Does it matter whether we pray or not, as long as we are good?

It matters a great deal, and partly because we can't even be good without God's help. We may think we are being good; we may even look as if we are good; but if we are turned in upon ourselves, all our actions are done for a kind of secret self-glorification, or to benefit ourselves in some subtle way. It is only when we are turned outwards from ourselves that our good actions are truly good, and that turning outwards is done in prayer.

Of course, there are many types of prayer, and we may be praying without realizing it. Prayer does not have to be verbal. What is essential to all prayer is a kind of receptivity, or openness, towards that which transcends us. In Christian prayer this becomes a form of communion with the Holy Spirit living in the heart – so that, paradoxically, a turning outwards, if it is also a turning 'upwards', reveals to us our true centre.

Is there any point in being baptized, if you never go to church or behave like a Christian?

Baptism changes us. It marks our soul: in fact it gives birth to a new life. All of that grace can be covered over and hidden, especially if we lead a degenerate life, but one day the gulf between what we were called to be and what we have become will be revealed, to our shame. Alternatively, the grace of Baptism can be reawakened, can burst back into life and flower in us once more. See the article How can Catholicism be true when Catholics are so dead?

Many non-Christians, or Christians of other denominations, show more kindness and humanity in their lives than many Catholics. Does this mean that Catholic practices are not really effective?

Catholic practices are not magic: they don't automatically bring about 'kindness and humanity'. To the outward practice of our religion must be added the hard work of inner effort, together with the grace of God that comes in answer to prayer.

Many of us receive communion regularly without much effect. Why is this?

See above.

Can a good non-Christian be saved?

Of course. See Catechism paras 846-8: 'Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.' But they are saved by Christ, whether they know it or not, because 'there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved' (Acts 4:12).

In fact this may surprise you, but no other great religious leader or founder even claims to 'save' in the same way Jesus does (see the article on Christianity and Other Religions).

Many prayers are very repetitive. Why do we say them over and over again (the Rosary, for example)?

Actually, in one sense all words in prayer are superfluous, because God knows what we are thinking and feeling. In another sense they are helpful, because they lead and focus our thoughts and feelings. When the words have actually been given to us by God in Holy Scripture and through the Church (the great prayers of the Our father, the Hail Mary and the Liturgy), then they have an added benefit, in that they deepen our communion with the mind and Spirit of the Church herself, praying in unity at the feet of the Father.

You can think of the set forms of prayer as like a mould or water channel, into which we can pour the whole of ourselves, flowing towards God and into the world, re-shaping us in the image of the Son, who is always in an attitude of prayer.

It is also worth reflecting that, while the words of these prayers are the same from day to day 'it is impossible to step into the same river twice'. In fact, because we ourselves are different moment by moment, bringing new concerns and feelings and moods, new thoughts and memories, into the prayer that we offer, the prayer is also new and fresh.

What is the difference between praying to God and praying to the saints? Why do we need to pray to Our Lady and the saints if we already have God to pray to?

Prayer is always directed to God, but it can be mediated or assisted by the saints. The saints, remember, are just friends that we know are in heaven with God. (Catechism, 954-9.) They are fully in God. To speak interiorly with them in prayer and even to ask their help is not to treat them as somehow separate from God and more useful to us than he is, but to recognize that God is with and in them, and that they may be closer to God than we are. Nor does that mean that they are 'in the way', getting between us and God, as sometimes Protestants have thought. A road is not 'in the way' if we want to get closer to the end of the road!

The point is that the saints, including all those good people who have gone to heaven but not been officially canonized (whom we celebrate on All Saints day), are alive in God, and yet they remain part of the Church and interested in us. In prayer, we can communicate with them, receive inspiration and encouragement from them, implore their own prayers on our behalf, and so on. It is a great comfort to think that, if we feel our own prayers to be weak and confused, we can ask someone else to pray for us, or to help us to pray.

Do angels exist?

See the article on Angels in 'Supplementary Questions'.

What does Jesus dying on the Cross have to do with me? How can one man's suffering free everyone from sin?

Remember that Jesus was God as well as man. The Church says that he 'assumed us in the state of our waywardness' (Catechism, 603). That is to say, he incorporated us within himself. He was not separate from us on the Cross, the way any other individual might have been. St Paul calls him the 'second Adam' because of this. The humanity of Adam had become divided up through time into millions of parts. Now Jesus gathers us all together again, not biologically but spiritually. Through the Holy Spirit, which he sent out into the hearts of all who do not reject him, he joined us to himself, in our humanity. This means in our suffering, which he also assimilated. It was not the suffering that saved us, but rather the love that took that suffering upon itself. (Catechism, paras 521, 616-18.)

Can one get to heaven without suffering?

Let's put it this way: hardly anyone does. That doesn't mean we have to go in search of suffering, but we should be prepared for it when it comes.

It is not just Christianity that talks about suffering, of course. Suffering (Dukkha) is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. But whereas Buddhism teaches the extinction of suffering through the extinction of desire, the Way of Christianity is the sacramentalization of suffering. God has taken all human suffering into himself, in order to turn it into a way of revealing his love, and so suffering itself becomes a path to him. 'I did not come to end suffering, but to fill it with my presence' (Charles Péguy).

Of course, God does not want us to suffer! The existence of suffering is the result of evil, which is not God's work. But since it does now exist, to the extent that we cannot avoid or relieve it, God can make use of it. When suffering comes, our first (human) reaction is to resent it, or be angry. We may become bitter and full of hatred. We may seek to blame the people who brought it upon us, and it will be difficult to forgive them even if it was a pure accident. St Mark the Ascetic, one of the early Christian hermits, says something very interesting about this. He says: It is impossible to forgive someone else's offences whole-heartedly without true knowledge; for this knowledge shows to every man that what befalls him belongs to himself.

St Mark did not mean that we necessarily deserve the suffering that has come to us, but that it belongs to us. That is, it can be viewed as a gift. Either it will help us purify our own souls, or it can be accepted for the sake of purifying someone's else's, or it contains a buried lesson for us – something we can learn only through this. Nothing happens to us by chance, even the sufferings that are due to a mistake or a sin of someone else. God permits it to affect us, and he does so for a reason.

I often find Mass very boring. Does it matter? What can I do about it?

Whether we feel bored or not, the Mass will be feeding your soul with grace. If we find it entertaining, that is a bonus, but we don't go to be entertained, or affirmed, or even challenged. We go because God is there, and this is the best and greatest prayer that there is or can be. It is the closest we can get to heaven on earth. We can't see them, but the angels are there too. (Read Hebrews 12:18-24!)

So in a way it doesn't matter, but in another way it is a shame. It doesn't have to be boring. The key to making it interesting is to learn to pray the Mass. Prayer isn't just a matter of going through the motions, and saying the words. If we pour ourselves into those words, they will come alive to us. Then although the Mass is very similar from day to day, it will be different for us, because we will be different. Coping with boredom in prayer is something we have to learn: it is a stage we go through at various times. Even great saints go through it. But just persisting in prayer is a valid form of prayer, whatever we are feeling at the time. Just put those feelings, such as feelings of boredom and frustration and resentment, into the prayer itself, and you may even find your feelings change.

How often does the Pope go to confession? How often should I go?

How often he goes is up to him. Pope John Paul II was said to go once a week. Catholics are asked to go at least once a year, before Easter, to prepare themselves for the Resurrection, but these days they are encouraged to go much more frequently, and many people go once a month. Of course, they should go whenever they have a particular sin on their conscience, in order to become free of it, especially if it is a grave or 'mortal' sin that cuts them off from the life of God, but a habit of regular confession is a good thing because it sharpens us up and also gives more opportunities for divine grace to come into our lives.

What things must I do to make sure I keep my faith into adulthood?

Pray, ask questions, seek answers, don't give up, and don't be afraid. Go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and receive Communion. Pray. Let God guide you: in prayer, through other people, through the Church, through circumstances. God speaks to us and guides us through what happens to us in each new moment (see J.-P. de Caussade's little book, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, sometimes called Abandonment to Divine Providence).

If I hadn't been born, would I still exist? How important is it for me to have the body I have in order to be me?

These are two very deep questions, but they are related, so we will try to answer them together. Firstly, when you say "body" you have to think of all your experiences and memories, because these come from your senses, which are part of your body. Without experience or memory, would you be "me"? Probably not. Of course, if you had a body but a slightly different one, you would be a "me" but a slightly different "me", because your experiences would have been slightly different.

What you are is a kind of combination of what you have received, in terms of body and experience, and what you have done with what you have received, and what came to you as a result of what you did... and so on.

But this kind of answer doesn't get to the root of the feeling we have that somehow "I" would have existed even if I had never been born. We can't imagine not existing. That is easy to understand, because whatever we imagine happening, we have to imagine a self observing it or doing it. But maybe there is more to it than this. Quite apart from all that "I" have done or experienced, is there an "essence" of the self that cannot not exist, and which exists perhaps in God, or the Mind of God? Many people have felt so, and Platonic philosophers (many of them Christian) argue that essences do exist forever in this way. In that case, why not an essence of myself? The question then becomes, what does it mean to exist in that way, and how does it differ from existing in time and space, in a body and a life?

Why does God permit so much suffering in the world?

We have a rather sentimental notion of what it must mean to be a "good God". "Aslan is not a tame lion", as C.S. Lewis would say. God is not nice. He can be kind or even sweet on occasion; he can be gentle, he can play jokes and he is always loving. But he can also be ruthless, as implacable as a wall of ice, as frightening like a mountain of fire, as silent as a desert or a tomb. The ways we experience God have a lot to do with ourselves, because none of them are experiences of the way God is in himself but rather of a relationship between us and him. It is important to remember that God is bigger than we are, and bigger than our imaginations, bigger than our feelings, as well as bigger than our thoughts about him. We shouldn't believe in God because we think he is nice, but because he is true.

God allows his creatures (angels as well as human beings) to turn against him, to make mistakes, to do evil. Those mistakes and those evil deeds have consequences, and innocent people do suffer as a result. God does not normally intervene to prevent or even mitigate those consequences. We can pray for his help, but we can't dictate what he should do, and we shouldn't expect him to change the order of nature that he has established, with all its apparent randomness and its chains of cause and effect.

But it is also true that God does not stand aloof from all those consequences of sin. In Jesus, he gathers all innocent suffering together and experiences it himself – not in order to understand it, or in order to destroy it, but in order (literally) to "incorporate" it. Every unnecessary death, every agonized moment in the life of men from the beginning to the end of time is contained in the experience of Christ on the Cross. That means that he accompanies us into our personal valley of death, whether we realize it at the time or not. By doing so he opens up a way beyond it into the mystery of the Resurrection. We do not fully understand that mystery, for it lies beyond the experiences of this world which define the boundaries of our imagination. But by looking on the one who dies on the Cross for us, we can come to trust in that great love, and cling to it even in the darkness.

Why does God not answer my prayers?

We are told by those who are experienced in the spiritual life that we should pray because prayer is the "oxygen" of the soul. Without it we are closed to the vertical dimension, the inner world in which God lives, where our roots are, where our destiny lies. Closed off from all that, we will wither and shrink. Give at least an hour a day to prayer, someone said. But if you have a really busy life, make that two hours! It was a joke, but it has a serious point.

It is not so much a matter of demanding that God do things for us. In the "Our Father", which we find in the Bible and which is often called the "Lord's Prayer", Jesus teaches us to pray for all those things we most need: for our daily bread, for forgiveness, for protection from evil, and so on. But before all of that we are to pray that God's will be done: God's will, not our own.

On the other hand, the Church tells us that God does want us to pray for specific things, and especially to help other people. God prefers to give good things in response to someone's prayer than simply out of the blue. But prayer does not "change God's mind" about anything. God is outside time, and so he does not change. In eternity, he is equally close to every moment in time. As he "plans" the events that will unfold, he "sees" that I will be praying sincerely for something at a certain point, and he takes my prayer into account when he decides what will happen afterwards. From my point of view, from within time, God has answered my prayer (or not, if there were good reasons for not doing so). There is also a peace which flows from submitting to his will, which is another kind of answer to prayer. That peace is always available, like sunlight above the clouds.

We can be sure that if God does not grant what we ask, it is because he is bringing about some greater good that we cannot yet see or imagine, or that by granting it in the way we asked him to, some great damage would have been done to the world that we cannot foresee. But no one disputes that this is hard to believe, when suffering and death come to us and to those we love. At those times, all we can do is cling to Jesus, as he too hangs on the Cross, and let our suffering give us some insight into his, until the light shines again.