Scalabrini was a bishop who nourished his tireless activity with an intense prayer life. At least half an hour’s daily meditation, to which he bound himself with a vow under pain of serious sin, was one of his major prayer practices. The vow is like a seal, expressing Scalabrini’s character, and also revealing the secret source of his activity, for it was his loving contact with God that set Scalabrini in the midst of the divine plan of salvation, which extends to all men, especially the humblest of Jesus’ brethren. Knowing God and his plan, he also knew man entering into God’s plan, and had a better understanding of man’s history cooperating in the fulfillment of the plan; in other words, he knew the signs of the times. The prophetic activity of the Bishop of Piacenza, especially in his major work of evangelizing migrants, was also the fruit of this contact with God, which had prayer as its ordinary channel.
Apart from being his light for his action, prayer was also his strength: "Man draws superhuman energies from this contact with the Divinity. I admire two great things in heaven and on earth: in heaven the power of the Creator, on earth the power of prayer. However weak man may be, if he prays he becomes strong with the very strength of God."
In the first fold-out in this series, we spoke of the first official act of the Bishop of Piacenza: a letter written to the clergy a few months after his appointment to remind them of the need for the spiritual exercises. In the present fold-out, we shall now see his last pastoral act: a 34-page letter entitled Prayer written for Lent 1905, a bare three months prior to his death.
The pastoral letter is as usual linear in structure, telling the faithful first of the need, then of the excellence, and lastly of the effectiveness of prayer.
The need springs from man’s position as creature (even the man Jesus), from his dignity as the "voice" of creation, and from his "wretchedness" in the natural and supernatural order, a wretchedness that is an appeal - or prayer - to the divine mercy to obtain the grace necessary for salvation. The example of the Church, which prays on earth and in heaven, also confirms this need. The conclusion will be St. Alphonsus’ maxim, "He who prays is saved, he who does not pray is damned."
The excellence of prayer flows from its very nature as the soul’s elevation to God - which means that he who does not pray "either does not understand, or does not feel, or does not love" - and from the fact that it gives rise to "good and sometimes great thoughts" (with abundance of examples, from Galileo to Newton, Blessed Fra Angelico, St. Thomas, Haydn, Mozart, Columbus, etc.). It "forms the martyrs and heroes of Jesus Christ," "transfigures and divinizes man," and lastly "is the bond of all humanity," holding in unity the living and also the Church on earth, in Purgatory and in Paradise.
The effectiveness of prayer is seen not only in sacred history prior to Christ, but has been clear since, "in the form of a slave, Christ became still more the servant of all those who pray"; it is, moreover, anchored in Jesus’ repeated promises: "Ask, and it will be given you."
The Bishop says that, "God willing," he will discuss other matters of great importance another time, but closes for now with a moving exhortation to perseverance in prayer.
Need for prayer in the most popular among beings
The first argument in support of the need for prayer is wisely anchored in man’s condition as creature - each person’s deep conviction first and foremost of not having being made by himself, but created by God, and then of being conserved in life also through God’s gift. Every form of prayer is born of this awareness and is its concrete acknowledgment. Prayer is therefore a need deeply rooted in every person and confirmed also by his history. We might say, "For us rational creatures, prayer is an inborn, instinctive, irresistible need"; in other words, it is a need and not a luxury, just as it is not a luxury for a triangle to have three angles.
God is the supreme and all-wise author of all things, and everything is in his hands. Who could deny this, without denying his own reason? "In him," as St. Paul says, "we live and move and have our being." He gave us our being, and at every moment he conserves this being. So if our life here below is his gift, if we belong not to ourselves but God, we clearly owe him the perennial homage of our gratitude, the offering of our fealty, the tribute of our praise, the worship of our adoration, the sacrifice of our whole selves. And sacrifice is prayer, worship is prayer, praise is prayer, gratitude is prayer - for prayer, in its broadest and noblest sense, is an elevation of mind and heart to God, the homage of the creature to its Creator. When we bow down in the dust before the majesty of the Eternal One, recalling his attributes and favors, we instinctively feel urged to exclaim: "O great God, I adore you! O beneficent God, I thank you! O offended God, forgive me! O merciful God, help me! O good God, I love you and will always love you!" And this is worship, this is prayer. Neglecting such worship and prayer means neglecting an essential obligation of nature and religion - indeed, our first and principle duty.
The obligation of prayer as an act of worship and a part of religion is so deeply rooted in the human heart that it has survived all catastrophes, and goes back to the beginnings of the world. We could describe the whole Jewish religion as nothing but sacrifices and prayers to the God of Sinai, the Awaited One of the people (or the Messiah). Although pagans did not have an adequate concept of God, wrapped as they were in the shadows of idolatry, even the most savage nations always and everywhere offered up prayers and sacrifices to him.
When scholars search through the ruins of antiquity and dig down into the ground where powerful cities once stood, what do they find? Remains of temples, traces of buildings intended for payer. "You will find cities without walls," said Plutarch (the ancient Greek historian), "without government, without laws, but in no corner of the earth do you find a people without altar, without prayer, without God." In one place with solemn pomp, in another with rough simplicity, the human race has always prayed, always believed that it needs God’s help, always felt that it needs this help in all its actions, from the smallest to the greatest, in order to think, act, love, suffer and win, and that prayer is the only means of obtaining this.
Prayer is an inborn, instinctive, irresistible need for us rational creatures. And this loving connection between heaven and earth, this invisible relation between man and God, ... will always exist here on earth. Even were the world to grow old and worse, were men to become insolent to the point of delirium, they would never be able to break the chain that links effect to cause, creature to Creator. God will always, I might say, be the most popular of beings.
Jesus too felt the need to pray
The high-point of this passage is that even Jesus "felt the need for prayer"; in other words, Jesus prayed not only to set us an example, but also because of an "inborn, instinctive, irresistible" need, since he too, as true man, was a creature.
Here we enter into the mystery of Jesus, and although Scalabrini barely touched on this mystery, his observations were deep and beautiful: "He himself prayed to the Father, he who with the Father was a single thing [and so he would not have needed to show him his heart!], he to whom the Father had given power over all things [and so he would not have needed to ask for his help!]." However, being true man, he felt the need to open his heart to the Father and receive his help.
And inasmuch as the Word of God was made man in order to instruct us, not only with precepts but also with examples, he himself prayed to the Father, he who with the Father was a single thing, he to whom the Father had given power over all things. He prayed, withdrawn in the desert; he prayed all alone on the mountain, keeping watch for the whole night; he prayed at Lazarus’ tomb and at the entry into Jerusalem; he prayed before starting on his mission; he prayed in the Temple, in the upper room, in Gethsemane, on Calvary; he prayed until his last breath in order to rescue from eternal torment humanity - which trembled in him, appalled, sweating blood and falling under death-dealing blows. What more?
He wanted to draw the model for our petitions with his own hand, giving us the prayer that is so simple and sublime to the eyes of faith that after two thousand years it has echoed on the lips of every generation, and embraces all the needs of soul and body in its divine brevity: I mean the Lord’s Prayer.
Now, exclaims St. Cyprian, if Jesus who was the Holiest of holies prayed, how much more should sinners pray? If the Head prays, how will the members not pray? And if the divine Master felt such a deep need to pray, how can his disciples not feel it?
The excellence of prayer
The extract expands on the classic definition of prayer as "elevation of the soul to God" with a series of verbs all moving in a vertical direction: prayer "launches the soul into flight, raises it up, carries it." And this lyricism becomes truly daring when it states that when man prays "he commands and God obeys."
There is a clear reference to the incarnation - which opens good relations between man and God - where Scalabrini refers to the Christmas antiphon, "O wondrous exchange."
The deepest and most beautiful thought is, however, found in the second paragraph, which defines prayer as an expression of love (the first letter had already described it as a "loving correspondence" between God and man), as a familiar conversation which makes us "share in the friendship of God, in his tenderest outpourings." The effective definition of prayer as man’s "noblest and most glorious function" is also noteworthy.
What in fact is prayer? It is the elevation of the spirit to God, the source of life; it is the mysterious bond of that wondrous exchange which exists between man and his eternal Maker. It launches our soul into flight, raising it up above this region of pain, and carrying it into the breast of the Divinity. The body is on earth, but the soul is in heaven. Man speaks and God listens, man asks and God fulfills; or, let us put it more daringly, saying that man commands and God obeys! ...
Prayer is without doubt the noblest and most glorious function that man can exercise in this world, conferring on him a grandeur that is sovereign over all. Not only does it place us in close relationship with all that is true, beautiful and holy in heaven and on earth, but it also makes us share in God’s friendship, in his tenderest outpourings, in his most intimate confidences. Prayer is God, who, invoked, comes down; God poured out, infused into our hearts, to use St. Augustine’s beautiful expression; God, our Creator, our Father, our Redeemer, our Friend, our Brother, who looks at us and listens to us, smiling benevolently on our expressions of homage and affection. Prayer ... is never anything but the noblest conversation with God. What an honor, my loved ones! The benevolent gaze of an earthly ruler or the friendly smile of a great prince makes you feel honored, so that your heart jumps with joy. And what if this prince, this ruler, admitted you as part of his court - and for ever? Well, my dear ones, God does us an incomparably greater honor when he allows us poor creatures to appear in his presence, spend as long as we like there, open our hearts to him and express our needs freely to him, speaking simply with him, exactly as we do with our friends. And this is not all, for he lets us live at his court, and not as foreign guests, but as members of his household and family! The royal prophet [David] quite rightly exclaimed: "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you."
And God grants this sovereign favor to all souls of good will. For him there are no privileged classes, and all have equal right of entry. The trust of a son who loves, righteousness of heart: these, my dear ones, are sufficient qualifications.
The effectiveness of prayer
Through the thought of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, prayer is presented as "supplicating omnipotence," as "man’s strength and God’s weakness," as "Jacob’s ladder" carrying men’s petitions to God and God’s blessings to men. And Scalabrini’s voice can certainly stand alongside the prestigious voices of the doctors of old: "‘God is all-powerful,’ says the Prophet, ‘and who can resist him?’ Prayer, I say!"
When prayer is humble, it not only equals, but I would almost say surpasses the very power of God. "God is all-powerful," says the Prophet, "and who can resist him?" Prayer, I say ....
So we find that throughout the history of the world the man who prays sees heaven, earth, humanity and hell obeying his voice. What am I saying? He sees God himself obeying his voice.
With this "supplicating omnipotence," as St. Bernard calls it, it seems that God himself wanted in a way to forearm himself. For when God wants to leave free course to his justice, what does he do? First of all he makes prayer fall silent ....
For in the face of prayer God does not want to - does not know how to, cannot - hold out for long. St. Augustine said that prayer is man’s strength and God’s weakness, and St. Jerome added that it even goes so far as to cancel his decrees ....
There is no doubt, my dearest ones. Can the truth deceive? Now Jesus Christ, Truth in essence, has spoken once again, and his words could not be more explicit, more precise: "Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you" [Mt 7:7]. "Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you" [Jn 15:16]. "Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it" [Jn 14:13]. "Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will" [Mk 11:24]. This was his promise, and as if this were not enough, he confirmed his promises with a solemn oath: "Truly, truly, I say to you" [Mt 7:7; Jn 13].
After all this, is it surprising that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church should vie to produce the most splendid praise of prayer? "Key of heaven," St. Augustine called it, the mysterious key that opens the treasures of the highest graces to the righteous. It is a golden chain, said St. John Chrysostom, suspended between heaven and earth, which links us to God, and through which we possess his heart. It is Jacob’s ladder, said St. Gregory of Nyssa, on which the angels go up and down, carrying our petitions to God and bringing us his blessings.
Scalabrini’s last words
This is the last exhortation of the bishop to his flock before his death, and it is a pressing call to pray above all with the Lord’s Prayer, as we learned at our mother’s knee. Thirty years earlier, when he was parish priest of St. Bartholomew’s in Como, he wrote in his Little Catechism for Nursery Schools: "Jesus Christ made this prayer short, so that everybody, even children and the uneducated, could easily learn it, remember it, and often recite it. It is indeed the most beautiful prayer, the dearest to God, and the most useful."
I do not want to end this letter, my very dear brothers and sons, without exhorting you to pour out your soul in prayer, especially in the sacred period that we are approaching.
Oh, yes, pray. Nobody is excused from this law. If you are virtuous, pray to remain so; if you are sinners, pray to rise again from your pitiful state. Pray for one another that you may be saved, because it is written: "The assiduous prayer of the righteous can be very powerful." Pray with humility, with trust and with perseverance. Pray at home and pray in the Church. Pray especially with that holy and sublime prayer that Jesus Christ himself, as I have already told you, taught men, and with which we ask our Father who is in heaven for the glorification of his name, the coming of his kingdom, the fulfillment of his will, our daily bread, forgiveness for our sins, protection and help whenever we need it. This is the way of praying that we learned at our mother’s knee, the first prayer that we offered up with lips still innocent before the household altar, which bore the image of this loving Father. And perhaps the good God, out of regard for the purity and innocence of that age, will be merciful to us even today, contaminated as we are by innumerable sins. Oh, come, my beloved! You know your real needs. Ask him for a more lively and active faith, greater detachment from the things of earth, greater courage in disregarding human opinions and in openly confessing Jesus Christ. Ask him for humility, patience, resignation, charity, devotion, fortitude, a spirit of sacrifice, perseverance in doing good. Ask him all this above all, and your petition is bound to be granted.