With her mother in the hospital for the second time in a matter of weeks, Aime O’Donovan felt the understandable need to connect with a higher being. So she reached for her cellphone and tapped out a text message.
“Keep my mom in your prayers please,” she wrote to a group of Franciscan friars at St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston. “Help her be okay.”
An instant later her phone signaled a reply. The friars, the text said, “will be honored to remember your intention in our daily prayer.”
And so it goes with these friars, who have expanded from pews to bytes, from the chapel to the iPhone, in their desire to minister to a flock that has more faith than time to practice it in more traditional ways.
“People do a lot of texting,” said Brother Jim McIntosh, a friar at St. Anthony. “It’s about facilitating the prayer requests.”
St. Anthony Shrine has received about three texted prayer requests a day since launching the initiative this spring. But that’s not the only virtual way it is reaching out. McIntosh and his religious brothers regularly connect with worshipers on Twitter and Facebook. They post to YouTube and Instagram. They even have a software program that transcribes the hundreds of voice-mail messages requesting prayers that arrive each month. And there are also, of course, about 20 prayer requests sent each day through old-fashioned e-mail.
All of the requests are printed out and delivered to a box in their private chapel on the fifth floor of the center, located on a narrow side street amid the cacophony of Downtown Crossing. Twice a day, once in the morning and then again in the afternoon, the friars gather to pray over the intentions.
If there is a particularly urgent or touching request, the friars will pray for it specifically, McIntosh said, though usually they pray for the messages collectively.
“God knows what they’re praying for already,” he said.
Most requests, texted and otherwise, are from people asking the friars to pray for their health or that of a relative or friend, McIntosh said. Other times, it’s folks struggling with depression. Occasionally, the friars are asked to pray that the sender find a romantic partner.
The outreach is part of a larger effort by the Friars of Holy Name Province, which runs St. Anthony and about 40 other parishes in the United States. The province began offering a national texting service for prayer requests last year. McIntosh said he decided to create one specifically tailored to St. Anthony because of texting’s popularity, especially among younger members.
O’Donovan, for one, said it’s deeply gratifying to be able to communicate with the friars and get a speedy response. She often forwards the messages and the replies to the friends and family she has requested prayers for.
Before moving to Abington, the 47-year-old went regularly to St. Anthony for more than two decades while she was working at a bank downtown — just as many other downtown workers did and still do. The ability to text message her prayers from suburbia is, well, something of a godsend.
“If it’s like 10 o’clock at night, you can shoot it off,” O’Donovan said. “It’s instantaneous, it’s comforting.”
According to Ron Simons of Greater Calling, a Christian group that provides services such as prayer requests via text and teleconferencing to religious groups, churches must embrace new technology if they are to survive.
Greater Calling began offering a texting service in 2007, Simons said, and demand for it has grown steadily, with a particularly large increase last year.
“The generation today that’s growing up, that’s how they live,” Simons said. “Their phone is their outlet to everything. Unless you embrace that, you’re going to see that your church is not going to grow.”
But don’t count on being be able to confess your sins over text or online any time soon. The Catholic Church says the sacrament of penance must be done in the physical presence of a priest.
“I don’t think it’s ecclesiastically possible,” McIntosh said.
For others, like Ann Magiera-Barger, that’s just fine. She puts in her prayer requests weekly, writing them down in neat script on the notepads in St. Anthony’s lobby, a method that predates e-mail. Mostly, she asks that the friars pray for the health of family and friends, particularly for several that have cancer. Texting doesn’t appeal to her.
“This is more personal,” Magiera-Barger said, pointing at the notepad. “It’s much better to take the time to come in and do it.”