Amid violence and natural disasters, power of group prayer helps comfort, promotes healing
As communities across the world strive to heal from recent terrorist attacks — in Pakistan and Brussels, Paris and San Bernardino, to name only a few — and others continue to suffer through ongoing violence, both secular and religious leaders have called upon the global community to extend its prayers to all those affected by the tragedies.
Prayer can be particularly effective in a community setting. St. Louis de Montfort, in his book, “The Secret of the Rosary,” explained that community prayer is powerful because the prayer of each individual belongs to the whole group. Thus, a person reciting a single Rosary gains the merit of one Rosary, while a person praying with 30 others gains the merit of 30 Rosaries.
“When we pray in common, the saint said, “it is far more formidable to the devil than one said privately, because in this public prayer, it is an army that is attacking him,” de Montfort wrote.
The light of Christ
Group prayer is not just for faith communities, said Msgr. John Esseff, a priest in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, since 1953. He was the spiritual director for Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and continues to provide spiritual direction for priests and seminarians and gives retreats to religious and laypeople throughout the world.
“The Holy Spirit is hovering over the entire world, calling us into unity so that we can all be drawn into him who longs for union with each of us,” he said. “As we pray, the light will dawn more and more in our dark world. Each one of us can radiate with light.”
By praying with others, he said that the light from God binds us more closely together.
“If there is any hatred in any of the hearts, it pushes out the light,” Father Esseff said. For instance, if Christians respond to terrorism or abortion with hatred, he said, they push the light of Jesus out of their own hearts.
“Think of the tremendous power God keeps pouring into creation despite how we have darkened our world,” Father Esseff said. “He continues loving every human being no matter how dark and violent. Prayer helps us see with the eyes of Christ and to hear the cry of the Father for his family to come together.”
Father Esseff said that when Christians join and pray with non-Christians, God’s light is in everyone, but Jesus, who dwells in baptized Christians, will echo and re-echo to others through us.
‘The same God’
If two groups with centuries-old animosity can come together and pray, it is a powerful example to the world to do likewise. The interfaith initiative Two Faiths One Prayer is a public witness of Muslims and Jews coming together in prayer. It began as a project for members of NewGround, which is a Los Angeles-based partnership between Muslims and Jews dedicated to improving community relations.
“We are building strong bonds through prayer and working together,” Saaliha Khan, the communications and project manager for NewGround said.
Last spring, the group organized a day of public prayer. They made five different stops around Los Angeles, including on a beach and in front of City Hall. The public was invited to join them and a video of the day was posted on YouTube.
“It illustrated to the world that we are all — everyone — praying to the same God,” Kahn said.
Pope Francis preaches the same message. During his visit to New York in September, he led the interdenominational prayer service at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The Holy Father prayed with nearly 500 clergy and laypeople representing more than a dozen faiths. He asked God to bring “peace to our violent world” and “to turn to your way of love, those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred and who justify killing in the name of religion.”
When the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot sponsor prayer, it did not take away our First Amendment right to pray publicly. Although confusion and legal challenges can cloud that right, there are examples of community prayer on government territory.
In Jackson, Mississippi, Police Chief Lee Vance began holding prayer services on the steps outside of the department in early 2015. He credits the power of prayer with a 14 percent drop in crime in all four of the city’s precincts compared to 2014.
“It’s in the best interest of this city,” he told a TV reporter. “It [praying to God] is a personal belief, and I’m asking anyone who shares those beliefs to pray with us.”
Similarly, several years ago in Peoria, Illinois, 2,500 people took part in “40 Days of Prayer” to pray for the safety of their community. The following year, murder rates dropped by two-thirds.
Power to unite
Last August at Charles Henderson High in Troy, Alabama, more than 200 members of the community met at the school to pray together.
“We had a rough year [in 2014],” said Lynn Melton, the school bookkeeper. “People felt we needed to do something.”
Two of its students had died; one from football injuries and another through suicide. The gathering which included Protestants, Catholics and Mormons, met at the flagpole and then prayed throughout the campus.
“We prayed for our students and our school and the city as a whole,” Melton said. “It was an emotional night and very uplifting. We pledged to do this again.”
The movie “Woodlawn,” released last October, recounts how the power of prayer, which came to the school through the intervention of the Fellowship for Christian Athletes (FCA), eased racial tension and violence at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1973. The FCA chaplain to the school then is the father of Jon and Andrew Erwin, directors of the film.
“Woodlawn was one of the last schools to integrate, and there was a lot of violence,” Jon Erwin said. “There was talk of shutting it down, but the spiritual awakening changed things.”
According to Erwin, 44 of the team’s 48 players from all faith backgrounds became committed to Jesus Christ and living his message. That commitment spread throughout the school and changed the dynamics from hatred to love.
“I think it’s a great reminder of the power of love and prayer to conquer human nature,” Erwin said. “Woodlawn is proof that it works, and that is a very relevant message today.”
Pope Francis agrees. Following the March 22 attacks in Brussels that killed 32 people, the Holy Father called upon the world to lean on prayer.
“To all, I ask that you persevere in prayer and in asking the Lord ... to comfort the hearts of the afflicted and to convert the hearts of those people taken in by cruel fundamentalism.”