Why do Catholics Believe in Repetitious Prayer? *


The Psalms formed the prayer book and hymnal of the ancient Jewish people. Psalm 136 has twenty-six lines, each one ending with the refrain: "God's love endures forever!" This and similar psalms, which were chanted responsively, are the forerunners of several popular forms of repetitive Catholic prayer.


In light of such biblical examples, it's puzzling how some Christians claim that repetitious prayers are condemned by Jesus. They quote his words: "In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words" (Mt 6:7; the King James Version, still popular among many Protestants, refers to "vain repetitions"). But Jesus was a faithful Jew who took part in weekly Sabbath worship at the synagogue (see Lk 4:16). So he himself would have prayed psalms with repetitious elements.


In both Jewish and Catholic worship and prayer, repetition simply indicates emphasis on the importance of a thought. Repetition, then, isn't a bad thing in itself. Rather, Jesus is condemning empty repetition, not all forms of repetition. The Greek word battalogeo means "to repeat idly," or "meaningless and mechanically repeated phrases," as in pagan (not Jewish) modes of prayer. Our Lord is thus rejecting prayers uttered without the proper reverence for God.


As usual, Jesus is concerned with the inner dispositions of the worshiper (see Mt 7:21-23; 15:8-9), not with mere outward appearance. "The Lord looks into the heart" (1 Sm 16:7).


The same is true of formal prayers -- that is, prayers whose words have a set form. Again, some Christians think that Jesus' words quoted above condemn such prayers. But Jesus himself would have used formal prayers in the synagogue. In fact, after warning against  babbling, our Lord goes on to provide us one of the most famous formal prayers of all: the Our Father (see Mt 6:9-13).


Actually, all Christians probably make use of spiritual songs whose words have a set form. Since many of these songs are prayers addressed to God, then all of these Christians in fact use formal prayers, just as Catholics do.


Formal prayer allows groups of believers to pray in unison, not just in a particular gathering but also over the world and even across generation--an important expression of the unity of our faith. At the same time, formal prayers, especially those taken from sacred Scripture and Tradition, shape our thoughts and desires as we pray, making them more in keeping with God's revelation.


Other related scriptures: Is 1:11-15; Dn 3:51-90.


Catechism of the Catholic Church: 2625: 2678; 2700-2704.


*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com


Additional insights at: www.catholic.com


See also: Prayers