Effort aims to unite people of all backgrounds in prayer for God’s mercy and healing as nation grapples with political, civil and social division

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DETROIT — For a single day, on Sept. 24, Fr. John Riccardo and his ACTS XXIX team want the entire country to stop what they’re doing and pray. 

The nation, torn by political and civil unrest, division and acrimony, desperately needs it, he contends. 

The grassroots idea for a National Day of Prayer and Fasting, sponsored by ACTS XXIX, a Detroit-based apostolate dedicated to parish renewal nationwide, was born after the team released a podcast episode about courageous leaders, said Fr. Riccardo, ACTS XXIX’s executive director. 

In particular, Fr. Riccardo was struck by the need to pray for wisdom in order to discern what to be courageous about. His own prayers led him to the figure of Abraham Lincoln; Lincoln, in his great wisdom, had led the country in days of prayer, fasting and humiliation three times over the course of the Civil War. 

“What particularly struck me was not only that he called for (this day) and the language that he used was very Christian, but also the fact that he was calling the whole country to do this on a particular day,” Fr. Riccardo told Detroit Catholic. “So, rather than an ongoing call to pray every Wednesday for the rest of our lives, let’s have the whole country, all men and women of goodwill, pray for a day.”

As the country remains ever more divided, only God can heal the hearts of men and women torn by division, which is necessary for true peace and unity, Fr. Riccardo said. 

Lincoln called for the first of these days in 1861 on the last Thursday of September. Although not trying to carbon copy Lincoln’s proclamation, Fr. Riccardo decided to put out a similar call for prayer and fasting on the last Thursday of September 2020. 

Fr. Riccardo added that Sep. 24 used to be the feast of Our Lady of Ransom, also known as Our Lady of Mercy. 

“It was dedicated to Mary, Our Lady of Ransom, because her son is the one who ransoms us or rescues us from captivity,” Fr. Riccardo said. 

The country and the Church today are at an important crossroads, just as they were in Lincoln’s day, Fr. Riccardo believes. In order to solve problems, it’s critical to take them first to God in prayer, he said.

The nationwide day of prayer and fasting is an invitation to everyone — Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and even atheists “who are willing to conceive there might be a God” — to join together in one mind, Fr. Riccardo said.

“We are at a place right now in the country where clearly we are going through tremendous upheaval — in the Church, in the culture, politically — there are cries of injustice and a need for unity and healing,” Fr. Riccardo said.

The problem, Fr. Riccardo said, is in our hearts. 

“Politics and law and public policies are very important, but they can’t fix the problem, they can’t fix the heart. Only God can fix the heart,” he said. “In the history of the Church, what God does so often is to turn people who once were enemies not simply into people who can tolerate each other, but who can love each other and call each other brother and sister.” 

To be Christian is to believe God acts in history, Fr. Riccardo added.

“He became man to rescue us, and his acts in history are not over. We are asking Him to act again right now,” he said. 

Participation might look different depending on a person’s religious affiliation and background, but Fr. Riccardo suggests Catholics consider praying at 3 p.m., the Hour of Mercy.

The nationwide day of prayer and fasting is an invitation to everyone — Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and even atheists “who are willing to conceive there might be a God” — to join together in one mind, Fr. Riccardo said. 

“Republicans, Democrats and Independents can set aside this day to fast until dinner and to ask for two very specific things in our prayers: for God’s mercy on our country and for the healing and conversion of our hearts,” he said.

To spread the word, the ACTS XXIX team has tapped into its networks across the country, reaching out to evangelical leaders, Protestant pastors, Catholic bishops and others, Fr. Riccardo said. 

They’ve also reached out to members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, in a hope that leaders will participate across the aisle. 

God acts in history and will continue to do so, Fr. Riccardo said. “He became man to rescue us, and His acts in history are not over. We are asking Him to act again right now,” he said.

Participation in the day might look different depending on a person’s religious affiliation and background, and that’s OK, Fr. Riccardo said. 

“We are really trying to make it open to all men and women of goodwill,” Fr. Riccardo said. “This is going to look different for a Catholic and an evangelical, or for a Jewish man or a Muslim woman, so it is intentionally left ambiguous so people can do whatever they most want to do.”

For Catholics, however, Fr. Riccardo suggested it might be powerful if everyone came together in prayer at 3 p.m. — the Hour of Mercy. 

“What would it be like if we could somehow hear and feel one another’s knees around the country hit the ground at the same time on that day, begging God for mercy, healing and conversion?” he said. 

For more information about the National Day of Prayer and Fasting or to help spread the word, visit the ACTS XXIX website.