Players Vs. Prayers

Argentina Doesn’t Have A Prayer Today. Lucky Them?

Your sermon this Sunday morning: Is the power of prayer enough to overcome the German defense?

Pope Francis has made perhaps his most solemn vow: He’ll not pray for Argentina.

Even if it goes into penalties.

That’s saying something. I mean, this is the Pope after all. Praying is kind of his thing. And if today’s World Cup Final goes into extra time, there will be plenty of his fellow Argentinians begging for il Papa’s attention, tempted as they may be to make deals with the devil. So for this Pope, the first ever to hail from Latin America, to not to pray for heavenly intervention in o jogo bonito? Even to atheists, that’s a great sacrifice.

I believe it was Isaiah who didn’t say, Judge a man not by his shoes, but by his cleats. And that’s Pope Francis: He may live in the Vatican, but his kicks are planted firmly in his home country. (Let’s hope he didn’t pray for Italy either; their early departure would be a blemish on his famed game-time infallibility.) Pope Francis is not only an official member of his home country’s San Lorenzo de Almagro football club, but he’s also an avowed soccer fan in general—yet more proof he isn’t your grandfather’s pontiff. His predecessor, Pope Benedict, is a German who isn’t known to enjoy sports even when his country scores five! In the first half! Against Brazil! In Brazil! (Talk about a Jubilee!) But it’s such dutiful sacrifice that affirms Pope Francis’s official and indisputable status as History’s Coolest Pope, according to The People.

Okay, time for a water break, to cool our minds. Let’s analyze the state of play: History’s Coolest Pope cares about football. He loves Argentina. He clearly has a stake in the outcome of the game. (Let’s not be blind: that’s not a papal fanon he’s waving.) And when first asked whether he’d pray, he laughed and explained, “The Brazilians asked for neutrality.” Therefore “I’ll keep my word because Brazil and Argentina are always opponents.” But Brazil and Argentina aren’t opponents anymore. Frankly, if Argentina wanted to do Brazil a solid, they’d trounce Germany 7-0.

So why shouldn’t he pray?

First of all, there are easier ways to fix a match than to ask God to get involved. Trust me, FIFA is far more persuadable.

Second, I’ve always been intrigued by the supposed efficacy of prayer, especially for specific pleas. Take the studies suggesting that prayer among the older people helps them live longer. Just to play devil’s advocate, couldn’t it be that the elderly people who can still manage to get down on their knees—and back up again—or are active enough to get across town early on a Sunday morning are likely healthier to begin with than those who cannot? I don’t doubt that prayer brings peace to the penitent, resolve to the righteous. But even the most devout recognize there’s scant proof. That’s where faith comes in. That’s what faith is for.

Science is skeptical. According to science, prayer might actually do more harm than good. In a study of 1,800 patients facing heart surgery, prayer on their behalves had no positive effect; on the contrary, those who knew they were being prayed for actually suffered more post-operative complications than those who were unaware of the good tidings sent their way. The study surmised that prayers raised their expectations of how fast they’d recover; their disappointment caused them further grief.

As Malcolm Gladwell is my witness, I’d offer a counterintuitive theory about what’s going through those prayer-subjects’ minds: Hold on, are you saying I need heavenly help? I must be worse off than I thought. Don’t point that thing at me.

So when I think of Pope Francis—no slouch on the wisdom front, he—two prayerful possibilities seem likely as we approach kick-off:

One, he already has prayed for Argentina, but he’s cleverly kept it under his mitre. No sense making his home team think only God can help them against Germany.

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Two, he hasn’t yet prayed for Argentina, though he still may. Few rabid football fans would begrudge him if, as Messi steps forward to start the PKs against German keeper Manuel Neuer, his Holy Father doesn’t say a couple Hail Marys, Mother of God. (Wrong sport, and maybe wrong prayer, but you get the idea.)

And that’s fine.  Prayer can’t hurt—as long as, scientifically speaking, we don’t tell those for whom we pray. So il Papa, if you do decide to pray for Messi and the rest of La Albiceleste when push comes to shove (and to dive and to flop), in the stoppage time of extra time, no one would call for a foul if you kept it to your wise and holy self.