At the request of the pope, Catholics used to pray after Mass for the conversion of Russia–or so we have often heard. This custom has long since been discontinued. Whenever it comes to my mind, however, I wonder if it should be revived in a new form. Should Catholics today pray after Mass for the conversion of America? Or, if the Holy Father (for understandable reasons) would not want to single out the United States in this way, could the Bishops of the United States at least encourage their flocks to pray after Mass for the conversion of their country? Such a custom would seem to promise certain educational and spiritual benefits.
The educational benefits would be as follows. Publicly calling for such prayer would remind American Catholics that America is no longer a Christian nation, or at least not in any sense or to any extent that a faithful Catholic could consider satisfactory. We love our Church, and we love our country. But we also want to assume uncritically that the things we love naturally go together. But this is not always the case, and now more than ever American Catholics need to be reminded that being Catholic is not exactly the same thing as being a normal American. American culture and American institutions at present routinely legitimize and promote things (abortion, contraception, pornography, materialism, etc.) that are deeply contrary to Catholic teaching. These evils are now so extensive that it is not improper to think that they call not just for tinkering around the edges but for a radical reorientation, a reorientation toward the God of Christian revelation–that is, conversion. When we get complacent about our Catholicism and our Americanism, we tend to think that the two go together without difficulty. But this is a delusion, and a dangerous one, since the Church teaches that the evils mentioned above are morally and spiritually deadly. Moreover, the educational value of such a custom would not be limited to those in the Church. It might be rather bracing and provocative of fruitful self-examination for the rest of America (especially nominally-Christian America) to be put on notice that Catholics do not think America at this moment deserves to be called a Christian nation.
Of course, praying for the conversion of America would teach not only that we don’t think America is presently a Christian nation, but also that we do wish that it would be. Under conditions of modern pluralism, we are tempted at all times to relativize the faith. We are used to living with people who reject it, and we have to get along with them and have affection and love for them. This getting along and affection are certainly fine, but we err if we let our habituation to this historical situation lead us to think that it really does not matter whether other people accept the Church’s message or not. Of course we should not resort to unjust methods–coercion or intimidation–to promote the faith. This kind of thing is contrary to the dignity of the human beings that God has created, and it does not work in any case. Conversion is a turning of the soul and cannot be accomplished by threatening punishments to the body. But without resorting to religious thuggery we can still think that it matters a great deal whether people accept what the Church is proposing. Indeed, if we really believe that the Church possesses what it claims to possess–the saving truth–then we should be deeply concerned that people accept it. In other words, we should want America to be a Christian nation because we couldn’t want anything else than that each of our countrymen and countrywomen should know Jesus Christ–and know him as who he really is. Earnest, habitual prayer for such a thing is compatible both with the rights of others and with the seriousness with which we must take our faith.
The spiritual benefits take less explaining: We have been told, “ask and you shall receive.” Prayer can accomplish good things not just because it reminds us of important truths, but because it calls upon the assistance of God, who really is there and who really is all powerful.
Since I first thought of this idea, I looked into the history further and found that it is not exactly true that Catholics used to pray after Mass for the conversion of Russia. This is a not-quite-accurate shortening of the real prayer that Pius XI called for, a prayer ”to permit tranquility and freedom to profess the faith to be restored to the afflicted people of Russia.” Given the dangers to religious liberty in America, some updated version of this prayer might well be appropriate. Still, since we love our country and each one of our fellow citizens, since we want what is best for them, and since there is nothing better than the faith, we could go ahead anyway and pray that they will hear it and receive it. Surely neither the pope nor the bishops would want us to wait for specific instructions to pray for the conversion of America and of the world.