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Are Catholics Guilty of “Vain Repetition”?


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In Matthew 6:7, Christ said, “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (RSV). The Protestant King James version renders it this way, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye, therefore, like unto them.” (cf. Sirach 7:10).

Some understand the command to avoid “vain repetition” as a condemnation of Catholic formula prayers, such as the rosary. But did Christ really mean that repeating prayers, as Catholics do, is wrong?

No. And here’s how we can know this for sure.

Christ condemned “vain repetition,” but he did not condemn repetition itself. He singled out the prayers of pagans who invoked false gods (e.g. Zeus, Apollo, Diana, etc.). Such prayers are vain because those gods don’t exist. The priests of the false god Ba’al did exactly this in their contest against Elijah in 1 Kings 18:20-40. (Read the passage and see where all that vain babbling got them!)

But he did not forbid repetitious prayers per se, because, in Matthew 6:9-15, immediately after forbidding vain repetition, he gave us the greatest of all prayers, the Our Father. It seems clear that he intended this prayer to be repeated because he said, when you pray “Pray then like this.”

During his Passion, while in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ repeated the same prayer three times during his agony (cf. Matthew 26:44). “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.’ Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.’ So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.” Why would Christ do something that he told us was wrong, if repeating prayers was, in fact, wrong?

The Holy Spirit inspired many repetitious prayers in Scripture and intended that they be prayed and sung frequently by believers.

Psalm 136 is a good example of repetitious prayer especially because it was inspired by the Holy Spirit! The phrase: “For His Steadfast love (mercy) endures forever,” is repeated many times. Similar repetitious prayers are scattered through sections of the Old Testament. Consider, for example, Psalm 136:

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,

for his steadfast love endures for ever. O give thanks to the God of gods,

for his steadfast love endures for ever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

to him who alone does great wonders,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

to him who by understanding made the heavens,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

to him who spread out the earth upon the waters,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

to him who made the great lights,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

the sun to rule over the day,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

the moon and stars to rule over the night,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

to him who smote the first-born of Egypt,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

and brought Israel out from among them,

for his steadfast love endures for ever ... etc.

Psalm 150 contains eleven repetitions of the prayer ““praise the Lord” and “praise him” within just five verses! Similarly, Daniel 3:57-90 contains many repetitions of “Bless the Lord.”

And finally, look at Revelation 4:8-11:

“And the four beasts ... rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. And when those beasts give glory and honor and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that lives for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” Isaiah 6:1-3 indicates that the Seraphic angels in heaven also repeat this prayer before the throne of God.

Christ did not mean that we should not use repetitious prayers, after all, he did. The Bible does, and the saints and angels in heaven do. The Bible is clear that while here on earth, so can we. Keep in mind that what Christ forbade is mindless, mechanical “prayers,” in particular those of pagans invoking the assistance of “gods” who did not even exist, much less could they hear and answer those prayers.

Patrick Madrid is an author, public speaker, and the publisher of Envoy Magazine. Visit his web site at www.surprisedbytruth.com

Additional verses: Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 1:9; 1 Thess. 3:10, 5:17; 2 Timothy 1:3

Related Catechism sections: CCC 2759-2865

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