Attempting to Correct Tradition

The way the prayer most commonly known as the Prayer of St Francis became association with St Francis is a good example of how popular tradition is created and how hard it is to break. The Vatican is making it known again this week, that there is no evidence what so ever that this prayer was associated with St Francis of Assisi or the Franciscans. It first appeared anonymously in a French Catholic magazine in 1912. According to the Vatican’s statement this week, Pope Benedict XV had it printed  in 1916 in the midst of World War I as a prayer for peace. It was apparently still printed anonymously at this point.

France and Italy have long been the global centers of Catholic religious merchandise, though France seems to have decreased in the second half of the 20th century.  Holy cards were among the most popular products produced in large quantities and shipped globally. Holy cards were especially popular because they have always been very inexpensive and are easy to use, stuck in a prayer book, bible, or missle. With the ability to print cards rapidly, they were quickly adapted for Catholic funeral cards. Holy cards usually have a color print of a religious painting on one side and text on the reverse. At some point early in the 20th century, the prayer in question was printed on the back of a holy card with a picture of St Francis of Assisi on the other side. They were wildly popular. The most popular saint of the day with one of the most popular prayers, so fitting for two successive generations that had known world-wide war. Recall that World War I was popularly known as the War to End All Wars, and yet it was only followed by an even greater war in World War II. The generation that named the War to End All Wars would have found this peace prayer irresistible, as we still do.

These holy cards were so successful that the common people assumed so strongly that the prayer was written by St Francis that it was eventually assumed to be so. As the prayer originally appeared anonymously there was no real push to correct it. Besides, it felt right. So even though the Franciscans never claimed authorship, it was accepted until its popularity attracted the attention of scholars, who couldn’t find it in the Franciscan canon. Franciscans had known it all along, but it is a nice prayer to be credited to your patron/founder saint, so they didn’t made a fuss to correct it.

Attribution of this prayer to St Francis is an example of popular religious tradition that was generated by the laity and eventually adopted by the upper levels of the Roman Catholic church because they knew they couldn’t change it. Associating the prayer with St Francis, also accelerated its wide acceptance because it gave the prayer a veneer of tradition. Yet breaking the link with St Francis may make it more acceptable to Protestants, who have recognized its iffy attribution for some time. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer reprints it under the title “A prayer attributed to St Francis” and more recently it is often just entitled A Peace Prayer. Somehow the generic peace prayer title is unsatisfying. Ironically, at nearly a century old, it is now old enough to be accepted by most Catholics (and Protestants) as traditional without the Franciscan link. Despite the Vatican’s press release this week, you can bet it will continue to be called the prayer of St. Francis for generations to come.  Perhaps this is just as well, considering that it has been so well integrated into Franciscan spirituality. Perhaps we should just call it a Franciscan Peace prayer.

Modern prayer card from Bridge Building.
Modern prayer card from Bridge Building.