And teach us how to pray
The Our Father, or Pater Noster, is a common Catholic prayer, but we rarely stop to meditate on its riches. What is the history of this prayer and its role in the liturgy, and how can we better rely on it for growth in our own prayer lives? The Pater Noster is a fundamentally liturgical prayer, which from the dawn of the Church has been used as a model of how to pray. Because of its rich history steeped in Tradition, the Church should continue to engage with this prayer and deepen our understanding of its pastoral and liturgical purpose.
The roots of the Pater Noster come from Jewish prayers and Scripture. God is called “Our Father” in ancient copies of the Eighteen Benedictions, the Shema prayed thrice daily by observant Jews. Certain parts of the prayer plausibly reference the Scriptures. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” resembles Sirach 28:2: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.”
Moreover, this prayer which Jesus gave us is lived out by Jesus Himself, particularly in His Passion. “Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven,” and “lead us not into temptation” become “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done” in Luke 22:42. Since “temptation” is better translated as “testing” or “trial,” the parallel is particularly striking. The plea to “give us this day our daily bread” is here also answered, as the image of daily manna in the wilderness is brought to fulfillment by the Body and Blood of Christ, offered for our consumption in every Mass. All of this is to say that the Our Father is a deeply Scriptural and liturgical prayer.
The early Church recognized this significance as well一the Pater Noster is mentioned in the Didache, the earliest non-scriptural record of Church teachings we know. In this document, it is prescribed to be a thrice-daily prayer much like the Shema: “Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…Pray this three times each day.”
Beyond its liturgical role, the Church saw the Pater Noster as a model and guide for the whole Christian life of prayer. Tertullian, in one of the earliest commentaries, writes:
“In summaries of so few words, how many utterances of the prophets, the Gospels, the apostles一how many discourses, examples, parables of the Lord, are touched on!…The honour of God in the ‘Father;’ the testimony of faith in the ‘Name;’ the offering of obedience in the ‘Will;’ the commemoration of hope in the ‘Kingdom;’ the petition for life in the ‘Bread;’ the full acknowledgment of debts in the prayer for their ‘Forgiveness;’ the anxious dread of temptation in the request for ‘Protection.’”
The “utterances” Tertullian identifies align with the five basic types of prayer: blessing and adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise. That is why he describes the prayer not as the “Our Father” but simply the prayer, the definitive guide to the intercessory life.
Being students at the University of Notre Dame can give us another helpful perspective on the applicability of this prayer. In the Holy Cross Constitutions, the Constitution on prayer states: “We speak to God with the yearning and words of sons to a Father because the Spirit has made us adopted children in Christ.” Our prayerful disposition before God whenever we say “Our Father” resounds with a loving claim that we make on God. The Constitutions admit that this is no easy task, “but as we listen to and converse with Him, our minds will be given to understand Him.”
In this way, prayer becomes the essential act of conforming our will to God’s, that it may be done on earth as it is in heaven. The Constitution rings with the longings of Christ, which Jesus gave voice to in every human heart at the behest of His disciples who asked He teach them how to pray. We ask that no one may lack daily bread; we “dare to match forgiveness for forgiveness and we plead to survive the test.” We ask, as we live in our apostolic mission, that His name be praised and for the realization of His kingdom, that we may be “faithful servants.” The Our Father, as it contains all prayer, becomes the frame for the community’s living rule of prayer.
So with this rich and multifaceted history of the Our Father in mind, it is prudent to now turn to the prayer’s more recent developments. Among these is the Holy See’s recent translation change of the Our Father in Italian. The equivalent of “lead us not into temptation” has been adjusted to “do not abandon us to temptation.” “Temptation” in the Our Father may be better rendered as “trial,” in which case “lead us not into trials” is fitting. However, since the word remains “temptation,” the Vatican’s modification does lend important theological clarification that God is not the one who tempts us.
Consider also the widespread lay practice in America of holding hands during the prayer at Mass. This may have developed out of a collective imitation of the orans posture the priest often takes during the Eucharistic Prayer, and it was encouraged by liturgist Fr. Robert Hovda in the 1980s as a charismatic practice. There is no prescribed position for the Our Father; as such, the USCCB has remained “agnostic” on the matter. That said, given the Pater Noster’s vibrant liturgical and pastoral tradition, it seems remiss to pray it without having sound reasoning for one’s posture in doing so. This is a question the U.S. bishops should attend to, relying on the Our Father’s usage throughout Church history. Until they do so, we at Mass should approach this venerable prayer with the same respect and reverence, daring to call God “Father” as He taught us to do.
This article was brought to you by the Theology Club’s Zossima Project: Making prayer an education. This article was prepared with particular assistance from Mr. Ryan Kerr, CSC. For a complete works cited, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your readership.