Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D. is the founding director of Aquinas Center, which is located on the campus of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Community in the heart of South Philadelphia. The former convent is being re-purposed as a space to foster mutual support and shared understanding. Parishioners and guests come together to express hospitality, promote education, and engage in service. In her column, Bethany reflects on a prayer service for peace in Syria she organized this past Saturday.
I think prayer changed the course of history last night.
One billion Catholics, and all people of good will, were asked by Pope Francis to fast and pray for peace in Syria on Saturday, September 7th. I was compelled to heed the call of this Jesuit pontiff who practices an active expression of faith that encourages global dialogue. I chose an hour when the AquinasCenter chapel would be available and with a few keystrokes I shared the date and time via social media. I put the word out to the parish in which our center is situated and to the organization’s supporters.
It was a few hours later when I realized I had no idea how to lead a prayer vigil or what would be involved in doing so in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural community of faith. Thankfully, Ampersand was making resources available for similar gatherings. I was able to adapt the material for the local community, but still remained nervous at my lack of experience in leading public or group prayer with Catholics. By the time I sat in the front pew of the chapel that evening I was sweating and nauseous. I have spoken to an auditorium of 800 people without notes before, but this was very far outside my comfort zone.
At 7:00 pm, the chapel slowly began to fill with parishioners and friends of Aquinas Center. I noticed that many in attendance had already been to a vigil Mass earlier that evening and then returned. Several small children sat on the floor near their parents while very elderly women clustered together. Time had not permitted me to gather translations for readings or prayers in the five different languages present in the room so someone had suggested we pray a decade of the rosary in these languages after each petition for peace. On the spot, lay leaders were recruited to lead a decade. Soon the room filled with overlapping responses in Vietnamese, Indonesian, Spanish, Tagalog, and English. It was a cacophony. It was beautiful.
We moved into silent prayer next. I played three instrumental songs and then stood and turned to address those gathered. The chapel was now overflowing and included people standing in the back. At that moment, it finally hit me that at least three dozen of the sixty or so assembled had experienced war first hand. They had fled oppressive regimes. They had lived in refugee camps. They have known too well the pain of neighbor fighting neighbor, of countrymen attacking one another because of politics and ideology. One of the priests who joined us that night had even been imprisoned because of his faith. He will never be allowed to return to his homeland. One might guess that people in that room were praying as much for Syria as for their family members and loved ones who have been lost in similar conflicts and those who continue to be affected by hatred and violence.
In that moment, I was mortified at how much I had worried about the right prayer or song, whether the music was too loud or not loud enough. Pope Francis asked, in his message at the vigil in Rome on Saturday, “Is it possible to change direction? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace? ” Now tonight, listening to President Obama announce that he was asking Congress to delay a vote on intervention in Syria to allow time to pursue a “diplomatic path”, I am certain that the prayers of those faithful–united with those around the world–has helped change direction.
The delay is one small step and it doesn’t solve the political complexities or rescue the vulnerable, but it does represent a change in direction. May that possibility be sustained. May peace continue to be pursued. May our faith in the powerful, transforming nature of prayer be renewed.