When Heaven prays back

By the time you read this, All Saints Day will have come and gone. But, just to extend the feast a few more days, I want to share the story of something that happened to me recently — something that helped give me a fuller understand of what we’re celebrating, and what we as Catholics believe about the Communion of Saints.

A few weeks ago, I was working on a talk that I was scheduled to give the following week at a women’s conference in Arlington, Virginia. I remembered a quote from Fr. Michael Scanlan that I wanted to incorporate into my remarks. Fr. Mike, who passed away earlier this year, was the President of Franciscan University of Steubenville,. He was also a good friend to me and to my ministry. I pulled my copy of his (excellent) autobiography, Let the Fire Fall, from the bookshelf, and began thumbing through it, looking for the quote. As I read, it occurred to me that, since Fr. Mike’s passing, I had never asked him to pray for me. Of course I have prayed regularly for the repose of his soul. But, as holy a man as Fr. Mike was, I figured it might be a good idea to add a request for his intercession.

So I simply said, “Fr. Mike, please pray for me.” And, because he is not (yet) a canonized saint, I added “May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.”

And then I went back to work.

The next week, I gave the talk. I didn’t use the Fr. Mike quote, or talk about him at all, because I had a lot more material than time. But it was a successful talk nonetheless.

After it was over, I returned to my table. There, I had a brief conversation with a religious sister who was attending the conference. The conversation ended when we were interrupted by others. A few minutes later, she got up and walked around the table to me. She said somewhat hesitantly, “I hate to bother you, and I’m not stalking you or anything. But I was praying for you during your talk. And I felt the Lord asking me to deliver a message to you. Here it is.” She handed me her business card, on the back of which she had written the message. It said:

I immediately burst into tears. I hadn’t mentioned Fr. Mike to her. Nor Steubenville. Nor anything else related. I had given no further thought to my brief prayer since I made it. And I certainly hadn’t told anyone about it.

What an incredible gift! Like many people, I frequently struggle with the thought that my prayers aren’t heard; that in order to be effective I need to say them a special way, or drag them out for a prolonged period of time, or say them with an air of piety that I can never get right.

But, sitting here at my desk, almost as an aside, I asked for his prayers. And the Lord let me know know that my prayer was heard, and that I indeed have at least one friend praying for me in the very presence of God.

I tend to keep the personal aspects of my life personal. But I also felt early on that this particular favor was intended not just for me. It seemed clear that God wanted others to know that their prayers are being heard. And that the Communion of Saints is real, that we are indeed surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” who intercede for us.

Your prayers — even the brief ones — are heard by the God who loves you. And your requests for prayers are heard by the saints in Heaven, who do intercede for you.

Notice that the message said that Fr. Mike is praying for me. It didn’t say that Fr. Mike is fixing things for me, or making my life better. This is a common misconception — that we Catholics believe that the saints are some kind of minor deities who scurry around organizing our lives and making good things happen.

This is not what we believe. The saints aren’t gods. They’re people like us. But they’re people who have run the race successfully, and now enjoy the Beatific Vision. And they pray. And their prayers, being the prayers of pure, sanctified souls, are powerful before God.

Ask them to pray for you.

COMING UP: From the deathbed backwards

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Mary Beth Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We’re On a Mission From God and Real Love.

In 1999, I was awarded an honorary Ph.D from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The school’s president, Fr. Michael Scanlan, told me that the honor generally went to wealthy donors to the university, but that he nominated me because he believed the work I had done in my speaking and writing ministry merited the degree.

One of my duties at the graduation ceremony that day was, in fact, to deliver the commencement address. The theme of my talk was “Living Life From the Deathbed Backwards.”

Today a very different event is being held in that same field house on the campus of Franciscan University — a memorial Mass for that same Fr. Michael Scanlan, who passed away last week. As I contemplate the life of that amazing, holy man, I’m realizing that he indeed lived his life “from the deathbed backwards.”

Young Mike Scanlan was already a man of deep prayers — and was well on his way to becoming a Harvard-trained lawyer — when he first heard the call to give his life completely to God in the religious life. Already a skilled litigator, he reportedly negotiated a deal with God whereby he would finish his law degree before entering the priesthood. And so he did, entering the Franciscan order after graduation.

He wanted to work as a missionary in Brazil, and every year for ten years he submitted his name for that assignment. And every year for ten years he was refused. In the 11th year, he was told to stop submitting his name entirely. His work with the Franciscans would be in a field he found far less exciting — college administration.

In 1974, he was assigned to the presidency of the small, rapidly failing College of Steubenville, located in a dingy mining town on the Ohio River. The school was in such deep financial trouble that ads were being run offering the dormitory building “for sale or lease.” It was hardly a plum assignment for the rising Franciscan star. He was initially less than enthused, but then a friend told him that God doesn’t send a missionary to Africa without first putting Africa in his heart. And suddenly, Steubenville was in his heart. He was overwhelmed with a desire to go there, and to serve the people of this dying little school.

The college had little money, few students and big problems. And yet, his initial goal was not to raise money or to recruit students. It was to bring every aspect of the school’s life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Those of you familiar with the Franciscan University of Steubenville know that he did just that — and so much more — during his 37 year tenure as the school’s president and chancellor. Under his direction, the school went from a small, failing regional college to one of the most prestigious and influential Catholic universities in the world.

How did he do it? In a word, prayer. He began every day with God, and submitted to Him his entire schedule. And God frequently made changes — additions, deletions, tweaks. He submitted every decision to God as well, and would not move forward until he was certain that he had Divine approval.

Fr. Mike was gifted with great intelligence, dynamic communication skills and a magnetic personality. But the secret to his success didn’t lie in those gifts alone, but in what happened to them when they were infused with the Holy Spirit and placed entirely and regularly at the service of God. He radiated the Holy Spirit. As one former student said “When you met him, your life changed.”

He changed so many lives. It would be impossible to quantify the impact he has had — through the University, its graduates, the Charismatic Renewal Movement he led, and his personal relationships with so many, including me — on the Church here in the U.S. and around the world.

When I spoke about living life from the deathbed backwards, that’s what I was talking about. Looking back and knowing that the world is a different place because we were here. Seeing God face to face, and being able to say “This is what I did with the gifts you gave me.”

I look at the life of someone like Fr. Mike, and I think “I want to do that.” I want to turn a college around and place it under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and use it to lead untold thousands of people to God. That seems like a really good idea. It’d be a great thing to tell God about on Judgment Day.

But then I remember it wasn’t Fr. Mike’s idea of how he would live his life. He thought he would be a lawyer. Or a missionary in Brazil.

The college thing? That was God’s idea. Fr. Mike only found it because he was so committed to discerning God’s will through prayer. And he only accomplished it through submitting everything he did, every step of the way, to God in prayer as well.

So then I realize that, if I want to truly emulate Fr. Mike, the best way wouldn’t be to emulate his results, but rather his method.

I can best honor Fr. Mike by becoming a woman of prayer, by submitting my life entirely to the God who had a plan for him, and who undoubtedly has a completely unique and personalized plan for me as well.

Rest in peace, Fr. Mike. Thank you for everything you did for the Church, and most of all for showing us what a truly Spirit-filled life looks like.

Photo courtesy of Franciscan University of Steubenville