Truth About a Prayer: A Saint’s Name, but Not His Words
By RACHEL DONADIO
ROME — Mother Teresa recited the simple prayer of St. Francis every day. Margaret Thatcher cited it upon becoming prime minister of Britain, and Alcoholics Anonymous included it in its “12 steps” book.
But something else is notable about the prayer that begins: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith.”
St. Francis of Assisi, who was born in the 12th century, probably had nothing to do with it.
An article published this week in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said the prayer in its current form dates only from 1912, when it appeared in a French Catholic periodical.
And it became wildly popular only after it was reprinted in L’Osservatore Romano in 1916 at the behest of Pope Benedict XV, who wanted a prayer for peace in the throes of World War I.
Although news to many, the truth about the prayer had apparently been hiding in plain sight.
“No one among the Franciscans ever thought it really was by St. Francis,” said Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of L’Osservatore Romano.
Mr. Vian said the point of the article was to show the importance of prayers for peace in times of war.
Although the prayer’s origins “remain mysterious,” Mr. Vian said, the prayer had at some point been printed on the back of cards bearing images of St. Francis, hence the confusion.
Yet the attribution to St. Francis has had some high-profile adherents. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa said, “I always wonder that 400 to 500 years ago as St. Francis of Assisi composed this prayer, that they had the same difficulties that we have today.”
And after being elected prime minister that same year, Mrs. Thatcher said, “I would just like to remember some words of St. Francis of Assisi,” adding: “‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.’”
Would fans of St. Francis be disappointed to know the truth?
“Catholics are used to this sort of thing, that you have a tradition but you don’t know when it started or its whole history,” said the Rev. Thomas G. Weinandy, a Franciscan and the executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He pointed to St. Christopher. “The church says he more than likely did not historically exist,” Father Weinandy said. “But people still pray to him, figuring someone up in heaven is in charge of watching over travelers.”
Apparently it was not St. Francis...