Catholics are encouraged to pray for divine guidance for the college of cardinals when they meet to elect a new pope.
It is our hope that the election of the new pope will be the direct choice of the Holy Spirit, but, given papal history, there is no convincing reason to maintain that this is necessarily so.
Then why pray? If even the Holy Spirit does not necessarily get the candidate she wants, what good is our prayer?
As I wrestle with this question, and indeed with the whole concept of prayers of petition, I begin with the notion that God does not like to do things for us. Rather, God much prefers to do things with us.
Many a grandmother brings her grandchild into the kitchen to bake cookies. Grandma could mix the dough and cut out the cookies more efficiently, more cleanly, by herself, but she willing puts up with the extra mess and misshapen dough in order to bond more closely with her grandchild.
God, I think, does much the same. The Father, prompted by love, prefers to have his children intimately involved in the plan and process of salvation.
There are various kinds of prayer: adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and petition. Through the prayer of adoration we worship God, acknowledging awesome divinity. In prayers of thanksgiving we express gratitude for heaven's blessings. In contrition we admit our sinfulness and express a spirit of amendment.
But what are we doing in prayers of petition? We are asking God for something: maybe for health or wealth, for success or protection, or for any number of perceived needs.
Are we asking for these things because God is oblivious to our needs? Of course not. Do we pray for the restoration of a loved one's health because we need to earn God's intervention? That makes no sense, since God loves our loved ones more than we do.
If our prayer of petition neither wakens God to our needs nor earns a response, why ask?
Perhaps the first reason we petition God for anything is that such a prayer awakens within us a sense of our dependence upon the Divine One. By such prayer we acknowledge that we are not in control, that we are powerless in many situations of life. We are simply admitting the truth that we need divine providence, that it all depends on God.
A second reason for petition (indeed for all forms of prayer) is that in this exercise of raising our hearts and minds to God we are releasing into the world a force for good!
This reason may seem mystical, but it is not to be ignored.
We know that there is evil in the world. Recall the advice in 1 Peter 5:8, "Be sober and watchful, for your adversary the devil like a roaring lion is prowling about the world seeking someone to devour. Resist him steadfast in the faith..."
When grandmother cooks a pot of cabbage the aroma soon wafts from the kitchen into the rest of the house. In a similar way, when we do evil (when we sin) we release evil into the world. And, conversely, when we do good (when we love) we release goodness, a force that confronts and counterbalances evil.
All our prayers, including petition, release the force of good, and that force can influence the world and the mentality around us.
Since God does not like to do things for us (except in special situations --for God is God, and God does whatever God wants) but rather prefers to do things with us, God patiently waits for us to release goodness into the world, and allows the things of this world to be influenced by either the presence of evil or the force for good.
Our failure to pray does not necessarily shackle God's power nor prevent divine intervention. Nevertheless, if my interpretation of salvation history (including the history of the Church) provides a clue about God's modus operandi, I am persuaded that God often waits for us to do our part.
All prayer, especially petition, is to be couched in an attitude of "thy will be done."
It may well be, however, that God's will awaits our cooperation.
It is, then, possible that our next pope is not necessarily God's choice. Our encouragement to pray for the guidance of the Spirit at the conclave is found in Luke 11:9: "And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you."
If our prayer releases a force for good into the world, may that force finds its way into the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel. May the "Extra, omnes" of the Master of the Papal Liturgical Celebrations drive out all evil forces from the conclave and let remain only the good ones, blessed by the Holy Spirit.
If we do not ask, we shall not receive. Let us release the good. It is time to pray!