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VATICAN LETTER Feb-4-2011 (930 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi
Pope's prayers: Could Internet increase spread of intentions?
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- If the pope used Twitter or Facebook to rally people together to pray for one intention, how many millions of prayers could be raised to heaven within minutes?
In some countries, Facebook and the Internet already are being used by the Apostleship of Prayer to build community and distribute the pope's monthly prayer intentions. But in most places in the world, when the pope makes a special public appeal for prayers, people hear about it only through the Catholic media.
For 167 years, members of the Apostleship of Prayer have begun each day offering their lives to God and praying for the needs of the universal church and the intentions of the pope.
The offering and the prayers are the basic membership requirements, and in most places the apostleship has "no registration, no groups, no fees, no special meetings," so no one really knows how many people belong.
Jesuit Father Claudio Barriga, who oversees the organization from the Jesuit headquarters near the Vatican, said he estimates there are about 50 million people fulfilling the membership requirements in the apostleship and its youth wing, the Eucharistic Youth Movement.
Jesuit Father Claudio Barriga, delegate director of the Apostleship of Prayer, at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome. (CNS/Paul Haring)
The Jesuit said he was in Vietnam in January and discovered that there are Apostleship of Prayer groups in every diocese with an estimated 1 million involved.
A government-approved bishop in mainland China reported that there is a group of people who makes the offering and prays for the pope's intentions each day in his cathedral, Father Barriga said.
In the United States, he said, "it's mainly a digital community" thriving through the use of the website www.apostleshipofprayer.org -- which includes links to a daily audiovisual meditation posted on YouTube -- and through both national and parish-based Facebook pages.
But it's also big in remote areas of Angola where many people have never even seen a computer and in Madagascar where about 250,000 young people belong to the Eucharistic Youth Movement, he said.
Father Barriga knows that for many people, the Apostleship of Prayer is seen as a way for the elderly to exercise their piety; he said it wasn't that long ago that he thought so, too.
The Jesuit does not seem particularly bothered about not having a membership list or even just a head count; he said he wants to help people pray, and if just getting the list of the pope's prayer intentions is enough, that's good.
But for many people, he said, it could be helpful to have contact with others making the same effort and to receive guidance from someone who has been making the effort even longer.
Father Barriga said the prayer life promoted by the apostleship is "simple, but not simplistic," and schoolchildren in the poorest village and business leaders in the biggest cities all can find the 10 or 15 minutes a day it takes to fulfill the apostleship's requirements.
Of course, he said, there's no guarantee that belonging won't change a person.
"It's a Jesus program, a way to live with Jesus' heart," he said.
"You have at least 50 million people praying each day for a month for something like those who do not have access to clean water -- that creates awareness" and could lead to enough action that less water would be wasted and less would be polluted, he said.
"If what you are praying for doesn't change you, then you aren't praying correctly," Father Barriga said.
But the distribution of the monthly intentions is not a publicity campaign for living more responsibly, he said. They really are prayers.
"We pray to God because God is the one who moves human hearts," the Jesuit said.
With little international coordination, the Apostleship of Prayer and the Eucharistic Youth Movement seem to have depended on whether a local Jesuit superior appointed someone energetic to lead the ministry or whether the people involved kept meeting and bringing others onboard.
One reason the Jesuits are looking to "re-create" the apostleship is to strengthen the Jesuits' commitment to it -- whether to leading groups personally or virtually over the Internet, Father Barriga said.
Another reform at which the Jesuits are looking is helping to keep members focused on the big, important "permanent needs" of the church and the world as reflected in the monthly prayer intentions, while also being able to count on millions of people's prayers when special needs or disasters arise, Father Barriga said.
The Apostleship of Prayer is responsible for the annual distribution of "the pope's prayer intentions" for each month.
Pope Benedict XVI's general intention for February, which includes Valentine's Day, is: "That all may respect the family and recognize its unmatched contribution to the advancement of society."
His missionary intention for the month, which includes the Feb. 12 celebration of World Day of the Sick, is: "That the Christian communities may witness to the presence of Christ in serving those who suffer from disease in those mission territories where the fight against disease is most urgent."
The apostleship and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples help the pope draw up a year's list of monthly intentions, which are published a full year in advance. The lists for 2012 were published by the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, Jan. 28.
Obviously, Father Barriga said, when the prayers are chosen so far in advance, it's hard to make them very specific and timely.
But now that so many people have access to a computer, or at least to the radio, the Jesuit said it may be time to look for more instant ways to raise a call to prayer.
Copyright (c) 2011 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
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