An Ancient Prayer That Can Serve As an Anchor for Us Moderns

"The Martyrdom of St. Clement," Bernardino Fungai (1460-1516) in the painting,

A few years ago, while I was waiting for a Sunday Mass to begin, and after I had said my prayers, I picked up the missalette, intending to read ahead of time (as I usually do) the scripture readings for that day. And being the inveterate reader that I am (even in church!), I turned over the missalette to see what prayers or meditations were printed on the back cover. The usual seasonal and general prayers were listed, like the Memorare, but as I scanned the printed prayers, there was one that caught my eye, one that I hadn’t heard of or seen before—it was called Prayer for All Needs. The author was given as Clement of Rome.

He happened to be one of the early popes of the church; he had been baptized and later consecrated by St. Peter, and eventually became one of his successors. I was so taken by the simplicity of it, I wanted to write it down, but not having a pen or paper on me, I made a mental note to look this up later and research this further. I eventually did: I printed it, framed it, and put it on the shelf in the office where I work. The framed prayer rests alongside other framed mementoes of family and other meaningful people that provide comfort and inspiration during the course of a productive work day.

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As printed in the missalette, it read:

We beg you, Lord, to help and defend us.
Deliver the oppressed.
Pity the insignificant.
Raise the fallen.
Show yourself to the needy.
Heal the sick.
Bring back those of your people who have gone astray.
Feed the hungry.
Lift up the weak.
Take off the prisoners’ chains.
May every nation come to know that you alone are God,
that Jesus is your Child, that we are your people,
the sheep that you pasture.
Amen.

It turns out this is just a part of a much longer prayer of Clement’s; it is viewed as being part of the earliest of Christian literature.  As mentioned in the book, Early Christian Prayers, edited by A. Hamman, O.F.M. (translated by Walter Mitchell, and published by Henry Regnery Company in 1961), it is regarded as “the oldest Christian prayer known outside Scripture” and that it “closely follows the Eighteen Blessings, recited daily by Jews, and gives us some idea of what the improvised prayer in the earliest forms of the liturgy must have been like.” As the editor notes, “the emotion behind it is controlled, sober and dignified, foreshadowing the Roman liturgy. It is “‘biblical and traditional, respecting and loving the past, yet at the same time aquiver with joys and hopes that are new.’” And with the line about “sheep that you pasture,” he seemed to be presaging way into the future a successor, the Jesuit who became Pope Francis.

It bears reading in full; this is the text as it appears in Early Christian Prayers:

MAY he who created everything
keep the number of his chosen people, throughout the world,
up to the strength he fixed for them
through his dear Child, Jesus Christ.
Through him he called us from darkness to light,
from ignorance to knowledge
of the glory of his name.
We have confidence in you:
you were at the beginning of creation;
you have opened our inward eyes
to give us knowledge of you,
who alone are the Most High, in highest heaven,
the Holy One, at ease among the holy.

You curb the arrogance of the proud,
frustrate the designs of the Gentiles,
lift up the modest
and bring the mighty down,
give riches and poverty,
death and life.
You alone watch over the interests of spiritual beings,
you are the God of all flesh.
You gaze into the depths,
you watch what men are doing.
You are our help in danger,
you save the despairing,
Creator and Keeper of all that is spiritual.
You give increase to the peoples of the earth,
and from them all you chose us out to love you,
through Jesus Christ, your dear Child,
who brought us instruction, holiness and honour.

We beg you, Lord,
to help and defend us.
Deliver the oppressed, ‘
pity the insignificant,
raise the fallen,
show yourself to the needy,
heal the sick,
bring back those of your people who have gone astray,
feed the hungry,
lift up the weak,
take off the prisoners’ chains.
May every nation come to know
that you alone are God,
that Jesus Christ is your Child,
that we are your people, the sheep that you pasture.

You have shown by what you have made and done
how the world has been planned from eternity.
The earth is your creation, Lord,
yours that are true to every generation,
just when you judge,
your strength and splendour a marvel.
Such competence yours in creating,
such skill in setting firm the things you make,
your goodness apparent in this world to see.
You are loyal to those who trust you,
merciful, compassionate.
Forgive us our sins, our injustice,
Our falls, our jarring deeds.

Do not count every one
of your servants’ sins,
but cleanse us with the cleanness of your truth
and guide our steps in…inward holiness,
that so we may do what is just and pleasing’
to you and to our rulers.
Let us see your face, sovereign Master,
and we shall peacefully pursue what is good,
protected by your strong hand,
kept from all sin by your mighty arm,
preserved from those who hate us without cause.

Give concord and peace
to us and to all living on the earth,
as you gave them to our fathers
when they prayed to you, believing truly,
ready to obey the All Powerful, the All Holy.

To those who rule and lead us on the earth
you, sovereign Master,
have given their authority and kingship
—so marvellous that power of yours words fail to express—
that seeing the glory and honour
you have provided for them,
we should be subject to their rule,
not resisting your will.
Grant them, Lord,
the health, peace, concord and stability
to use aright
the sovereignty you have bestowed on them.
For you, King of heaven, Lord of the ages, you it is
that give to mortal men
glory, honour and power
over what is on the earth.
Lord, make their counsels conform to what is good
and pleasing to you,
that using with reverence,
peacefully, gently,
the power you have given them,
that they may find favour with you.

You alone have the means to do this for us,
this and more than this.
We thank you for it through Jesus Christ,
the High Priest, our souls’ Protector.
Glory and splendor be yours through him,
now at this moment,
in every generation,
age after age. Amen.

Pope St. Clement I was banished from Rome during the reign of the Emperor Trajan and sent to Chersonesus (near modern-day Crimea) and was forced to work in a stone quarry.  He ministered to his fellow prisoners and finding out that they had no water to drink, he knelt in prayer for them. When he looked up, he saw a lamb on a hill and when he went to where the lamb had stood, he took his pickaxe and struck the ground, thereupon a gushing of water came forth. As a result of this miracle, many of the prisoners converted, but Clement was punished by the authorities with death—he became a martyr when he drowned after he was thrown off a ship with an anchor tied around his neck. So he is symbolized by the fusion of the Cross and an anchor and his relics (particularly his head) are in the Kiev Monastery of the Caves in Ukraine, with some relics in Rome. He is the only Roman pontiff to have a Russian Orthodox church dedicated to him, and his martyrdom is memorialized by the Sicilian artist Bernardino Fungai (1460-1516) in the painting, The Martyrdom of St. Clement.

Though he was pope for only seven years (92-99), this first-century Christian martyr was noted for emphasizing in letters to the Corinthians about the primacy of the episcopate in church affairs. But he is primarily remembered for this prayer of his, the Prayer for All Needs.  His feast day is November 23rd; and it is appropriate to recall these words of praise and supplication. In this troubled world of today, we need more than ever to approach God’s “dear Child” to implore that he “forgive our sins, our injustice, our falls, our jarring deeds” and that somehow, “with reverence” we may “peacefully, gently,” find “favor with you.” May Pope St. Clement I always help to “anchor” us in this faith.

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