Sensationalized headlines about the pope’s wanting to “update” or “reword” the Lord’s Prayer have provoked a predictable reaction. He was speaking about translations into modern languages. The traditional English translation of the Lord’s Prayer is longstanding and etched in deep strata of the Anglophone Christian’s mind; he memorized the words in childhood. Through loving repetition over many years, they have been assimilated into his inmost being. If in his old age dementia begins to touch him, he might still be able to recite “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” even after he has lost most of his ability to gather and assemble words to express himself coherently, and after memories closer to the surface have fallen away, layer by layer.
Pope Francis threatened to uproot that sturdy oak of Christian practice and identity when last month on Italian TV he explained his view that the Italian translation of the Lord’s Prayer is “not good.” At the same time, he spoke favorably of the new translation that went into effect in Catholic churches in France in November. “I don’t want anybody messing with the Lord’s Prayer,” a conservative Catholic friend wrote to me, echoing many, “even if it’s the pope.”
Much of the reaction against the pope’s comments can be attributed to his reputation among conservative skeptics. They see him as more interested in upending settled doctrine than in doing his job of preserving the Church’s deposit of faith. Then add the bitterness that traditional Catholics tend to harbor toward ressourcement, the movement of 20th-century theologians seeking to recover a Catholic tradition older and purer than the one that existed at the time. The primary fruit of that project was the new Mass and related liturgical changes, which seem to reflect the mind and tastes of the mid 20th century far more than those of any earlier period in Church history. Against that background, talk of reaching back behind traditional translations of the Our Father to recover the true meaning of the prayer in its original form sounds too much like “Here we go again.”
Francis’s brief remarks were confused, and I disagree with his understanding of what Jesus means by, as we say in English, “Lead us not into temptation,” but the philological discussion that has ensued in Catholic media is a delight for traditionalists, or should be. Traditional Catholics are keen on the value of the Latin from which Scripture and Catholic liturgy are translated into modern languages. In the case of Scripture, the Latin Vulgate itself is a translation, from Hebrew and Greek, and the traditionalist’s convictions about the primacy of primary sources should lead him naturally to those ancient tongues.
Some of the Church Fathers, including Ambrose, interpreted the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer to mean “Let us not be led into temptation,” which is the wording (Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation) recently approved by the French bishops. Lots of hand-wringing then, as now, about whether it’s right to imply that God would tempt us to sin. Close readers are correct to home in on that line and question its meaning, but debates about whether the Greek expression meaning “Carry us not into” can be interpreted as “Let us not be led into” are fussy and miss the mark, in my view.
Bear in mind that the line in question is part of the earthly petitions, the first of which is our request to God for daily bread. It’s good that we see the spiritual applications of the petition, but God loves our humanity, too, and we deny his interest in attending to our mundane needs if we insist that “bread” means only the Eucharist or Scripture as nourishment for our soul. Read the last two petitions of the prayer in the same light. I explain further in a short piece at Commonweal.