The Hidden Stories Behind 5 of Your Favorite Prayers

These traditional prayers link all of us who recite them with all of those faithful souls throughout the centuries who prayed in the exact same words.

Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint Francis in Meditation”, c. 1637
Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint Francis in Meditation”, c. 1637 (photo: Public Domain)

How well do you know the Our Father, or the Hail Mary? Not just the words, but how these prayers developed, and what they have meant—and continue to mean—to generations of Catholics. Do you know the story behind Hail Holy Queen? Or St. Francis’ Peace Prayer?

For Catholics, prayers such as these are like breathing—spiritually, we could not get along without them. And while it is always beneficial to slow down and think about the words of the prayers as we pray them, there is a lot of good that can be derived from knowing where these prayers came from.


The Sign of the Cross

Let’s begin with the most fundamental of all Catholic prayers, the Sign of the Cross. The words, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen,” call down upon us the blessing of the Holy Trinity, and the gesture, touching our forehead, our chest, and each shoulder, marks us with the emblem of Christ’s Cross, the sign of our salvation. It’s the gesture that makes the Sign of the Cross unique: we can be standing on a crowded bus, praying fervently in our heart, and no one around us is the wiser. But as soon as we cross ourselves, we are making a public declaration of who we are and what we believe.

The Sign of the Cross is as old as the Church. Originally, Christians took their thumb and drew a small cross on their foreheads. The Christian theologian Tertullian (c.160-220) tells us that in his day, "In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting off our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we [Christians] mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross." It was a small, subtle gesture, suitable for a time when Christians had to keep a low profile. The Sign of the Cross as we know it came later, after the age of persecution ended.


The Our Father

During the Sermon on the Mount, the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” In answer, Jesus taught them the Our Father.

You can find this prayer in the gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, with minor discrepancies between the two versions. St. Matthew’s version is the one used universally by all Christians, although there is one major difference. Protestants conclude the prayer with the words, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever.” Catholics stop at the words, “But deliver us from evil.”

Why are there different versions of the prayer that comes to us from Christ Himself? The answer is simple. Although some manuscripts of the gospels include the “For thine is the kingdom” ending, the oldest ones do not. Scholars of the Bible tell us that ending was not part of the original prayer; it is a doxology, or a short prayer of praise, that was tacked onto the original text at a later date. Two thousand years ago it was a Jewish custom to conclude a longish prayer with a short doxology. In fact, “For thine is the kingdom” was a common doxology among religious Jews in Jesus’ day. The first Christians, many of whom were converts from Judaism, brought this favorite doxology with them when they entered the Church and they recited it at the end of the Our Father.

While Catholics omit the doxology and keep to the words of the prayer as Jesus gave it to us, the ancient custom of concluding a prayer with a little prayer of praise exists in our Church, too: after reciting the Magnificat or one of the psalms, it is traditional to add our most popular doxology, Glory be to the Father.


The Hail Mary

The first prayer most Catholic children learn is the Hail Mary. It is the most beloved prayer to Our Lady, and the prayer Catholics say most often. No one can count how many millions of Hail Marys rise up to Heaven every day. Yet in spite of its popularity, it took centuries for this much-loved prayer to develop.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” is the Archangel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1:28). “Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,” is St. Elizabeth’s exclamation of joy when Mary came to visit her (Luke 1:42). These two sentences said together were the whole Hail Mary for over one thousand years.

Sometime in the 13th century it became to the custom to add the Holy Name of Jesus to the phrase, “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” By the 15th century Catholics had added the last half of the prayer, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Pope St. Pius V formally approved the complete Hail Mary in 1566, and Catholics have been reciting it this way ever since.


Hail Holy Queen (Salve Regina)

If you ever make a retreat in a monastery or convent, you’ll hear the monks or nuns chant this lovely prayer at the end of the day before they make their way from the chapel back to their cells. For nine hundred years the Hail Holy Queen has been one of the most beloved prayers to the Blessed Mother. It is the traditional conclusion to the Liturgy of the Hours, many Catholics recite it at the end of the rosary, and there is a long-standing tradition of singing the hymn at the close of the day. We know that in 1492, on his voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus gathered his men on deck every evening to sing Salve Regina as a sign of their confidence in Our Lady’s protection.

An old tradition says that St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) composed this prayer. Certainly, anyone who reads St. Bernard’s sermons in praise of Mary will find echoes of Hail Holy Queen in the great saint’s writings. But for the actual text of the prayer, we have to look elsewhere.

The historical evidence has led most scholars to believe that real author of Hail Holy Queen was a German monk, Blessed Herman the Lame, also known by the Latin form of his name, Herman Contractus (1013-1054). Herman was born with serious disabilities: he could not walk, and it took him longer than most children to learn how to speak. But he had other gifts. He was very good at mathematics. He became fluent in Latin, Greek, and even Arabic. Because of his own ailments, Herman was patient and compassionate. He had a real genius for music. And from childhood Herman cherished a special love for the Blessed Mother, so it comes as no surprise that he wrote his finest work for her. Hail Holy Queen expresses beautifully our faith in the Mother of God who extends her love and mercy to all of us.


The Prayer of St. Francis (Lord, make me an instrument of your peace)

Many people think St. Francis of Assisi wrote this prayer, but they are mistaken. You won’t find it among St. Francis’s writings. In fact, it is no older than 1912. That year, the prayer appeared in a magazine called La Clochette (The Little Bell) published in Paris by a Catholic organization known as The Holy Mass League.

A French aristocrat, the Marquis Stanislas de La Rochethulon, admired the prayer and sent a copy to Pope Benedict XV in 1915. The next year the prayer was published in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper.

Then a French Franciscan priest spotted the prayer, and had it printed on the back of a holy card of St. Francis. The Franciscan gave the prayer a title, “A Prayer for Peace.” Since there was a picture of St. Francis on the front of the card, it became known as The Prayer of St. Francis, or St. Francis’ Peace Prayer.

During World War I and World War II, this prayer made its way around the world, with Protestants and Catholics encouraging people to recite it for the sake of an early end to the wars. It is still a favorite with Christians who long for peace.


As Catholics we are blessed to have an especially rich variety of prayers. In the Bible, the liturgy of the Church, the writings of the saints, and in our favorite prayer books we can choose among prayers suited to every season of the year and every stage of our lives. But perhaps one of the greatest joys of reciting old prayers is the sense of comfort and connection they offer us. They are bridges that link all of us who recite these prayers with all of those faithful souls throughout the centuries who prayed in the exact same words.