How to answer kids when prayers go unanswered

Catholic News Service
(Jul 27, 2021) Faith-Inspiration

A small girl with bible at home, praying. (iStock)

When I was 11 years old, wrestling with my brother's recent death, the new parish priest came bounding into our religion class one afternoon. He announced that he would take our questions (submitted anonymously) to answer in his next homily.

When the all-school Mass arrived and the priest approached the ambo to proclaim the Gospel, my heart started beating wildly. Which questions would he pick? Did anyone ask anything like mine?

To my shock, he pulled out a piece of paper and unfolded the loose-leaf on which I'd poured my questions: "Does God really hear us when we pray? Then why doesn't God answer our prayers?"

To this day I cannot remember the particulars of the priest's response. What mattered to me most was that he heard my question and was willing to wonder about it alongside me.

He told me — and a church full of children — that doubting God or struggling with prayer was not a failure but held the heart of faith.

After writing about grief and loss, I often receive questions from parents. How do I explain prayer to my child, they ask, when it looks like our prayers weren't answered?

No easy answers exist for the problem of suffering. Countless theologians have written about theodicy (why God permits evil), yet each believer stumbles into the same thorny questions: Why doesn't God intervene in the world in the ways we want? How could a good God let people suffer?

Scripture tells us that God will not give us bad things in response to our requests (Mt 7:9-11). Yet the gifts we are given and the fruits of our prayer are not always what we wanted. We asked for one thing but received something else. We sought one outcome and found another.

How do we reckon with these realities, let alone explain them to our children?

As caregivers, we are not meant to put children in a bubble to protect them from life's bruises or faith's struggles. We are called to help them grow in their relationship with God, which means praying through the same challenges that centuries of believers have faced.

Prayer is not a mathematical formula where input produces output. It is not a magical wand to wave over any situation to transform it instantly.

Prayer draws us closer to God and to each other. Prayer invites us into humble surrender, remembering that our ways are not God's ways. Prayer pulls us out of ourselves and toward Christ, a conversation of conversion.

Prayer is the language of love, and love is complex.

When Catholics profess the deepest truths of our faith, we call them mysteries. We remember this at every Mass, in the heart of the Eucharist when the priest proclaims, "The mystery of faith," and we respond with words of Christ's death and resurrection.

We do not call this statement the "certainty" of faith, although we believe it to be true. Neither do we call these truths the "answers" of faith, although they respond to the biggest questions we ask.

But we humble ourselves before the vastness of God's ways, knowing there is so much we cannot know.

I have prayed for good things that did not happen. I have prayed for my children to be healed, but they were not. Even harder, I have watched my own children pray for their siblings — and even that purest of prayers was not answered as we hoped.

But I have still found God's presence amid deepest suffering. The mystery of prayer holds this, too.

What a gift — strange though it may seem — to welcome such questions from a child. We need not fear that faith will be shaken, but we may find that we enter deeper into the mystery as we walk alongside them toward God's love.

By Laura Kelly Fanucci, Catholic News Service

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