When we consider how important prayer is for the life of the Church, it is very surprising just how little the Church fathers and mothers wrote about prayer. They talk about it, of course, but they almost never engage in teaching their people how to pray. If you want to write a book on how the early Christians read Scripture, it’s not that difficult because the Church fathers come right out and tell you how they read Scripture. But they don’t do that with prayer. It’s as though they thought it unnecessary to teach people how to pray, since Jesus Himself already did that, when He taught His disciples the Our Father. There are a few commentaries on the Our Father that were written by the Church fathers, and we will look at those in a chapter to come when we discuss the Lord’s Prayer, but for the most part, the Church fathers simply don’t tell us how they prayed, or how we should pray.

This only emphasizes the importance of the Mass for prayer, since the Church fathers would have maintained that any lessons on prayer that we need beyond the Our Father would come to us from paying attention in the Mass. And so it’s fair to assume that the earliest Christians learned how to pray their own prayers by imitating the prayers they heard the clergy pray in liturgy (and, of course, the prayers in Scripture that they heard read as part of the Liturgy of the Word). Thus, we can look at the earliest liturgies to make some guesses about how the early Christians prayed, and what they prayed for, when they prayed at home. For the most part, the private prayers of individuals would have mirrored the intercessions.

St. Cyprian said that he kept a list of names of people to include in the prayers at Mass. Egeria noted that in Jerusalem, a deacon would call out the names of those preparing for Baptism, and the children had been instructed to stand at that point and respond with “Lord, have mercy!” Sts. John Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem prayed regularly for the clergy and the local churches, for the government leaders, and for the welfare of the world; they prayed for the troops, and for their allies, and for the sick and the suffering. However, they don’t specify exactly what to ask for (we’ll return to this observation in a moment). They also prayed for the dead. St. Augustine wrote that prayers for the dead are appropriate because such prayers help the souls in Purgatory (another concept we will come back to later).

In the Liturgy of St. Mark, the priest prays the intercessions. These include prayers for the clergy (which would have comprised all ranks, offices, and orders, including monastic men and women); prayers for the local church as well as the churches at Rome and Jerusalem, the Church throughout the world, and protection for the orthodox against heresy and persecution; prayers for souls in trouble or fallen away or in captivity and for the blessing and the perseverance of the faithful. Finally, prayers for mercy and peace for the dead, that they would be welcomed into the Kingdom, are added.

In the Liturgy of St. James, the deacon prays the intercessions. These include prayers for the forgiveness of sins, for help in resisting temptation, for perseverance, and for the salvation of all present. Also included are prayers for the clergy, for all those who remember the poor and needy (interestingly, not prayers for the poor and needy but for those who care about them), for the old, the sick, the demon-possessed, and the imprisoned (presumably not meaning people who are incarcerated for committing crimes but, rather, those who have been enslaved or who are imprisoned as a result of persecution), for those who are traveling, those who have gone astray, for good weather and healthy crops, for the presider and the sacraments, and for all those who have asked “us to mention them in our prayers.”

Finally, there are times when a catechist may lead prayer (including possibly lay catechists) and, by doing so, teach the people how to pray by example. St. Augustine advises all teachers to pray before teaching, for themselves and for their students, since one cannot give what one has not received, and on the assumption that God knows the hearts of the audience and what they need to hear and can inspire the teacher to say what is most needed. Having said that, though, we return now to the observation that although we can find some clues as to what (or whom) the early Christians prayed for, it is apparent that these intercessions do not go much beyond simply mentioning the people or situations—they do not got very far at all into suggesting to God what should be done. Prayers ask for mercy, or for grace, or for forgiveness or peace, but that’s about it. As Egeria described it, the deacon simply mentions the names of people, or a group of people, and the congregation responds with the Kyrie—Lord, have mercy. That’s all that was necessary, the mention of a name, to remember someone in prayer.

We see this even today in the intercession in our Masses, and we might be tempted to think that it’s because of a limitation of time, or perhaps a sensitivity to privacy, that the intercessions are not more specific, and do not go into more detail about the situations or what exactly is being requested. However, when we consider that this is the same as it was in the early Church, we can see that it’s not because of time or privacy that the intercessions are kept mostly to a mere mention. It is because God does not need us to give the backstory for any prayer request, nor does He need us to tell him how to fix a problem. We will have more to say about this later, but the point to keep in mind is that when it comes to prayer, it is not necessary to explain anything to God.

Not that we should discourage people from praying privately in their own words, but extemporaneous prayer, or indeed, even personal (individual) prayer, was not the primary way of prayer in the early Church. The primary way that Christians prayed in the early Church was by attending liturgy. And outside of liturgy, in the privacy of their own homes and their personal devotional lives, the clergy had modeled for them that they did not need to go on and on about the people they were praying for, or the situations they were praying about. We do not see evidence of early Christians telling God how to fix their problems, since they trusted that God knows what they need better than they do.


This article on The Insular City is adapted from the book Praying like the Early Church by James Papandrea which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post on a reflection from “Praying like the early Church” by James Papandrea: cover used with permission; Photo by Henrique Jacob on Unsplash

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