“Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (Jm 5:14-15).

Through intercessory prayer, we bring someone else’s needs before God, trusting God to take care of others, whether they are loved ones, friends, enemies, or total strangers. Praying for the living and the dead is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy.

Intercessory prayer is a powerful way to support others spiritually. This can be done in a general way — as when we pray for the faithful departed, the poor or victims of a natural disaster — or specifically by praying for a particular person by name. We may not be in a position to help others in a particular way every time a need is expressed, but we are always given the opportunity to pray for them.

God knows our cares and concerns and wants us to entrust those to him. The Gospel stories of the healing of Jairus’ daughter (Lk 8:40-42,49-56), the man born deaf (Mk 7:31-37), and the paralytic lowered by his friends through the roof of the house where Jesus was staying (Mk 2:1-12) all speak to the faith of people who approach God. These are not concerned with what they want for themselves, but with the needs of someone else. In the story of the paralytic, for example, it was the faith of the man’s friends that led Jesus to cure the man (Mk 2:5).

Young children can learn to intercede for others in prayer as part of a family prayer routine that includes “God bless Mommy and Daddy and Grandma and Grandpa …”, and such a litany is an excellent way to help children understand the importance of praying for other people. But praying for others is not something we should stop doing as we grow into adulthood. We are always encouraged to pray for others, ultimately entrusting their needs to God’s will.

At the end of the Book of Job, Eliphaz the Temanite was seeking God’s forgiveness and was directed by God to seek Job’s prayers as intercession. “Go to my servant Job, and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves, and let my servant Job pray for you. To him I will show favor and not punish your folly for you have not spoken rightly concerning me, as has my servant Job” (Job 42:8). We, too, can become “prayer warriors” for our family and friends: people who can be counted on to pray for their needs immediately and consistently.

In the story of Job, we see that intercessory prayer is not only effective, but it can benefit the one who does the praying. Job, who prayed for others despite his personal trials, grew in humility and selflessness and was ultimately rewarded when the Lord restored his fortunes (Job 42:10). When we ask God to have mercy on someone else, we too can develop greater mercy and humility.

Just as we might pray for someone in need, whether a loved one, friend, or stranger, we can also call upon the saints in heaven to pray for them as well — or for our own needs. We know that the saints are in the presence of God, and we believe that they care for us. As Pope St. Paul VI observed, “We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are attaining their purification, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion the merciful love of God and His saints is ever listening to our prayers” (Solemni Hac Liturgia, No. 30).

In the Gospels, we are clearly instructed not only to pray for our loved ones, but even to pray on behalf of those who harm us. Jesus commands us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:44-45). Even at his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for the ones who put him to death: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). St. Stephen, the first martyr, echoed this prayer at the moment of his own death when he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

Where do we see this in the Mass?

The Universal Prayer, or “Prayer of the Faithful,” brings the needs of the Church and the community, even including the faithful departed, before God. During the Eucharistic Prayer, we pray for the universal Church, including the pope and our bishop, and remember the faithful departed, praying that God will welcome them to heaven.

3 practical ways to pray this way:

  1. Pray an Intentional Rosary. Designate a special intention for each decade, or even each bead, of the Rosary.
  2. Keep a list of prayer intentions in a journal. Make a habit of regular prayer for those in your list.
  3. Place a picture of someone for whose needs you’re praying, or a card with their name, in your Bible or prayer book. Pray for that person every time you see it.

What do the saints say about intercessory prayer?

“How pleasing to Him it will be if you sometimes forget yourself and speak to Him of His own glory, of the miseries of others, especially those who mourn in sorrow; of the souls in purgatory, His spouses, who long to behold Him in Heaven; and of poor sinners who live deprived of His grace” (St. Alphonsus Liguori, How to Pray at All Times).

Barb Szyszkiewicz, a Secular Franciscan, is editor at CatholicMom.com and author ofThe Handy Little Guide to Prayer” (OSV, $5.95). Read more from the prayer series here.