Connor, who is 4 years old, has a tumor. A Facebook post asks for prayers for a successful M.R.I. test, which will show if the tumors have grown or remained the same since his last test. After the test his parents posted the following: “Your prayers worked!!! The tumor has not grown or has grown very little!”
Every day on Facebook, Twitter and other Web sites, people ask for prayers for their loved ones. Others spread the message on their personal status updates and Twitter feeds. A search for the term “prayer request” on Twitter brings up multiple entries of people seeking prayers through #prayerrequests. What might this turn toward the Web say about our culture? What might it say about our faith?
Andrew Alexander, S.J., works with the Online Ministries program of the Collaborative Ministry Office at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. “We offer many online resources to people, and we find that people turn to the Web because they are hungry and this technology brings people to ‘places’ they can easily reach without travel or money,” he told me. “So people come here for comfort, formation, support for their life and vocation. And they ask us to pray for them as well.”
While submitting prayers online may be a different form of prayer than in the past, Father Alexander believes that the practice is not as novel as it may seem. “Ultimately, it is what we’ve been doing for centuries in the Mass,” he said. “We bring our petitions to the altar with the gifts.”
Donald Ford, a retired freelance writer who lives in Manlius, N.Y., shared his own story of responding to a prayer request on Facebook. “After receiving a request for prayer from McAllen, Tex., I suggested to my wife that we should send a handkerchief after we prayed over it. If you recall, the first-century Christians did something similar with St. Paul’s clothing for those who were ill or infirm. They recovered from their sicknesses.”
Ford offered to send the handkerchief to Robert, a Native American who makes part of his living from “fancy dancing” at pow-wows. He had hurt his knees and was in excruciating pain, according to Ford. Robert responded, “Send the rag!” “He put it on his own knee and prayed. The suffering ended, and he has been able to dance since,” said Ford. “A friend of ours who lived on the Akwesasne reservation was visiting Robert in Texas and claimed he was in good spirits and his knees were not hurting as they were the day before.” Ford added, “I have never done anything like this before and was grateful to God for answering his and our prayer in such a manner.”
'Little Flower in This Hour'
Mary Zacharias is the director of Internet services for the Society of the Little Flower, based in Darien, Ill. Its Web site, littleflower.org, provides people the opportunity to leave prayer requests and notes of prayers answered by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Carmelite saint. Those who leave prayer requests are assured that they will be remembered and prayed for at Mass and in community prayer by Carmelites throughout the world.
The Society of the Little Flower Web site began taking prayer requests at its initial launching in 1997. Zacharias said it can be difficult to be on the receiving end of the Web site. “It can be very upsetting and emotionally draining when reading people’s tragedies, very sad and desperate situations and the outpouring of their hearts.” But those who have used the Web site seem more than satisfied.
“Having a place where they can share their hopes and fears and prayers, and without having to leave their homes, is very comforting to them,” Zacharius said. “Friends of St. Thérèse also know that she is bringing their intentions to the heart of God to be answered.”
Traffic to the site has increased over the years, jumping from around 500 requests per month in the early days to 1,000 to 1,200 requests. “The Little Flower…is a very popular, powerful, extremely well known and loved saint of the modern world,” said Zacharias. “She continues to gain popularity and ‘friends’ on all continents! She has an incredible ‘little way’ of doing small things with great love and interceding for millions of people—bringing their prayers to God.”
A New Place for Prayer
Mary Charles Mayer, R.S.M., is the director of the Office of Consecrated Life for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Since at least 2005, the archdiocese has maintained a Web site dedicated to taking requests. Those who take the prayer requests are members of several religious orders. “We provide them with the opportunity to post their request publicly for others to see or have them sent privately to the contemplative nuns only to pray for their intentions,” said Sister Mayer. “There are eight orders of contemplative nuns in St. Louis and Belleville, Ill., who pray for people.”
The prayers on the site show the great variety of suffering people face. “Please pray for my little niece who had surgery a couple of weeks ago and now she is having difficulty breathing and problems with her heart. Thank you.” “Please pray for a friend who is facing some serious health problems. Thank you.” “Please pray that the underwriter approves my loan modification. In Jesus’ holy name, please pray that I keep my home, heavenly father.”
The community of believers seems to be finding a new place for prayer. “It may build Catholic community to a degree, but for sure it seems to be building a community in cyberspace,” said Sister Mayer. She believes people have turned to the Web for prayers partly because of the anonymity. “The Web provides a level of anonymity for people, a large viewing audience that might also pray for their needs and a level of impersonal contact where people are safe in communicating their vulnerability or that of another person,” she said. “Some people may also just be oriented to using technology rather than more traditional ways of communicating.”
On a recent trip, I visited the House of Mary in Ephesus, Turkey. There, a short distance from the chapel, was a wall with hundreds of tissues and pieces of paper with prayers written for Mary’s intercession. It moved me to see how many people requested prayers in this way and to witness their evident trust that their prayer would be heard. I myself left a note on the wall.
Modern technology may offer expansive versions of the prayer chain; a practice that once relied on physical gatherings and word of mouth, letters and phone calls can now send petitions around the world in just a few words with the click of a button. New technologies also provide a voice or an outlet for those who are afraid to ask loved ones for prayers. The anonymity of Internet sites can provide a safe place.
“Where two or three are gathered…” takes on new meaning when hundreds or thousands of people see your prayer request and offer their own prayer on your behalf. Perhaps posting prayers on Web sites and Facebook allows people who feel that no one is praying for or with them to be heard.