Dear Father Angelo,
It’s with devotion, but also distress, that I write to you. I’m a seminarian and I already wrote to you some time ago. I would like you to enlighten me about a matter that is confusing and distressing me a lot. The matter regards God’s will, personal vocation, and prayer. I start by saying that I really value your website and I hold your advice in high regard, but it puzzled me when, in a few of your answers, you decisively write that God’s will is absolutely immutable, so much that prayer would not change it. I especially refer to the particular and specific vocation each one of us has. Does immutability apply here, too? Is there a one and only path that the Lord has prepared for us? And is it already written? And perpetually immutable? (Many priests do not say this about particular vocation) What if a person felt within himself the strong desire to become a priest, but he would face barriers along his path (maybe obstacles derived from health problems or some personal struggle with particular aspects of the priestly life)? Gathered that – because of those problems – it seems that this is not his vocation, but feeling a strong desire anyway, couldn’t he ask God for the grace to overcome those problems? Could he not ask God the grace to confirm his calling to be a priest? Is it possible to ask God the grace to be called to Him to a particular state of life, like priesthood? Is it possible to ask God the grace to transform or change a certain suffering or barrier on the path to become a priest? Until now I thought it possible, and I trustily prayed… but anguish and despair took over me when I read some of your considerations on God’s will and the prayer that cannot change it, in any way. How is it possible? How do you reconcile the absolute immutability of God’s will with the almighty prayer that wins over God’s heart even in the most desperate cases? If God’s were absolutely immutable then, for instance, when diseases or sufferings happen in life, it would be useless or wrong to pray so that the situation could change, since it should be said that it’s God’s will and, allowing evil for a greater good, it cannot be changed. Thus, is it possible that there are cases when it can be said that God’s will “changes” or grants a particular grace or a particular state of life thanks to prayer? Feeling that – as things stand now and because of several obstacles – the desired priestly vocation doesn’t seem to be God’s will, does one commit a sin if he asks God a special grace, that He allows this call and this life path? SO CAN WE ASK GOD THAT HIS WILL CHANGED IN A PRECISE MOMENT OF OUR LIFE AND WITH REGARD TO A PARTICULAR STATE OF LIFE?
Anxious and distressed, I look forward to your answer.
The priest’s answer
1. Recently (Sunday 24th of the Ordinary Time year b) the second reading was taken from the letter of James and it said: “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change” (Jas 1:17).
2. The Letter to the Hebrews also recalls the immutability of God: “At the beginning, O Lord, you established the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain; and they will all grow old like a garment. You will roll them up like a cloak, and like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” (Heb 1:10-12).
3. Claiming that God could change is the same thing as denying He is perfect.
If he could change, He would lack something that He has not yet acquired.
“So, – St. Thomas writes – some of the ancients, constrained, as it were, by the truth, decided that the first principle was immovable (God)” (Summa Theologiae, I, 9, 1).
It’s clear the reference to Aristotle, who spoke of God as an unmoved mover.
4. St. Augustine writes: “I find that my God, the eternal God, has not made any creature by any new will, nor that His knowledge suffers anything transitory” (Confessions, XII, 15).
God does not change His mind, as we, who are limited, do.
Rather, not only He does not change His mind, but He cannot want anything in the first place, because He is in eternity, in the immutable moment.
5. Regarding prayer and more specifically whether prayer can change the plans of Divine Providence, St. Thomas, after mentioning two mistakes, addresses a third one (that is yours) and writes:
“There was a third opinion of those who held that human affairs are indeed ruled by Divine providence, and that they do not happen of necessity; yet they deemed the disposition of Divine providence to be changeable, and that it is changed by prayers and other things pertaining to the worship of God.
All these opinions were disproved in the First Part. (…).
In order to throw light on this question we must consider that Divine providence disposes not only what effects shall take place, but also from what causes and in what order these effects shall proceed.
Now among other causes human acts are the causes of certain effects. Wherefore it must be that men do certain actions, not that thereby they may change the Divine disposition, but that by those actions they may achieve certain effects according to the order of the Divine disposition. And the same is to be said of natural causes.
And so is it with regard to prayer. For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers in other words: “that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give,” as Gregory says (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 83,2).
And: “For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers” (Ib.).
6. To answer your specific question, we pray to the Lord to obtain the recovery that He decided to give us because of the elevation of our soul to Him. Prayer is ultimately this.
Elevating our soul to God, we prepare ourselves to receive the gifts that God wants to concede so that we can use them according to His will, that is for our sanctification.
But if the good we ask for is not in His providential plans, we will not receive it. That’s why He taught us to say: “Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven”.
Nevertheless, the humble and persevering prayer, addressed to a grace we will not receive, is not without merit before God.
Because as long as we pray, we remain open to the action of God and He showers us with many useful graces for our sanctification and our eternal life.
7. Again, regarding the vocation, you ask whether it’s possible to pray to obtain the grace of vocation if “as things stand now and because of several obstacles, the desired priestly vocation doesn’t seem to be God’s will”.
Here it’s necessary to be cautious because who can be sure that the vocation is not there in any way?
It’s true that sometimes it seems that there aren’t the preconditions for an authentic vocation. But it could also be that God has connected this grace to a radical change of the situation, through an intense and profound prayer.
Here too, prayer does not change God’s plans, but it realizes them.
I wish you all the best, I entrust you to the Lord and I bless you.