TORONTO—As Pope Francis questions the wording of the Our Father, perhaps the Church should pray that his concerns lead us not into altercation.
The Pope caused an international stir Dec. 7 when he suggested to an Italian television interviewer that the English translation of the world’s best-known prayer is “not a good translation.”
At issue is the line: “Lead us not into temptation.”
“I am the one who falls. It’s not him pushing me into temptation, to then see how I have fallen,” said the Pope. “A father doesn’t do that. A father helps you to get up immediately.
“It’s Satan who leads us into temptation. That’s his department.”
His comments prompted headlines around the world and sparked lively debate on the Internet between those who agree with the Pope and those who want to stick with the translation millions of English speakers have prayed for generations. Those two views were represented by a pair of Canadian Jesuit New Testament scholars.
“The Pope is correct,” said Regis College New Testament scholar Father Scott Lewis. “The word in question is peirasmon, and although it can mean temptation, the more common understanding is ‘testing’ or ‘trial.’ ”
But Father Lewis’ fellow-Jesuit New Testament expert, Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, opposes any change to the 16th-century translation found in both the King James and Catholic Douay-Rheims Bibles.
“I don’t believe it’s an issue of translation so much as interpretation,” Archbishop Prendergast wrote in an email to The Catholic Register. “The principles of Liturgiam authenticam (2001 Vatican guidelines for liturgical translation) are that the words of the Latin Roman Missal are to be translated, not interpreted. The interpretation is a secondary issue.”
In September, Pope Francis transferred authority over liturgical translations to national conferences of bishops, leaving the Vatican only a final approval. This puts the question of how we say the Our Father squarely on the shoulders of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The conference is looking into it seriously and in a timely fashion,” said a CCCB spokesperson.
According to Father Lewis, the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible both present more precise translations of Matthew 6:13. Based on the Greek biblical translation, the NAB renders it, “and do not subject us to the final test, but deliver us from the evil one.” The NJB has, “And do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one.”
Rather than using the Greek translation, Archbishop Prendergast refers to the Latin text of the Roman Missal. “Ne nos inducas in tentationem” is correctly translated as “lead us not into temptation,” he said.
“The problem is the image of God that people might draw from this, which the Pope and the French bishops are concerned about. Personally, I am not in favour of changing the translation to an interpretation because there would be no end of it. Better, I believe, to explain temptation, God’s will, etc.”
Pope Francis pointed to a new French translation of the Our Father approved last month for liturgical use throughout the francophone world. The new French Roman Missal changes “Let us not be led into temptation” to “Submit us not to temptation.”
This version will be published in 2019 and the CCCB is considering how it will adapt and use the new wording.
It’s not that the old translation was incorrect, but rather that it was too easily misinterpreted, the CCCB explained in a 2013 press release about a process that began in 1996 to revise the official prayers of the Church.
On the English side, the Roman Missal was revised in 2011. While that revision made changes to the wording of the Apostles’ Creed and changed “And also with you” to “And with your spirit,” it left the Our Father untouched.
“Once you begin to interpret the Lord’s Prayer, where do you stop?” asked Archbishop Prendergast. “The last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘sed libera nos a malo’ which in English is ‘but deliver us from evil.’ The Greek ‘poneron’ could be ‘evil’ or ‘Evil One’ (the Devil) as there is no distinction between the masculine and neuter ending. But the Latin has given one correct translation and, for us Romans, the Latin Vulgate is normative.”
Archbishop Prendergast said he also has reasons that are “pastoral in nature” for wanting to maintain the Our Father as is.
“It is one of the few prayers people distant from the Church have learned and it’s important for when they come to church to have some sense they belong,” he said. “I would reply to the Holy Father’s concern by explaining the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer and not by changing it and creating other problems.”
Father Lewis said translations “are always imperfect” as they are based on understandings of the language and the text at any given time.
“They have to strike a fine balance between fidelity to the text and the intention of the author on the one hand, and intelligibility for the people of God on the other.”