During his more than six years in office, Pope Francis has made a habit of rehabilitating either projects that seemed close to extinction or personalities widely considered to have lost their influence on the global Catholic stage.
One of these projects is “the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network,” formerly known as the “Apostleship of Prayer,” and which as of 10 years ago was widely considered an archaic, obscure and outdated pontifical project that was slowly dying out.
However, in the past five years alone the project has been rebranded and relaunched by Francis with new statutes, a new youth branch, fresh, more modern language, and a keen ability to utilize digital platforms and social media in spreading the pope’s monthly prayer intentions.
Though the project is a pontifical work of the Holy See, it has been entrusted to the Jesuits, who established the network in France in 1884 to encourage Christians to serve God and others through prayer, particularly for the needs of the Church.
This week the network will be celebrating its 175th anniversary, marked by a June 28-29 conference including an audience with Francis and meetings with network directors and coordinators from around the world.
According to Jesuit Father Fréderic Fornos, international director for the network, prayer can be “mechanical” for many people, so a key task for the network is to help believers open their heart to God and what he wants from them, helping to promote “a mission of compassion for the world” which is rooted in prayer.
Speaking to Crux, Fornos said Francis’s main aim with his prayer network is to essentially send up a prayerful SOS on relevant issues and topics of concern for both the Church and the world.
The pope is “worried about one challenge the world is facing” every month, “and he’s asking for the help of all the Church in praying with him, because this challenge is important,” he said, pointing to June’s prayer intention for priests’ way of life as an example.
“We have had a very difficult year with big scandals and people who have suffered, victims of sexual violence and abuses of power and conscience,” he said, noting that many priests and religious have played central roles in the scandals that have plagued global Catholicism since last summer.
Given the vast amount of suffering the scandals have caused, Fornos said it’s at times hard to give credit to the priests who “continue their work with generosity, simplicity and fidelity,” and who have nothing to do with the scandals.
The point of this month’s prayer intention, he said, is to pray for priests of all stripes in a bid to encourage them to stay strong and focused on giving themselves to others.
Among other things, the network produces videos on the pope’s monthly prayer intentions, and they have recently launched the “Click to Pray” app, which provides users the chance to share prayer intentions of their own and to pray for fresh intentions from Francis.
Users receive prayer notifications three times a day - morning, afternoon and evening - and the app sends users a special petition on the World Day of Prayer, celebrated on the first Friday of each month.
Since its rebranding, the network has grown in both numbers and demographics, boasting around 35 million Catholics who participate in their various initiatives and a spike in the number of young people getting involved.
Not long ago most directors of local offices were over 60, but now many are under 40, including the 21-year-old who oversees the network’s new Central American regional office, which was just established in Guatemala.
Papal prayer intentions so far this year have included victims of human trafficking, persecuted Christians, and closeness to the Virgin Mary. Other intentions that have been highlighted include topics close to the pope’s heart, including families, young people, peace in the Middle East, the protection of the world’s oceans, and next month’s intention for lawyers, judges and all those involved in preserving “the integrity of justice.”
According to Fornos, the videos, launched during Francis’s Jubilee of Mercy in 2016, are not only a fresh way to communicate the pope’s message through new digital platforms, but using a visual platform has also been a way that “people can be touched” who aren’t so familiar with Catholic-speak.
“It’s had a very big global impact,” he said, noting that the videos are now provided in 12 languages and receive millions of views a month. Just this month, new languages were launched: Swahili, Kinyarwanda, and Vietnamese.
“It’s to help Catholics to understand that the pope’s intention is not only a prayer for fun or something general without impacting the world, but it’s a big issue in the world,” Fornos said, adding, “the Holy Father believes in the power of prayer and he needs the prayer of the entire Catholic Church.”
Francis, Fornos said, is “one-hundred percent” involved in selecting the prayer intentions, a process that usually takes about six months. It involves gathering suggestions from the network’s global offices, as well as the various Vatican departments; creating a list; sending that list to the pope for his musing; meeting with the pope to hear any changes or personal suggestions; finalizing the list; translating it and then finally sharing it when the time is right.
Fornos, who speaks with the pope regularly throughout the year either in personal or group meetings or on the phone, described Francis as a man convinced of the power of prayer.
“It’s not that he believes in an abstract way, but he believes from experience, because when someone prays from the heart, entrusts to the Lord their concerns, the Lord acts,” he said, adding that the pope places such a strong emphasis on prayer because he has experienced its power at a personal level.
As a Jesuit pope, Francis was familiar with the Jesuit-run network before his election, which has made it easier to work with him on various projects, Fornos said, explaining that it has also made it a bit easier for him to draft the intentions.
“When he speaks, I know his spiritual roots, so I can more easily interpret what he wants to say,” Fornos said, adding, “at times there are journalists who interpret what he says in a way that is not what he thinks, because they don’t understand his Ignatian spiritual roots.”
Though he has appreciated the individual style of every pope he’s worked with, Fornos said that as a French Jesuit working for a Jesuit pope largely influenced by French theologians such as Henri de Lubac, “(this) helps me a lot because I understand his thought and what he wants to say.”
Speaking of future projects, Fornos said the network on Friday will launch a new project called “The Way of the Heart,” which will be featured on a website and an app, and which is dedicated to spreading compassion, “because without compassion it’s very difficult to pray for others and for the world.”
Composed of a 9-month itinerary of growing in compassion, the project will offer believers biblical, spiritual and theological reflections, quotations from the pope, different spiritual exercises and other proposals for how to help someone during the month.
They also have several initiatives planned for Francis’s extraordinary missionary month, which will take place October 2019, coinciding with the special Synod of Bishops on the Amazon.