Does intercessory prayer work?

No, says Dr. Charles Bethea, principal investigator of a study completed earlier this year on bypass-surgery patients at the Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, Okla. “Those receiving blinded prayer fared the same as those who were not prayed for,” he told reporters after his study was released in American Heart Journal.

Yes, says Dr. Randolph Byrd, a cardiologist whose widely publicized 1988 study concluded that intercessory prayer — petitions to God said on others’ behalf — had a beneficial effect on patients being prayed for in the coronary-care unit at San Francisco General Hospital.

Yes again, says William Harris, Ph.D., who documented similarly positive outcomes in a 1999 study at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. Its conclusion: Intercessory prayer seems to be an efficacious supplement to medical treatment for people with serious cardiac conditions.

Other contradicting studies have been done and, taking them all as a whole, a reasonable person can only come to one conclusion: Science will never be able to prove one way or the other whether or not intercessory prayer “works” in the way science expects it to.

Which leads to the question: What is science doing “studying” prayer, anyway? Until it comes up with empirical criteria for detecting things like salvation and sanctification, science should probably stay out of the realm of the spirit altogether.

Meanwhile, Catholics know for certain that good things come to those who pray as well as those who are prayed for. Health and wealth? Not always. Interior, intangible benefits? Every time.

“Pray for one another, that you may be healed,” wrote St. James to the Church (James 5:16). “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.”

“We have had remarkable favors reported through Father Michael McGivney’s intercession,” says Dominican Father Gabriel O’Donnell, postulator for the causes for sainthood for both Father McGivney (founder of the Knights of Columbus) and Rose Hawthorne (Dominican Mother Mary Alphonsa).

Some intercessions can even be classified as miracles, he says, with many reports of extraordinary healings, jobs found, families reconciled and relationships healed.

Indeed, among the testimonials posted at, a man in Canada writes that he was praying for help for his wife who hadn’t been to confession in more than 10 years. “In March we were on vacation in Florida and heard a missionary priest speak on this sacrament,” the testimony goes. “Father McGivney brought my wife back to [confession].” Another credits a new job to the saintly priest’s intercession.

“Father McGivney is obviously a person one turns to for needs of families, or especially men who are trying to be better fathers or husbands,” says Father O’Donnell. (Clearly, some intercessors have specialties.)

Obviously, all prayer is addressed to God, the priest points out. “Those in heaven we call friends of God are right before the throne of God, looking to the face of God,” he adds. “They can speak to God for us, they can ask him to give the grace to be receptive to his will, his plans for us.”

Intercessory prayer can start on this end of the communion of saints, the Church Militant.

Take the Divine Mercy Intercessory Prayer Ministry in Stockbridge, Mass., where people request help by phone (800-804-3823) or e-mail ( All the ministry’s intercessors have a devotion to the Divine Mercy and the Blessed Mother, and they pray with the person or in front of the Blessed Sacrament at the chapel of their “Prayerline.”

Administrator Cathy Chichester has lists of people who call back to give thanks for favors received.

A sampling begins with a woman in excruciating pain from damaged spinal discs. She didn’t know how she could baby-sit her grandchildren while dealing with that kind of discomfort. “An hour after calling in her request for prayer, she called back,” says Chichester. “The pain had disappeared and [still] has not returned. Praise God!”

Another caller asked for prayers for a young man in a coma. He got back a week later to say the man was not only out of the coma but home from the hospital, too.

A third person needed prayers for an expectant mother: Two sonograms had indicated the baby would be born with club feet. When that caller called back, it was to report that the baby had been born perfectly healthy, leaving the doctors scratching their heads.

“We really have an obligation to intercede for others,” says Father O’Donnell. “Part of Christian charity is to pray for our neighbor. When I pray for my neighbor, God listens and hears my prayers. It has an effect.”

Children Lead

In Rapid City, S.D., Dan and Karrie Duffy and their seven children, ages 3 to 15, have learned about the power of intercessory prayer as a family.

“We started when the kids were pretty young.” Dan explains. “They developed a comfort level knowing that intercessory prayer is an important thing to do during our night prayers.”

Karrie describes how everybody gets to voice intercessions, from family concerns to intentions for the whole community. Because of the longstanding practice, the Duffy children already recognize some fruits of their prayers for their family as well as their friends and community.

In one case, the children worried about their paternal grandmother, a lifetime smoker. They wanted to see her kick the habit. “Many times the kids would remember to pray for that intention without our prompting,” says Dan. After years of prayer, Grandmother did quit smoking.

“They felt that was something that had been answered,” says Karrie.

Dan adds, “The kids saw that their prayers and others’ prayers could have an impact.”

Then they recently saw two delightful favors — one that helped many see the might of intercessory prayer. It began when Dan and Karrie announced to their children they were going to have a new baby. “One of our daughters was praying on her own that we would have another” family member, recounts Karrie. No one knew but the pray-er, 11-year-old Moira, who was delighted to no end when her prayers were answered.

Then, explains Karrie, Moira told a girlfriend who also wanted a new sister or brother: “You just have to start praying at night and God will answer your prayers.” Shortly after, her friend’s parents announced they were going to adopt.

The Duffys found a wonderful lesson in this episode.

“Sometimes, God chooses to answer our prayers in a different way” than hoped for or expected, says Karrie. “We must learn to accept those kinds of answers, too.”

The Duffy children also intercede for their extended community. Dan explains that, on their own, the older children started adding a Hail Mary to their bedtime prayers about a state death-penalty case that received a lot of attention in the media and from their bishop.

“The kids were praying the man’s sentence would be commuted,” says Dan. “They understood the terrible things he had done, but they also understood that the death sentence is not the answer.” With four hours to go, the governor granted a stay of execution.

“The older kids looked at that as intercessory prayer having an effect,” Dan explains. “It helped our kids see how, when the faith community becomes involved behind a particular issue, both in intercessory prayer and actively, it can have an impact.”

The impact of intercessory prayer shows up in another way, close to home. First, Karrie finds that, even when kids of widely varying ages are involved, the practice can unify the whole family.

Second, she says, “The children hand things over to God. It’s more peaceful at night because of the comfort they find.”

Intercessory prayer changes lives. Let’s see science attempt to refute that obvious fact.


Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.