Prayers in Catholic schools?

It was a Catholic campus, so the history professor was free to voice a prayer before every test on behalf of his nervous students.

"Father," he always said, "we pray for your assistance this morning for each student in keeping with his level of preparation. Amen."

So meditate on that, undergraduates, while you grip your No. 2 pencils. The students knew their professor's goal was to communicate a sobering message to each of them, as opposed to reaching an Academic Authority on high. It was not a prayer intended to provide comfort or to inspire thanksgiving.

This was one of many stories that philosopher Gregory Beabout heard when he asked colleagues if he should start his Saint Louis University classes with prayer. This is the kind of question that lingers in the minds of some religious-school teachers at the start of each new school year.

Some professors told Beabout that pre-class prayers were shallow and theatrical and might even violate warnings by Jesus against hypocritical public prayers. Many said classroom prayers would violate the rights of non-religious students, even though the classes were not in a public school. More than a few worried that friends who taught at secular schools would laugh, or be condescending, if they heard that prayers were common in Catholic classrooms.

One professor challenged Beabout to produce some good reasons that teachers and students should pray together. This approach left the philosopher puzzled.

"Are we to set up a chart with the reasons 'pro' on one side and the reasons 'con' on the other side, and do a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis to determine if prayer in the classroom at a Catholic university is appropriate?", asked Beabout, in a journal article on this topic. "Is the burden of proof on the side of prayer?"

In the end, he decided to open his classes with the Lord's Prayer. He feared, at first, that a student might complain to the campus newspaper or the administration. Beabout said he wasn't worried about what would happen in classes such as "Catholic Social Thought" and "Christian Existentialism," since they tended to attract religious students. But he also taught a survey course entitled "Historical Introduction to Philosophy," which was a required course for nearly all undergraduates.

But most students simply bowed their heads and prayed, with no great fanfare. Several Protestants said they welcomed the chance to say the Lord's Prayer, although one said he didn't want to have "to pray to Mary or something." A devout Jew said he wasn't offended, because he knew that Christians who chose to attend a Yeshiva would hear Hebrew prayers. Muslim students said they did not feel uncomfortable, since they did not have to join in the prayers. They were perfectly capable of watching members of another faith pray.

The only objections that reached Beabout came from people whom he described as "liberalized or secularized" Christians. A few were offended, even if they merely heard about the prayers second-hand. Meanwhile, many more academics greeted his decision with "raised eyebrows" and wry smiles, as opposed to open opposition.

"I think many people are simply embarrassed to talk about this," he said, looking back over five years of praying in the classroom. "What seems to bother them is the very idea that something that is supposedly private, such as prayer, might in some way be related to something that is public, such as education. ... Yet this attempt to divide the public and the private is simply foreign to the Catholic tradition. We are supposed to be building institutions in which we can face these kinds of issues -- together."

Whatever misgivings he had vanished after one memorable class. Beabout arrived late and rushed into his lecture. A student raised her hand and said, "We forgot to pray." Before Beabout could make the sign of the cross and start to pray, she added: "My godmother just found out she has a brain tumor. ... Can we pray for her?"

What was the philosopher supposed to say?

The student is now at Harvard Law School and she still stays in touch. The godmother's tumor was benign.