Many might think that the oldest prayer to Our Lady is the “Hail Mary.” However, another ancient prayer to Our Lady claims this honor. It is titled, “Sub Tuum Praesidium” or translated, “We Fly to Thy Patronage.”
It is true that the first part of the “Hail Mary” was spoken to Our Lady by the Angel Gabriel as recorded in the Gospel of Saint Luke, “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” The phrase, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” was spoken by Saint Elizabeth, also found in the Gospel of Saint Luke. These phrases often appear in early devotions in the Church. However, the rest of the “Hail Mary” was only completed over time. The whole prayer only took its present form in the Middle Ages.
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The “Sub Tuum Praesidium” is considered the most ancient complete prayer to Our Lady. Today, many Catholics, especially the laity, are unfamiliar with the prayer despite the fact that it has been prayed in its present form from the earliest centuries of the Church.
The ancient origin of the prayer was confirmed in the early twentieth century by a papyrus found in Egypt with the words to this prayer. The papyrus dated back to the early centuries after Christ.
What is the meaning of this prayer?
The first thing that stands out is its deceptive simplicity. This prayer is very short and simple, yet full of profound meaning.
Here are the words:
We fly to thy patronage, O Holy Mother of God;
despise not our petitions in our necessities,
but deliver us always from all dangers,
O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.
“We fly to thy patronage, O Holy Mother of God.” In other words, we do not walk to Our Lady, we run. Why? Our Lady is our mediator and advocate before her Divine Son. We approach Our Lord with love, but with some trepidation due to our sinfulness and infidelities. Our Lady, however, is our advocate and patroness. She is our lawyer before her Son. We run to her asking her to intercede for us before Jesus.
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“Despise not our petitions in our necessities.” This phrase infers that Our Lady could have reasons to despise our petitions to her. Indeed, she would be justified in doing so, since we have sinned against and insulted her Divine Son. Yet, we must recall what Saint Bernard proclaimed with confidence, “Remember O Most Gracious Virgin Mary that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thine intercession was left unaided.” When we turn to Mary with humility, repentance and hope, she will not hesitate to approach her Son’s throne of mercy on our behalf. One word from Our Lady is sufficient for her Son to generously grant her request, and even show mercy for us sinners.
“Deliver us always from all dangers.” We are constantly surrounded by spiritual and material dangers. Due to our weaknesses from both original and actual sin, we cannot stand up to the world, the flesh and the devil without help. Mary can overcome all obstacles and dangers. We ask her to deliver and save us from all dangers, both to our soul and body.
This beautiful prayer was first prayed during a time of persecution when being a Christian could easily cost the person’s life. We can easily imagine this prayer being in the heart and on the lips of the faithful living during those treacherous times. This prayer is a way to ask Our Lady for the grace of perseverance in the face of great trials.
“O glorious and blessed Virgin.” Our Lady is glorious and blessed because she is the Immaculate Conception, the Mother of God, the Mediatrix of all graces, the Queen of Heaven and Earth. She who crushes the head of the serpent. By these titles, she manifests her glory and blessedness.
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The “Sub Tuum Praesidium” prayer is a wonderful proof of how Our Lady has been consistently venerated and called upon by the faithful since the earliest centuries of the Church. When we pray the Hail Mary, we are connected all the way back to the Annunciation and the Visitation. When we pray the “Sub Tuum Praesidium,” we are linked to the Early Church and their devotion to the Mother of God.
There are many prayers directed to Our Lady that exist in the Church. Some are long and beautiful. However, the “Sub Tuum Praesidium” is short and easy to memorize. Like the “Hail Mary,” it is full of profound truth and meaning.
The prayer is especially appropriate in these times of great evil when we as Catholics are faced with an increasingly aggressive anti-Christian secularism and even Satanism. We truly need to run to Our Lady’s mantle asking her protection. In times of danger, we can repeat this prayer over and over during almost any activity. It is a source of great consolation and strength.
Here are the words in Latin:
“Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Sancta Dei Genitrix.
Nostras deprecationis ne despicias in necessitatibus,
sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta. Amen