By Gretchen Keiser | Catholic News Service
CONYERS, Ga. (CNS) — If you wish to help build up the kingdom of God, but with the simplest, most hidden path, consider this: Give one hour of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, one day a week, every week, for your pastor.
“There is nothing more comforting for a pastor or a priest ministering in a parish than to know the parishioners are praying for him,” said Father Juan Areiza, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Conyers, who receives this support.
“That fills us with strength, that fills us with hope, that fills us also with love for our ministry in the parish,” he said.
People may not realize how powerful prayers for their priest can be, he said, or how necessary.
“We priests need lots of prayer, especially from the people we shepherd. Not just from our parents, not just from our friends who know us well … but from the people we are living with, the people we are giving our lives for.”
In 2010, Janette Howe thought of offering a weekly Holy Hour for her pastor in St. Paul, Minnesota, as she witnessed his pastoral care in a busy parish and also knew he was offering guidance and support to her son who was in the seminary.
Without fanfare, she began spending an hour before the Blessed Sacrament each Thursday solely for the intention of her pastor, Father Joseph R. Johnson, who at the time was rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul.
During one such Holy Hour, in March 2011, the words “seven sisters” came to her mind. She thought about this and gradually discerned with excitement that she was being inspired to expand her once-a-week hour to a daily hour for Father Johnson, if six other women would join her, each praying on a different day of the week.
At that point, she told her pastor of how she’d been praying for him and sought his advice. He directed her to start the apostolate by seeking seven women at each of seven parishes in the St. Paul area, 49 women in all, who would embrace this call to pray one holy hour one day a week for their seven respective pastors.
This was the foundation of the Seven Sisters Apostolate.
Its mission is described as “one Holy Hour/one priest/each week/one heart of prayer.”
Since June 2011, the apostolate has grown to about 1,350 parishes and Catholic centers across the United States and in Canada, Spain, Italy and other countries.
The woman who forms a Seven Sisters group is called the anchoress. The first group in a parish is formed for the pastor. Once that is established, a second group can be started for the parochial vicar or other priests in residence, but each group has its own anchoress and seven sisters.
Groups also have been started for some bishops and for Pope Francis and retired Pope Benedict XVI.
Father Johnson continues to serve as spiritual adviser to the apostolate, Howe said, and Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis also encourages the ministry.
Awareness of the apostolate has spread through Catholic media and word of mouth, particularly in Midwest parishes.
In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, there are about eight to 10 groups. Women who have responded say it is because this call resonates in their own prayer lives, in their desire to support a priest’s vocation, in their love for the church and in their attraction to a hidden ministry.
Howe said the response of so many women to the apostolate leads her to the insight that “God has long been preparing hearts to respond to this prayer effort, mine included.”
“Many women express that they have been waiting for something like this to come to their awareness. … Their response is swift, generous and sure,” she said in an email to The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
“This reinforces that this is not a new work — but one in the recesses of the heart of God — one that God invited us to join in 2011,” she added.
Howe still prays every Thursday for her current pastor at the Cathedral of St. Paul and is part of two other Seven Sisters groups with different priest recipients. She often travels and speaks about the ministry.
The apostolate provides a simple structure and a wealth of spiritual support and prayer resources, including intercessory prayer for the women who pray. Howe writes a monthly communique for those who take part in the apostolate.
A prayer booklet suggests possible aids for the Holy Hour, but each woman participating is free to pray as she feels led. Materials are available in English and Spanish.
The patron saints of the apostolate are Mary, under the title of Madonna of the Grapes; St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests; and St. Margaret Clitherow, who was martyred in the 1500s in England for hiding priests and helping them continue to celebrate Mass during persecution of Catholics.
“The Seven Sisters Apostolate is a call to strengthen the church by ensuring that a holy hour is prayed each day of the week for the sole intention of a specific priest or bishop — a ‘holy wasting’ or lavishing of prayer for his deeper conformity to Christ,” the apostolate website explains.
In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the apostolate began in 2017 at St. Pius X Church in Conyers.
Beth Gowasack, a parishioner for more than 20 years, saw a church bulletin notice about the apostolate while visiting her daughter’s family in St. Paul. She felt a strong attraction to the ministry immediately.
“I don’t know when I have felt so much belief in a ministry, and I think it stems from my own personal experience with intercessory prayer — lifting up someone and seeing God at work in someone’s life in response to that prayer,” she said.
Beth and her husband, Brian, raised their four children in the parish and she has been part of other essential ministries over the years, including as a catechist and office volunteer.
“There are lots of ways to support my pastor,” she said. “All are good and needed.”
But this unseen way of supporting the pastor dovetailed with her gift of intercessory prayer and her awareness of the difficulties in the life of a parish priest.
“The idea of the humanness of the priest was communicated to me at a very early age,” she said. When scandal came to the parish where she grew up in Indiana, “my parents never wavered,” she recalled, “and it was somehow communicated to me that these men are not perfect and this was a very difficult life.”
“I do think their lives are very hard. If my vocation as a wife and mother is hard, if I have moments of loneliness and doubt, why can’t he be having the same thing? It is no different. He is living a vocation,” she said.
The apostolate doesn’t create any personal relationship between the priest and those praying for him, Gowasack emphasized. The expectation is that it’s a gift to the priest.
When a group forms, the anchoress writes the priest a letter to let him know.
“This isn’t a buddy-buddy system. It is a ministry of prayer and intercession. … You are praying for him because he is your shepherd,” Gowasack said.
“You go before the Blessed Sacrament. He is your only intention. I think that is part of the power, part of the giving,” she explained. “You drop anything you are holding in your hands. The hour is only for him. I think that is all part of the beauty of it.”
“I can’t think of anything simpler. You’re in this parish with hundreds of people,” added Gowasack. “With the help of the Holy Spirit, you’re going to be able to find seven women to do this.”
Note: To learn more about the Seven Sisters Apostolate, visit sevensistersapostolate.org.