Prayer is for Sinners (as well as Saints)
O sinners, let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O sinners, let's go down
Down in the river to pray — Hymn "Down To The River To Pray"
"You're all just a bunch of hypocrites!"
So say any number of Internet atheists, ex-Catholics, and perhaps even many practicing Christians. They look at the teachings of the Church, compare them to the actual practice of those Catholics whom they know or who have their sins displayed in the media for whatever reason, and they start comparing and complaining.
As has been explained in these pages before, the faith is better than we are. The Church is holy because of her Head, the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the rest of the Mystical Body may be sanctified through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints — and unfortunately, not everybody takes their meds all the time. We shall always have sinners in the Church, for we exist to be on mission, to evangelize and bring more sinners in.
One way that reality is made manifest every day in the Church is this: Many Catholic prayers can only be honestly prayed by repenting sinners.
Look at the Our Father and the Hail Mary, for instance.
The Our Father is blunt:
... forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
It doesn't pretend we might have sinned. It doesn't invite us to pray for all those poor benighted pagans, all those sinners out there, those who are not me, those people who don't get it as well as I do.
No. "Forgive us our trespasses." We have trespassed. We have sinned. We did. We who pray this prayer are not the perfect — perfection comes only by acknowledging our own imperfection. We become perfect by confessing our sin, by acknowledging our need for forgiveness, by welcoming the divine life and love into our lives because we don't have it already, because we are not self-sufficient, because we are not God. We are sinners. We are creatures. We are adopted sons in the Son, and we need help.
The Hail Mary is similarly stark:
... Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
It's a prayer that can't really be prayed by someone who thinks they're perfect, who believes themselves to be without sin. It's a prayer that has enmity to the pride of the devil, a prayer that defies the lies of Satan. It's a prayer that acknowledges that we are sinners. We are beloved children of God the Father and Mary, the human Mother of God, but we are sinners, still, and must run to Our Lady, our mother, our protectress, our friend for intercession at the most important moments in our lives: now and at the hour of death.
That same confession appears again and again throughout Catholic prayer and Liturgy. Look at the Confiteor at the start of Mass!
I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
And, striking their breast, they say:
through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault;
Then they continue:
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
This is how we begin the highest form of worship: not with confident proclamations of our purity and worth, not with a list of ways in which we have served the Lord faithfully and well, but rather as supplicants, as beggars, as children gathered at the table of their Father, showing him their wounds with trust, crying out their starvation and sickness and death, and asking our older brothers and sisters for help.
Look at the Divine Mercy Chaplet!
Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.
For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
We who are sinners intercede through our baptismal priesthood, given by the power of the Holy Spirit and the Incarnation of Jesus, for ourselves and the rest of the sinners on the face of the earth. Not "we the perfect," not "we the holy," not "we the better than all of those people," but "we the sinners in the Church" pray for mercy for ourselves and the whole world.
It's like the humility of the sick person, coming to the doctor and asking for a cure. It's the humility of the beggar, acknowledging they need the generosity of another to survive. It's the humility of the saint, acknowledging God's goodness and perfections through praise, confessing their sins, petitioning God for what they need, and thanking God for his many gifts.
It's an acknowledgment of reality, an antidote to hypocrisy, placing ourselves in the power of God through trusting the mercy of God, removing ourselves from service to the devil in our sins and placing ourselves in the hands of Jesus and Mary through our contrition and loving trust. Adam and Eve in their pride placed the blame for their sins elsewhere; their legacy is original sin. The saints in their humble response to divine grace (even if God had to drop a metaphorical 2X4 on their heads for them to get it!) acknowledge their sins and trust in the merciful love of God. Judas committed suicide; Peter trusted in the Lord's forgiveness. Lucifer refused to submit, and fell; Michael proclaimed, "Who is like God? There is none like God!" and became the commander of the heavenly host.
Confess your sins, and all shall be made well. Turn away from them and into the loving arms of Jesus. Repent, believe, be saved. And then continue to trust in God's mercy, even as you walk the rough road to heaven (see Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 153), even as you fall, as you falter, as you get muddy and scratched, as you struggle with the legacy of original sin: disordered desires, a darkened intellect, a weakened will.
Keep going! As we approach God who is Light, who is Good, who is Love, we will see our own flaws all the more clearly, and the devil will attack all the more fiercely. The saints often have greater trials than the unrepentant sinners, for they are going in the right direction and are fiercely opposed. As G.K. Chesterton said, "A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."
Yes, it will be difficult, and we will need to persist in spite of our failures. But on the road, there will be light, and sustenance, and food; there will be the truth given through Scripture and tradition, strength from the prayers of the saints and angels, and all that you need in the Most Holy Eucharist. There will be Confession to restore you to life and strength, to forgive your sins and wash your soul clean in the Blood of the Lamb, and the Anointing of the Sick for the final combat. As you travel faithfully, relying on the gracious love of God and knowing your own weaknesses and proneness to sin, you become transformed, and so better able to "Come further up! Come further in!" in the words of C. S. Lewis' The Last Battle.
But never stop praying, even if you sin, even as you sin, always in spite of your sin — never stop praying, for God never stops loving you into existence for a moment, no matter how far you fall. If he ever discarded you, you would cease to exist. He loved us first, loves us now, and will love us forever. He knew all the sins that had been committed or would be committed as he struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane to the point of sweating blood — and still he went forward to Calvary and Crucifixion.
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us — Romans 5:7-8
He loves us! Oh, how he loves us! So pray, sinners, and become saints of God! Pray, with all the honesty implicit in every prayer: Jesus, I need you. Jesus, I hope in you. Jesus, I trust in you.
Jesus, I have sinned. Come! Make me new.