Q&A: Deepen your prayer habits this Lent

Renowned writer Father Jacques Philippe shares wisdom on the intent of prayer

Best-selling author Father Jacques Philippe is a native of France whose books have become classics of contemporary Catholic spirituality. A Beatitudes Community priest, Father Philippe is a sought-after retreat master who has been featured on EWTN. Praising the priest’s most recent offering, Thirsting for Prayer (Scepter, 2014), author and EWTN President Dan Burke said, “[It] is among the best of his work and may be the last book you will need to purchase on the topic of prayer.” During a recent stop in Denver, Father Philippe spoke to the Denver Catholic about prayer and offered advice to help people enter into a fruitful Lenten season. His remarks have been edited for space.

Denver Catholic: How should one pray?

(Photo provided)

Father Philippe:  Everybody has to find their own way to pray. But first, and very important, is faithfulness — day after day, year after year. Be faithful taking time for the Lord. Little by little God teaches us how to pray and how to have a deeper relationship with him. Prayer is not a technique we can master; prayer is a grace we receive. It is better to be faithful with poor prayer than to infrequently make a big production of prayer.

DC: What else is important for prayer?

FP: The desire to meet God, to love him, to have a relationship with him. Have a thirst for God, for truth, for light.

Prayer is a relationship with the Lord. God is offering to us his presence, his unconditional and infinite love. We welcome this by our attitude. Foundational is faith: I believe in God and I believe God loves me. Prayer is not to think a lot or feel a lot: that’s good, but prayer fundamentally is an act of faith.

Prayer is also an act of humility and hope. When I pray I manifest that I need God: I need his help and grace. So, prayer is an act of faith, hope and love. Jesus said, repeating the Old Testament (Dt 6:5): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30).

Also important is gratitude. You are not the initiator of this loving relationship: God first loved you. Prayer is not doing a lot of things, but mostly welcoming God’s presence and love. Take time to welcome his presence in faith. We don’t always feel his presence. We don’t understand everything in our life. But if we pray with faith, hope and love, even if it’s not perfect, even if it is poor and we don’t have great mystical experiences, it is OK!

DC: What are some ways to pray?

FP: A good start may be to meditate on the word of God or to read something spiritual to enter into an attitude of openness to God. Read, listen to what God is saying there, meditate on it and transform this into prayer. Other ways are to pray the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner) or the rosary, to adore God in the Blessed Sacrament, to speak freely with God or to silently welcome him. These are some ways, there are many more. What is essential is not the technique but the attitude of one’s heart and taking time to pray.

DC: How do you like to pray?

FP: (laugh) I like many different types of prayer. It depends on the situation. Sometimes meditating on Scripture, sometimes adoration or using the Jesus Prayer or the rosary.

Prayer is not only a human activity but it is also an action of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. With good will and faithfulness, little by little the Holy Spirit inspires and guides how you should pray — in silence, adoration, intercession.

DC: How can one persevere in prayer when lacking zeal for it?

FP: Understand that prayer is answering God’s call. I pray because I search for God, but above all because God is asking this of me. Jesus said, “pray always and do not lose heart” (Lk 18:1). The desire to pray is a call from God, who wants us to be close to him. He knows why prayer is important for us more than we know. When I don’t have the zeal, it helps to know that God is calling me and I have to be faithful to this call. He wants me to have a life filled with his presence and grace. It is important for me and for those living with me. The fruits of our prayer are the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness (Gal 5:22). Prayer isn’t always fantastic. It may be simple and poor. No matter. If I am faithful, even in my poverty, God is communicating something to me, teaching me and working in the depths of my heart.

DC: The other two Lenten disciplines are fasting and almsgiving. How do those practices help us?

FP:  Fasting can be very positive: It means to put God first in my life by removing things that can keep me from God. To hunger for God rather than for human, worldly satisfaction is the symbolic meaning of fasting. I restrain my human appetites to turn to God, my deepest desire, and to put him at the center of my life. Traditionally, we fast from food, but we can also fast from other things — social media, cell phones and other realities that tend to be a distraction — to make time for silence and to be in God’s presence.

Almsgiving, charity, opens us to the needs of others. It’s an invitation to love: to share and not live a selfish, egoistic life. The more I am open to my neighbor, the more I will be open to God. Lent invites us to unite prayer, fasting and almsgiving to live in a deeper way our human vocation according to God’s will, which Jesus said is to love God and to love one’s neighbor (Mk 12: 30-31). We can’t separate the two.

Ask the Holy Spirit to inspire your prayer, your fasting, your almsgiving. Lent is a time of spiritual struggle we accept that we may be closer to God and not be taken by the spirit of the world and a superficial life.

DC: Is there anything you would like to add?

FP: We should fast from worrying too much! The purpose of Lent is to trust more in God: to rely on him, his grace and his mercy, and to find our deepest security and peace in him. One of the most important fruits of Lent is to know and experience God as Father. On Ash Wednesday in Matthew’s Gospel (6:1-6, 16-18) we will hear Jesus speaking about prayer, fasting and almsgiving. On prayer, he says: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (He speaks similarly about fasting and almsgiving.) The goal of Lent is to have deeper contact with God as Father: He is to be our hope, our strength, our peace. Don’t worry about so many things or have anxiety about this and that. To rely on the love of the Father is to be a son of God.

For more information visit frjacquesphilippe.com

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”