Mending a Torn Nation Through Prayer: US Catholics Commit to Pre-Election Initiatives
Catholic organizations recognizing the power of prayer are contributing their own petitions online to the public to prepare for the November elections — and to help address both the long-standing civic discord and recent riots plaguing the country.
The United States of America may for many people in these final days before the November elections seem more like the Untied States of America. But, despite the fractured state of U.S. social, civic and political life, Catholics are taking to prayer to help heal and unify the country.
Throughout the nation, Catholics in large and small ways are petitioning Christ and his Mother to bring unity to the country by touching hearts and voting for laws and leadership conducive to the common good.
U.S. bishops in their dioceses are mobilizing opportunities for prayer, and several large-scale events initiated by the laity around the U.S. have also highlighted this effort at unity, including Rosary rallies and Eucharistic processions in towns and cities and on Catholic campuses.
Catholic organizations recognizing the power of prayer are contributing their own petitions online to the public to prepare for the November elections — and to help address both the long-standing civic discord and recent riots plaguing the country. The Knights of Columbus offers a novena to the Holy Trinity at its website, KofC.org, which was first drafted for the 2016 election, and the Eternal Word Television Network provides “An Election Prayer to Mary” for the faithful to download at its website, EWTN.com.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB.org) has also made a push for unity through prayer a top concern and issued a trio of prayers — the “Novena for Faithful Citizenship,” “Prayer Before an Election” and “Prayer After an Election” — in conjunction with the “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” document to encourage greater unity in the U.S. through Christian witness and God’s graces.
One and Equal in Prayer
The USCCB’s “Prayer Before an Election” strikes the note of unity by asking God “for eyes that are free from blindness so that we might see each other as brothers and sisters, one and equal in dignity …”
Emily Schumacher-Novak, assistant director of education and outreach for the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, spoke with the Register about the “Prayer Before an Election,” explaining, “The prayer is a plea that we may see each person for what they truly are — a beloved child of God — and work so that each of God’s beloved children might thrive.”
The prayer seeks God’s wisdom in making the right decision in the ballot box that will support policies that support the Church’s mission and uphold human dignity, including an end to racism, a welcoming immigration policy — and especially protection for the unborn.
“We are called to prayerfully uphold policies that do all these things which contribute to the common good, as is highlighted in the prayer,” Schumacher-Novak said, adding, “Prayer, in general, is an important place to start when we are answering the call to form our consciences. Along with study of Church teaching, Scripture and consultation with experts, prayer is a foundational part of being a faithful citizen.”
The USCCB also recently inaugurated “Civilize It,” an initiative which represents, according to its website, “a non-partisan call to focus on the dignity of all people, even when we disagree, and to put faith in action by bearing witness to a better way forward.”
The USCCB hopes that “Civilize It” helps Americans find unity and healing by starting on a personal level, Schumacher-Novak said.
“We are … called to remember the human dignity of those we disagree with, even if we disagree for very good reasons,” she said, referring to the goal of “Civilize It.”
“Each person is a beloved child of God and is one of our brothers and sisters. Prayer helps to open our hearts so we can love like Jesus loves, and we must love one another despite our disagreements,” she explained.
Christ to the World
Franciscan Father David Pivonka, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, agrees that disagreement these days has become all too rancorous and uncharitable, especially in social media — and he cites Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, in which the Holy Father notes, “Social aggression has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices.”
If the country has any hope for unity, it must learn again how to disagree with civility and respect, Father Pivonka told the Register.
“I think at the heart of it is that we’ve lost any ability to disagree,” he said, adding that “we no longer believe as a culture in objective truth, and the individual determines what is true. If I determine what is true and someone disagrees with me, I take it so personally because I was the source of that ‘truth.’”
Nonetheless, Catholics must strive for unity with their neighbors, Father Pivonka said, although not as a kind of unity for its own-sake or at the expense of Catholic principles.
“Unity is important to us because it was important to Jesus,” he said. “We find Jesus praying time and time again, ‘may they be one, Father’” (John 17:21).
In following Jesus’ lead, Father Pivonka said, faithful Catholics can find that, within the Church and in American political life, prayer as a source of unity offers a chance for “self-reflection” and “allows us to be able to take a minute and stop and look at ourselves.”
“So prayer should allow us to be humble before the Lord and recognize what needs to be changed and transformed in me,” he said. “That’s not to say there’s never a time or place to be looking externally — some things are wrong in our country and need to be addressed and fixed. But even in that, if one isn’t deeply rooted in prayer and allowing the Lord to work in our hearts … if it’s ultimately not done in charity, it won’t be effective.”
Heal the Land
To that end, the Franciscan University community is preparing for a campus-wide day of prayer and fasting on the Friday before Election Day, Oct. 30, “so that God’s will is ultimately done,” Father Pivonka said.
“There’s a part of me that is anxious about what happens with the results of this election, regarding how our country is going to be able to deal with it,” he added. “One of the intentions on this day of prayer and fasting is that we will all be at peace with the whole process.”
Franciscan University also participated on Oct. 3 in a Mass celebrated by Bishop Jeffrey Montforton of Steubenville and a Eucharistic procession, which the bishop led from campus to downtown Steubenville as part of the recent nationwide “Unite the Nation” events.
According to Father Pivonka, who offered the homily at the Oct. 3 Mass, the Steubenville “Unite the Nation” event allowed the Catholic university to put its prayers into action.
“One of the things someone said to me is that they were so pleased we brought Christ off the campus to the community,” he told the Register. “Obviously, I’m partial to St. Francis of Assisi — and he said that the world was his cloister. We can’t live our Christian lives behind walls. We have to take Christ out and make him present.”
That desire to make Christ present to the world — and especially the most wounded and divided parts of America — is exactly what “Unite Our Nation” events seek to accomplish, said Kevin O’Brien, one of the founders of the organization.
According to its website, “Unite Our Nation” was founded by Catholic laity “to help bring peace and prayer to local communities and healing to our nation. … In unison with our bishops and priests, we help the faithful plan processions throughout our country, as a balm to violence and fear.” O’Brien said that “Unite Our Nation” began as “Unite Wisconsin” with a Rosary rally in Madison, Wisconsin, on the Solemnity of the Assumption, Aug. 15.
“We had 3,000 people show up at that first event,” including Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee and Bishop Donald Hying of Madison, O’Brien told the Register. Organizers changed the name to “Unite Our Nation” when they saw the potential to make the event a template for similar events around the nation, he added, explaining that the event usually involves a downtown Eucharistic procession and a recitation of the Rosary. O’Brien estimates that there are almost 50 local iterations of “Unite Our Nation” around the country, “and the list keeps growing.”
“Our hope is that, by doing this, God sends down his grace upon us, heals our land, and we are able to really witness to building this unity amongst our countrymen,” O’Brien said. “This is a good country; we’re not perfect, but we want the good. We want to bring God back because that’s how our country was founded — under God. We want to be united under God, and that’s what we believe when we do this.”
“Our people are full of anxiety and fear. And because we actually showed Christian courage, we went into the streets,” O’Brien said.
“‘Unite Our Nation’ is Eucharistic, so we’re begging God for intercession; taking Christ to Mary and asking Mary by praying the Rosary. It’s that countercultural witness — instead of ‘Let’s divide,’ we are saying, ‘Let’s unite.’”
Unity in Christ Alone
In the Lone Star State, Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, told the Register by email that he is preparing his flock for the upcoming elections by following in his predecessors’ footsteps, who every four years since the diocese was founded in 1987 “have promoted various prayer opportunities” during a presidential election year.
“I have called the people to focus on prayer and fasting, as I am sure many bishops have,” he told the Register. “The first week of October we offered a Diocesan Rosary Congress that involved praying the Rosary and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in each of our seven deaneries in at least one parish. It was very well received.”
The Diocese of Tyler is also participating in a 40-days devotion concluding the diocese’s Year of the Eucharist, which began on Oct. 13, the 103rd anniversary of the final apparition of Our Lady, and will continue to the end of the liturgical year on Nov. 22, the Solemnity of Christ the King.
“These 40 days are focused on the election and on healing the brokenness in our nation due to COVID-19 and all of its repercussions,” Bishop Strickland said.
According to Bishop Strickland, the greatest obstacle to authentic and lasting unity is not found in the political sphere but in the transcendent reality of God among us.
“We are living through a time when it is very popular to deny God,” he said. “If God truly does not exist, then unity among human beings is as meaningless as is the rest of existence. But if we know God does exist, then we know that we are all created by him and thus being more united with God in prayer will logically draw us to a greater unity with each other.”
Bishop Strickland emphasized that political activity by itself can do nothing to further national unity without the more profound unity offered by Christ.
“We do have to remember that no elected official, whether president, representative or governor, will save us,” he said. “Sometimes in the heated political rhetoric from all sides one can get the impression that this or that candidate is our salvation. As people of faith we always need to remember that Jesus Christ is Savior of the world and that he is our only savior.”
For a bishop especially, he added, the question of unity can only be answered through the truths of the Catholic faith, which are unified only and ever in the truth who is Christ.
“As a bishop I constantly work at guarding the deposit of faith, which I promised to guard when I was ordained; but many bishops, priests and laity have rejected significant elements of the deposit of faith,” he said. “In order to have any hope of greater unity in our human community, we have to overcome these basic divisions. Even as I write this I have the feeling that the task is simply beyond us. Maybe acknowledging that the chasm that divides us is beyond our capabilities to solve is an important step toward our only real hope of unity, unity under God.”
Editor’s Note: This is a longer version of the Oct. 25 print edition story. Compiled by Joseph O'Brien