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Prayers for the Prisoners

by John Hennig, M.A.

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  • Description:
    In the Solemn Supplications forming the second part of the liturgy of Good Friday, the Church prays first for her own peace and union all over the world, then for the different ranks of the hierarchy, and finally for the different states of nonCatholics, such as heretics, the Jews and pagans. Between the petitions for the catechumens and for the heretics, we find a petition for the sick, the prisoners and the travellers; these three groups of persons comprising the absent members of the congregation. This article explains the origins of these prayers.
  • Larger Work:
    The Ecclesiastical Review
  • Pages: 106-113
  • Publisher & Date:
    American Ecclesiastical Review for The Catholic University of America, August 1942

In the Solemn Supplications forming the second part of the liturgy of Good Friday, the Church prays first for her own peace and union all over the world, then for the different ranks of the hierarchy, and finally for the different states of nonCatholics, such as heretics, the Jews and pagans. Between the petitions for the catechumens and for the heretics, we find a petition for the sick, the prisoners and the travellers,1 these three groups of persons comprising the absent members of the congregation.

The first two parts of the liturgy of Good Friday represent the most ancient type of the Mass of the Catechumens, derived from the Jewish service and consisting of lessons and prayers, whilst the Mass of Holy Saturday preserves the characteristics of the ancient Mass of the Faithful. Supplications like those found in the liturgy of Good Friday, were originally made on many other feasts at the end of the Mass of the Catechumens, i. e., before the Offertory, when, to this day, the priest turns to the people, saying: "The Lord be with you", and—after the people's answer, "And with thy spirit"—"Let us pray", the usual initiation of a liturgical prayer. At present, however, there follows immediately the Offertory-verse which does not have the form of a prayer, and which is the beginning of the Mass of the Faithful.

Outside the liturgy of Good Friday, the supplications originally found in this place, have been omitted, but, dealing as they do with the various religious and secular states, the petitions made after the Litany of the Saints, especially in the processions held in the Rogation Days, still recall the ancient Supplications. Here, after the recitation of Psalm 69, we find also a petition for "our absent brethren", then follow several prayers, the first of which encloses the significant petition: "We and all Thy servants who are bound by the bonds of sin, may ... be absolved". Also in the Breviary, the Ferial Prayers of the Lauds, we find petitions for the hierarchy, the people, the congregation, the faithful departed and finally, "for our absent brethren", "for the afflicted and the prisoners". Here again, the prisoners, those in bondage, are the prototype of all the afflicted, no express mention being made of the other groups of "absent brethren", such as the sick and the travelers. In the final petition: "Deliver them, O God Israel, from their tribulations" the fundamental significance of prisoners is strongly emphasized. The Supplications on Good Friday show still another characteristic of the most ancient liturgical prayers. The subject of the prayer is indicated beforehand in the invitatory summons: "Let us pray for . . ." or "that God would . . .". The invitation to the supplication for the absent members of the congregations says that God may "cleanse the world from all errors", making special mention of diseases, famine, prison and chains, sickness and danger in traveling.

The supplication itself implies all these petitions when praying for "comfort for the afflicted and strength for those that labor". The prayer itself is actually shorter than the invitation. "Speak not much, your Father knoweth what is needful for you, before you ask him" (Mat. 6, 7:8). The prayer concludes by asking: "Let the prayer of those that call upon Thee in any trouble, reach Thee, that all may rejoice that in their necessities Thy mercy has relieved them".

"All those that pray" are not only the sick, the prisoners and the travelers themselves, but the whole congregation, in fact, the whole church. In the ancient Church there existed no particular concerns of the single members or of the single congregations. All concerns and the concerns of all were the concerns of the Church in general. The Epistles of St. Paul offer examples of the Apostle's thoughtfulness concerning the particular and sometimes rather insignificant necessities of single congregations and individuals. In later years, when the Church had grown, this idea gradually vanished. The petitions for the Church in general remained in the Canon of the Mass. In the Mementos the priest has an opportunity of commemorating individuals. All other particular concerns are dealt with in special prayers to be inserted whenever and wherever the occasion arises, such as in the Votive Masses against heathens, against pestilence, for the sick and for pilgrims and travelers, or in the "Occasional Prayers" found in the Appendix of the Roman Missal, for a congregation or family, against the persecutors of the Church, in any necessity or tribulation, in time of famine, for those at sea and finally for one in prison or in captivity.

The main reason for the prayers for the absent members of the congregation was the belief that those segregated from the ordinary spiritual care of their parish were suffering from religious homelessness and distress. The great Christian poets of medieval Germany liked to dwell on the religious significance of the fact that in German "to go abroad" means "to go into misery". Moreover, these prayers are a graphic expression of the fact that for the early Christians the union with the congregation in the Holy Sacrifice was the most fundamental necessity of life. In fact, all who for one reason or another, were kept away from this union, formed a special state of Christians which is actually placed among the catechumens, the heretics and the penitents. In later years, when, on the one hand, the care of the sick, of the prisoners and especially of the Christian travelers had been organized, and when, on the other hand, the original conception of the parish as the spiritual home of the soul had vanished, the prayers for the absent members were interpreted in a merely spiritual sense. Indeed, from the very beginning, the prayers for the sick were closely interlinked with the administration of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, a fact, most evident in the passage of the Epistle of St. James which speaks of this Sacrament and which is read in the Mass for the Sick. The prayers for travelers have gradually become prayers or blessings for pilgrims and missionaries exclusively. In particular, the liturgical blessing for travelers has become the "Itinerary for Clerics ". In recent years, however, the original wider significance of these prayers has been revived not only in the blessings for vehicles, for railways and aeroplanes,2 where the grace of God is invoked upon the passengers traveling in these conveyances, but also in the invocation of St. Raphael as patron of Christian emigrants and refugees.

As for the prisoners, in the early history of the Church, the separation from the spiritual care of the congregation was most obvious in, and in fact the very purpose of imprisonment. The sick could be visited, the travelers could be taken in by other churches, but it was dangerous, if not impossible, to visit those who were in prison on account of their faith, frequently awaiting there the crown of martyrdom. From the Acts of the early martyrs we learn how Christians often managed to comfort their co-religionists in prison, that the prisoners organized spiritual aid among themselves, that some of them even converted their guards. The earliest prayers for prisoners visualize only those incarcerated for the Faith. Naturally, their sufferings were and in fact still are a concern shared by the Church universally.

The ancient idea of prayers said by the congregation for the absent members and aiming at re-union with them, is still lucid in many single features. The Collect of the Mass for the Sick implores God to "help the sick that having been restored to health, they may render thanks in His church" and, even more significantly, the Postcommunio says: "May they be restored safe and sound to the Church". Similar petitions are found in the Blessings for the Sick. The Blessings for the Pilgrims are concerned not only with the departure and journey but also with the safe return of the faithful. The petition for spiritual comfort and for re-union with the absent members most obviously underlies the liturgical prayers for the faithful departed. The prayers for the prisoners did not lend themselves to a merely spiritual interpretation. When, in the fourth century, the persecutions of the Church came to an end, the liturgical prayer for those in prison came into disuse. In a Christian state, those in prison were no longer regarded as worthy of a particular mention in the liturgy.

In the Middle Ages, for a short period, the prayers for prisoners were revived, when many Christians suffered from Moslem slavery and captivity. In 1218, Our Lady appeared in one night to Peter Nolasco, Raymund of Pennaforte and King James of Aragon, urging them to found a religious congregation for redeeming Christians held in captivity by the Saracens. At the same time, when thus the Mercedarians were founded, two Frenchmen, Felix of Valois and John of Matha established the Order of the Trinitarians for the identical purpose. Feasts of Our Lady of Deliverance from political needs have been celebrated in the seventh century in Greece, and in the tenth century in France. In the Republic of San Domingo, Our Lady of Deliverance is the national patroness. In those parts of the world the ejaculation "Our Lady, deliverer of the slaves, pray for us" (200 days, Pius X, 1906)3 is of special significance.

To this day, no less than five feasts universally celebrated are concerned with the great work carried out by the Trinitarians and the Mercedarians. Some Saints sold themselves into slavery in order to deliver other Christians, thus reviving the literal meaning of the word "redemption", "buying back", a meaning clearly expressed by the words of the Exultet: "That Thou mightest redeem a slave, Thou didst deliver up Thy Son". The Collects proper to the feasts of SS. John of Matha, Felix of Valois, Peter Nolasco and Raymund Nonnatus and to the feast of Our Lady of Ransom show a remarkable similarity, considering as they do the redemption of the faithful from the captivity of the Saracens as a symbol of our redemption from the bondage of sin. The return of the captive to his secular fatherland is paralleled with our journey to the heavenly fatherland. The identical word "fatherland" is also encountered in the blessings for travelers such as implied by the blessings of vehicles, boats and aeroplanes. Although it is quite natural that the feasts commemorating Saints of the thirteenth century, but instituted as late as the seventeenth century, no longer pray for the prisoners themselves, it is characteristic that the idea of captivity as such should have completely lost its original natural background. In 1941, the people of France recalled the original sense of the liturgical prayers for prisoners when ten thousand pilgrims offered prayers at the shrine of St. Germaine, "Patroness of Prisoners" at Pibrac-lez-Toulouse.

As a matter of fact, the spiritual interpretation of captivity goes back to the Bible and the ancient Roman liturgy. The mystery of our redemption is represented under various symbols, as healing from sickness, return from exile, as renovation or rebirth. The word "redemption" itself, however, indicates that deliverance from captivity is the most important of these symbols. Moreover, it has the broad background of Jewish history, a history which indeed can be described as a continuous change of captivity and freedom. In the liturgical prayers for the absent brethren we often encounter the Biblical expressions " absolution ", literally meaning "loosing from the bonds", the "snares" or the "yoke" of Satan's "tyranny". In the O-antiphony of the Office of 20 December the historical and spiritual significance of captivity are identified: "Come and lead him who is fettered out of the prison!" It is noteworthy that Christ, when designing it a most charitable work "to visit the sick, to take in the stranger and to come to those in prison" (Mat. 25, 36-41) did not mean this in a merely spiritual sense; nor did He mean spiritual care. Accordingly, the Supplications of Good Friday add to the petitions: "Cure diseases and grant a safe return to travelers", the double petition: "Open prisons, break chains", and in the Prayer for One in Prison we find the petition: "Loose the bond of Thy servant now in captivity". Apart from all spiritual comfort, the main point is that the sick are actually cured, that the travelers are granted a safe return and that the faithful should not perish in prisons. With the psalmist the Church prays: "Help us, O Lord, lest they should say among the Gentiles: where is their God." (Ps. 78, 9-10).

It goes without saying, that the petition "open prisons, break chains" is not a general anarchistic outcry. Most significantly, the title of the Occasional Prayers for Prisoners is "For One in Captivity or Prison". These prayers concern themselves definitely with a Christian prisoner who is held in captivity unjustly and by a pagan power. Accordingly, these prayers should be said not only for the victims of Church persecutions, but also for prisoners of war, who in their captivity undeservedly suffer both from material and spiritual distress. The Yellow Book recently published by the Vatican is a graphic record of the Holy Father's activities for the prisoners of war, activities in which the glorious tradition of the early Church is revived.

The prayers and blessings for the absent members of the congregation do not merely beg for spiritual consolation and for strength in enduring, but they boldly ask for relief, for an end of their sufferings. At this point, it is worth while to compare these prayers with the liturgical prayer for peace. In the Collect of the Mass for Peace the words hostium sublata formidine, tempora sint. . .tranquilla are usually translated: "freed from the fear of our enemies, times may become peaceful". The literal translation, however, would be: "when we have endured the superiority of our enemies, times may be peaceful", i. e., rather a petition for endurance than for victory. On the other hand, the prayers for the sick clearly ask that the sick may be cured, and the blessings for travelers beg for a safe return. Even more distinctly the petition "open prisons, break chains" asks for nothing less than for deliverance of the prisoners. The Church does not ask for "spiritual help short of material help". Her whole conception of reality disavows an isolation of the spiritual from the material or natural sphere. She knows indeed that endurance is a great virtue, but she also is cognizant of the fact that the secret of our redemption is not endurance but salvation, return, absolution. She knows of pains which break all human endurance, she knows of sufferings which cannot be soothed by any consolation. For these pains and sufferings she asks for relief.

The petition for the freedom of the Church, found throughout the liturgy and in fact in the most solemn prayers, is most significant in this respect. The Church knows that freedom is a good in itself only in so far as it is used in the right way, but with regard to her own freedom and to the freedom of truly Christian peoples and individuals, she teaches that Grace secures the right use of freedom. Therefore, she simply prays for freedom, without any restriction, for "safe freedom", for there is no freedom without security. With regard to the prayers for prisoners, this petition is most clearly expressed in the Collect of the feast of St. Gregory VII, who in his struggle for the liberty of the Church repeatedly suffered captivity and exile.

Even more than the recovering of the sick and the safe return of the travelers and pilgrims, the freedom of her members is a general concern of the Universal Church. It is therefore of special importance that the church as a whole offers prayers for the prisoners: "Mercifully hear our prayers", thus alluding to the petition in the Solemn Supplications. Moreover, the Holy Sacrifice and Holy Communion should be offered with a special intention of obtaining the deliverance of the prisoners. The Secret of the Mass for a Prisoner adds the significant petition: "May we speedily be gladdened with his deliverance", thus emphasizing the original idea of reunion with the segregated members.

The care of the sick, of travelers, and of prisoners is a work through which we become the blessed of the Father, the possessors of the kingdom of heaven. In fact Christ calls the stranger, the sick, the prisoner and the poor His representatives: "I was in prison, and you came to me". The fact that in every affliction, suffering and tribulation we must see an image of the passion of Christ should not lead to a merely symbolical and spiritual interpretation of suffering. The natural and material distress of the sick, the poor, the prisoner and the homeless reveal to us the basic reality of life, a reality which comprises both heaven and earth.

While the prayers for the sick and for travelers belong to those few blessings the institution of which can be traced back to Christ Himself, the first part of the Collect for One in Prison traces back the prayers for the prisoners to Apostolic times: "God broke the fetters of the Blessed Apostle Peter and made him go forth unscathed", words identically found in the beginning of the Collect of the feast of Peter's Chains. In fact, the petition "break chains" probably alludes to Peter's chains. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that "Peter was kept in prison, but prayers were made without ceasing by the Church unto God for him" (12:5). This passage, in the liturgy solely read on the feast of SS. Peter and Paul, shows to us the unique power of liturgical prayers as said by the whole church in public worship. "Where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Mat. 18:20). There a congregation is complete, wherever the gathering takes place, in the church, as well as in a prison. Our common prayer will be heard: The sick "will be raised" (James 5: 15) , the travelers"will be kept in all their ways" (Ps. 90:11, Tract of the Mass for Travelers) and to the prisoners "the iron gate will open itself" (Acts 12, 10). They all will be restored to the living union of the Church.

St. Peter's deliverance from the fetters stands in a significant relationship with the power of binding and loosing entrusted to him according to the Gospel of the feast of SS. Peter and Paul. A similar relationship is established in the Votive Mass for Peace between the political peace and the spiritual peace based on the Sacrament of Penance. Thus the liturgical prayer for the prisoners when applied to the present situation may become a fervent petition for just peace, which naturally will bring freedom to the prisoners. Accordingly, the Queen of Peace, the Comforter of the Afflicted, the Help of Christians, the Health of the Sick, the Star of the Sea, the Patroness of Aviators is (in the Blessing of the Scapular of Our Lady of Ransom) also invoked as The Redemptrix and Help of the Prisoners.

1 "Blessings for the Sailors," The Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. CV, p. 267.

2 "The Blessing of the Aeroplane," Orate Fratres, Summer, 1942.

3 Preces et Pia Opera, no. 272.

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