PRAY-ERS for priests
Seven Sisters Apostolate in the Archdiocese of San Francisco
By Christina Gray
Seven lay women pray for one priest or bishop for one hour each week as part of the Seven Sisters Apostolate. At stake, they say, is the Church itself.
One day a week, Donna Mohr kneels before the tabernacle at St. Dominic Church for an hour to pray for Dominican Father Michael Hurley, pastor. She said she brings a chaplet of prayers for St. Michael the Archangel to keep her “focused” on him.
“I had never in my life said to anyone, ‘I’m going to pray a Holy Hour for you,’” Mohr said. “But I believe my prayers can help strengthen our pastor. When he is fortified by prayer, he can do more for others.”
The longtime parishioner is one of seven laywomen at the parish who pray especially for the intentions of Father Hurley as part of a ministry called the Seven Sisters Apostolate. Each has committed to a full year of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, praying a Holy Hour of their choice on different days of the week.
Laywomen have enthusiastically responded to the call to pray for priests since the San Francisco parish introduced the apostolate four years ago. St. Dominic formed not just the Seven Sisters ‘team’ that supports its pastor, but four others that support the individual priests of the parish and other members of the Dominican community.
St. Dominic was also the springboard for a Seven Sisters team supporting the ministry of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone. Today the archbishop has three separate Seven Sisters teams praying for him throughout the Archdiocese, with several members at Church of the Nativity. The Menlo Park parish offers perpetual adoration.
Seven Sisters: Modern revival of a medieval tradition
Kathleen Folan, St. Dominic’s director of family and youth ministries, admits that she thought the Seven Sisters Apostolate sounded “a little new age-y,” when she first heard about it. Still, the more she learned of the apostolate formed just over 10 years ago by a laywoman in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the more she saw a Dominican connection and a future for it at her parish.
Before founding the Order of Preachers friars, St. Dominic first set up a monastery of cloistered nuns in Prouilhe, France. He knew that prayer would be needed for this new order to fulfill its missionary role.
“Convents have declined in number, but laywomen are ready and willing to rise to the occasion and fill in the gap as best we can in the midst of our busy lives,” said Folan.
She said many Catholic laywomen, including herself, were left feeling crushed and powerless by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report in 2018. It found clergy sex abuse and cover-ups in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses, and it implicated 300 priests.
More than ever, Folan, like others, just “wanted to do something.” She found that in the Seven Sisters Apostolate.
“Prayer is the best weapon we possess,” she said, quoting St. Padre Pio.
“Priests are always the first targets of demonic attack,” said Eva Muntean, a parishioner at Star of the Sea Parish in San Francisco, who started a Seven Sisters team for Father Joseph Illo, pastor, and parochial vicar Father Michael Konopik. “We must surround them with the armor of our prayers to protect them.”
She said “Satan would like nothing more than to frustrate the salvific mission of Jesus.” While he cannot corrupt or frustrate Jesus, she said, “We know all too well that he can corrupt and frustrate those who are ‘in persona Christi’ (in the person of Christ).”
Intercessory prayer for a priest’s “conformity to Christ”
Catholic laywomen in the Seven Sisters Apostolate are praying for priests and bishops in more than 1,350 parishes, chanceries, seminaries, hospitals and other locations around the world, according to sevensistersapostolate.org.
The landing page states its mission: “That our prayers may find the hearts of every priest and bishop.” The aim is to strengthen the Church by strengthening the priesthood through a Holy Hour prayed daily for the sole intention of a specific priest or bishop – a “holy wasting” (Mt. 26:10) or lavishing of prayer for his deeper conformity to Christ.
In 2010, Janette Howe decided to pray more frequently and intentionally for her pastor, Father Joseph R. Johnson, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota. Janette’s son was studying for the priesthood, and Father Johnson was generous in his guidance and support.
In gratitude, Howe decided to offer a Holy Hour once a week for him. She delighted in offering the hour and trusting he was benefiting from the graces and enjoyed the private, steady rhythm and ritual of her commitment.
Praying for her pastor helped her stop and appreciate the scope of his “robust” responsibilities, she said.
“I have a son who is a priest,” she said. “A lot is asked of them.”
One day in 2011, she inaudibly “heard” the words “Seven Sisters” while in prayer for Father Johnson. Howe sensed clearly that the Lord wanted her to invite six others – seven in total – to offer one Holy Hour a day for Father Johnson, just as she was doing.
In time, she told Father Johnson, who encouraged her to start a Seven Sisters Apostolate at seven churches with 49 women in total. Today the apostolate continues to grow organically without promotion as it seeks formal Church approval.
Seven Sisters is modeled after the prayerful devotion of St. Mary Magdalene, a “model of prayerful extravagance,” according to Howe.
“The beauty of this apostolate is that it is so simple,” she said. “One woman, one priest, one hour.”
Moored in prayer by an “anchoress”
Each Seven Sisters Apostolate is led by an “anchoress.” In the Middle Ages, the term denoted someone who withdrew from secular society to lead an intensely prayer-oriented, ascetic and Eucharist-focused life.
In a modern context, the anchoress of a Seven Sisters prayer team does not live such an austere life. But she is called to find members willing to commit to a year of prayer for a priest and to coordinate the team. She prays for their fidelity, and she herself commits to two years of prayer.
Priests are contacted by the anchoress with the apostolate’s gift of prayer to him. In turn she relays to the group any particular intentions the priest might request. (All communications regarding intentions are strictly confidential.)
The structure is simple: each “sister” chooses a different day of the week to pray their Holy Hour. It can be made in any church, preferably in front of a tabernacle.
“How to spend this hour is up to each woman, and can differ each week,” said Folan. A substitute is secured to ensure that, in case of emergencies and family vacations, the prayers continue uninterrupted.
A true sisterhood is formed between members of a team, despite the fact that there is infrequent interaction between them on their prayer mission. Many report an awakening of new dimensions in their own spirituality as a result of prayers for priests.
“When we pray the Nicene Creed, we pray for all things visible and invisible,” said Mohr. “This is really bringing my attention to a world that we cannot see, the spiritual world. It keeps my life in perspective.”
What do priests say?
Howe was told by a priest at Ave Maria University in Florida, who was supported in prayer by a Seven Sisters team, that he “stood taller” after it started praying for him.
Another priest told her he felt like the “cripple being lowered through the roof” of the church.
“I was kind of envious in a way that I didn’t have these people praying specifically for me,” said Dominican Father Anthony Rosevear, when he heard Father Hurley talk about his Seven Sisters. Father Rosevear leads the Western Dominican Province novitiate located in St. Dominic’s Priory at the parish.
“But then that happened for me, and it was a great gift,” he said. “I really do feel supported by them, the regularity of their prayer for me in my own ministry is a great, great support.”
Father Rosevear considers prayer armor for a priest.
“A priest is on the front lines,” he said. “Satan is all the more powerfully going to attack that in many ways. If he can gain you, he has not only gained you; he has gained many, many souls, as we’ve seen in the priest scandal.”
A priest’s actions and words are judged more severely, and rightfully so, he said, “because any action or word they use can be detrimental to a person’s faith.”
When he first met his Seven Sisters, Father Hurley lightheartedly asked them, “How many women does it take for a priest to get into heaven?”
He said being asked for his own prayer intentions was at first “almost outside my comfort zone.”
“As a priest people ask me to pray for them all the time,” he said. But it’s not often that people ask a priest how they can pray for him.
He said he “certainly need prayers like anyone else,” but didn’t often think of it in that way.
“This has helped me in asking for what I need from the Lord. To know that there are people who are literally praying for me helps me to form my own intentions to keep me available to the grace God has for me.”
Father Hurley said Seven Sisters is an example of “new evangelization the Church has been calling for.” It’s the lay faithful who are being called to preach the Gospel.
“By praying for priests, they are truly helping us get the word out there,” he said.
–Gray is the lead writer, Catholic San Francisco, firstname.lastname@example.org