The ‘Our Father’ as a Trinitarian Prayer

There is a principle of Trinitarian theology that tells us all the acts of the Holy Trinity ad extra are acts of all Three Persons. (Ad extra means toward the outside, as distinguished from ad intra, meaning toward the inside. The distinction is between the inner life of the Trinity [ad intra] and the action of the Trinity in creation [ad extra].) What this principle tells us is that no single Person works without the Others in creation. However, the principle can be abused in such a way that we imagine an “immanent” Trinity that is indeed distinguished by the “opposition of relation” in Its inner life, but which, for all practical purposes, functions as a single Monad while operating “economically” in Creation. (For more on the “Immanent Trinity” and the “Economic Trinity,” go here.)

But this is wrong. While operating on creation — creating, governing the universe, providing for the elect, granting grace, receiving our prayers, etc. — the Divine Substance remains what it is in eternity: a Trinity of Persons. So, while all Three Persons indeed are acting in creation, They do so as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

One practical manifestation of the exaggeration of this principle may be found in the answers given in various catechisms to the question, “To whom do we address the prayer of the Our Father?” Is it to God the Father”? Or is it to the Holy Trinity? Father Feeney held that the prayer is directed to the Eternal Father, the First Person of the Holy Trinity, and that it is not the Trinity being called “Father” here. But the Third Baltimore Catechism and Father Hardon’s Pocket Catholic Catechism answered otherwise. Here is the latter:

We open the Lord’s Prayer by addressing God as Father. The Pater Noster is addressed to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we speak to Him as Father because God is our Father by every possible title.

Now, this disagreement is not a matter of heresy versus orthodoxy; it is a theological disagreement between Catholics. Nobody is being called the “H-word” here, but the disagreement presents us an occasion to meditate not only on the Holy Trinity and the Lord’s Prayer, but also on the use of the latter to adore the former in the Church’s holy Liturgy.

Father Feeney — whose position on the matter was passed on to us by Brother Francis — held that the “Lord’s Prayer” that Jesus taught us is a prayer that He can say with us. Father even poetically said that “He holds our hands” as we pray it. This He does as the Head of the Mystical Body. The obvious objection — how can Jesus say, “Forgive us our trespasses…” — will be addressed below.

The placement of the Our Father in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a strong argument for Father Feeney’s position in the matter. In the Holy Mass, the Pater Noster comes just after the close of the Roman Canon. Be it noted that, unlike the Anaphoras which stand in the place of our Canon in the Eastern Divine Liturgies, the Roman Canon is entirely addressed exclusively to the First Person of the Holy Trinity — the only One properly called, “Father.” The Roman Canon closes with these words, which are quite explicitly addressed to the Father (the crosses signify signs of the Cross made by the celebrant with the Host over the Chalice and corporal respectively):

Per ip+sum, et cum ip+so, et in ip+so,
est tibi Deo Patri + omnipoténti,
in unitáte Spíritus + Sancti, omnis honor, et glória.

Through Him +, and with Him +, and in Him +,
is unto Thee, God the Father + Almighty,
in the unity of the Holy + Ghost, all honor and glory.

At the words omnis honor, et glória, the celebrant holds up the Host and Chalice for the “Minor Elevation” at which point it is customary in some places to ring a bell. At the close of the Canon, the Church offers “all honor and glory” to the Father through, with, and in the Son, and in the unity of the Holy Ghost. Note that, as with all the preceding words of the Canon, the prayer is addressed to the Father Himself.

Following the Minor Elevation, the Pater Noster is immediately introduced with these words:

Orémus: Præcéptis salutáribus móniti, et divína institutióne formáti audémus dícere:

Let us pray. Instructed by Thy saving precepts, and following Thy divine institution, we make bold to say:

At this point, the Pater Noster is sung or recited depending on whether it is a Low or a High Mass being celebrated. Brother Francis used to make much of these words introducing the Our Father. Why do “we dare to say” (audemus dicere) the prayer? That verb, audemus, means to dare, venture, or risk. By nature, no creature could dare call God his Father; by nature, there is only one Son of God, and He is consubstantial with His Father. It is only by the divine adoption we receive in Baptism — and our having been “instructed by saving precepts and following a divine institution” — that can we be so bold as to call God our Father. In other words, it is precisely because we have been incorporated into Jesus as members of His Mystical Body that we can call God our Father, which we do not do on our own, but “through Him, with Him, and in Him” — hence, He “holds our hands.”

In the Holy Mass, immediately after the singing or recitation of the Pater Noster, the following prayer is addressed to the Father:

Deliver us, we beseech Thee, O Lord, from all evils, past, present, and to come; and by the intercession of the blessed and glorious ever Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and of the holy Apostles, Peter and Paul, and of Andrew, and of all the Saints, mercifully grant peace in our days, that through the assistance of Thy mercy we may be always free from sin, and secure from all disturbance.

We know that this prayer, too, is directed to the Father, because it concludes with these words:

Through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.
Who with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth God,
P. World without end.
S. Amen.

Its placement in the Holy Mass, then — “sandwiched,” as it were, between prayers clearly directed to the Father — would indicate that the Pater Noster, too, is directed to the Father. Yet, it is nonetheless a Trinitarian prayer, which will be explained a little further down.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “St. Jerome asserted (Adv. Pelag., iii, 15) that ‘our Lord Himself taught His disciples that daily in the Sacrifice of His Body they should make bold to say “Our Father” etc.’ [Further,] St. Gregory [the Great] gave the Pater its present place in the Roman Mass immediately after the Canon and before the fraction [the breaking of the Host], and it was of old the custom that all the congregation should make answer in the words ‘Sed libera nos a malo’.”

So, the current placement of the Our Father in the Roman Mass goes back to Saint Gregory the Great, who died in 604. But its use in the liturgies of the East and West is indeed universal and ancient. We have the testimony of Saint Jerome on this.

The other predominant and ancient liturgical use is, appropriately enough, in the Baptismal Rite. Says the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Again in the ritual of baptism the recitation of the Our Father has from the earliest times been a conspicuous feature….” This makes sense, as our divine adoption in Christ occurs in Baptism, and the Heavenly Father can say to us what He said about Jesus at the Baptism in the Jordan: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).

I have entitled this piece, “The ‘Our Father’ as a Trinitarian Prayer,” yet my argument is that the prayer is not directed to the Trinity but to the Father. This is not a contradiction. Taking our cue from the sublime text of the Roman Canon, we can say that it is indeed a Trinitarian prayer because, as in the concluding formula of the Canon, we pray it to the Father, through, with, and in Christ and in the unity of the Holy Ghost.

There is no specific mention of the Holy Ghost in the prayer, is there? There is no mention of the Son, either, but it is He who teaches it to us, so He is clearly a “party” if you will, to the prayer. I aver that the Holy Ghost is indeed implicitly present in the prayer, or at least in the “spiritual mechanics” that go into its recitation. A couple of passages from the corpus of Saint Paul — from Romans and Galatians — help us to find the Third Person in the Our Father:

  • “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father).” —Rom. 8:15
  • “And because you are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying: Abba, Father.” —Gal. 4:6

Now for that irksome objection I referred to above: How can Jesus pray the Our Father with us if we ask our trespasses to be forgiven in the fifth petition, or that we be not led into temptation in the sixth, or delivered from evil in the seventh? None of these seem appropriate for Jesus to say, do they?

The answer is that, while Jesus cannot say, “Forgive Me My sins… lead Me not into temptation… deliver Me from evil,” as this contradicts His utter impeccability even as Man, He can, as our Head, lead His Mystical Body in saying this prayer as He taught it. Saint Paul said that, “Him, who knew no sin, he hath made sin for us, that we might be made the justice of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). As our Victim on the Cross, Jesus had our sins put on Himself to pay their price. And now that He has ascended gloriously to the right hand of the Father, He is “always living to make intercession for us” (Heb 7:25). In light of this, and in light of Jesus being our Mystical Head, it stands to reason that, in solidarity with us sinners, our Blessed Savior can pray the Our Father with us.

One last thought about this glorious prayer and the privilege we have of saying it: Consider for a moment Jesus’ words to Saint Mary Magdalen recorded in the 20th chapter of Saint John’s Gospel. It is the incident of “the Gardener,” on Easter morning, who said this to a mournful and confused Madgalen:

Jesus saith to her: Mary. She turning, saith to him: Rabboni (which is to say, Master). Jesus saith to her: Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God. —John 20:16-17

That is the wonder of the Incarnation: In Eternity, the Second Person calls the First Person, “My Father,” but now in His human nature He calls the Father, “My God.” And by virtue of our adoption in Christ — and only by virtue of that — we may call the Father not only “our God,” which He remains, but also “Our Father.” That we may do so in solidarity and communion with Jesus is a gift we do not sufficiently appreciate.