulating the novena prayer and Web site to all his parishes to join in the Pentecost effort.

Father Layden said he and the two others decided in late March to pray a novena together “for the renewal of the priesthood in the United States.”

On the first day, Father Layden realized this work was much bigger than the three of them. “Millions should be praying it!” he recalled thinking. At Mass that day, he was inspired to take the initiative nationwide.

“[Weigel] always said we are the future of the Church,” the young priest recalled. “He told us to ‘rise up, and do it now!’ Recently, he told me to be magnanimous in the apostolate for priests.”

Father Layden decided the time had come.

“For well over the past year, we have been listening to lawyers, psychologists, committees and the media,” he said. “But, I wondered when we were going to bring God into this. Reform is vital, but true reform will only come from above.”

The Church scandal, Father Layden believes, is a crisis of personal holiness.

“The media uncovered one aspect of the problem, but that's a manifestation of the bigger picture,” he said. “The priesthood is in crisis. We have a generation of priests who, for the most part, have not been formed to pray. And there's something fundamentally wrong when priests aren't praying.”

Father Michael Lane, pastor of Visitation Church in Elmhurst, Ill., outside Chicago, had been agonizing over that problem for months.

“I have been saying all my rosary meditations for the needs of the priesthood, that this nonsense ends,” Father Lane said. “We hear a lot about vengeance but not about reconciliation. The heart of the problem is that so many priests and people aren't praying. They're looking for other answers to ease their troubles. But what is going to make the difference is that we pray.”

We are being forced to pray by this very crisis, observed Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, former rector of the North American College and author of Priests for the Third Millennium.

“The Lord brings good from evil,” Archbishop Dolan said. “One of my priests told me this scandal and all the turmoil around it has grounded him, and I think that's true for all priests. It has brought him to his knees, first of all. Then it has moved him to rediscover what his priesthood is, to rediscover humility. And in all this he has rediscovered the essential value of prayer.”

The value of “simplistic prayer,” as Father Layden puts it, has largely been lost in an age of activism.

“Americans have the tendency to speak before thinking, to ‘do’ before praying,” he said. “We are a country of activists. But this prayer initiative requires us to just pray it and listen. It's God's opportunity to tell us what he wants us to do.”

The simpler the prayer, the more you know it is from God, Father Lane noted.

“There has to be no other answer,” he said. “If something happens to bring about balance, it will be because first we prayed. Anything done without that will fail. Renewal is not going to come about because of activity. It has got to be through prayer.”

One of his parishioners admitted that for Americans, that might be a new concept.

“People always have to be busy doing something,” said Dr. Lawrence Bennett of Elmhurst. “It helps us not to have to look inward, to face our own need for reconciliation. We've compromised too much with society and need to return to our roots, to personal holiness. This novena is beautiful. It's an excellent effort. We need holy people to lead the Church, not just administrators. We have to be drawn back to prayer to get holier priests and holier bishops. It's a renewal. It has been done before, but it's time to do it again.”

Father Layden recalled when St. Francis of Assisi heard God's call to build his Church in a time of crisis.

“From crises, there have arisen great saints historically,” he noted. “But that remains a cliché until you say, ‘It's going to be me; let's rise above this.’ We need to be St. John Vianneys [the patron saint of parish priests].”

“I'm thrilled about it and welcome it, especially the power of a novena prayer in preparation for Pentecost,” Archbishop Dolan said. “It is an especially cogent way to pray for priests. God is particularly moved when people pray together. I love it! I expect great things will come of this.”

Father Layden is praying for that, too.

“Through this novena, we want thousands and millions of voices asking God, ‘What is it that you want us to do to grow in faith?’ We hope this is the beginning of listening to God.”

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas writes from Chicago.