Was the Pope Trying to Improve on Jesus with the Our Father?
A Commentary by Father Richard Kunst, Curator
You may remember at the end of last year Pope Francis said something that caused quite a stir. Now to be fair, Pope Francis has made it a somewhat regular occurrence to say things that are controversial, but last December was a bit different. There is no doubt that the western media has been more friendly and positive towards Pope Francis than it ever was to any other pope, but even the media was shocked at what Francis said.
The pope suggested that we should change the Lord’s Prayer! Even the usually fawning media was aghast that Francis would think so highly of himself that he thought he could improve upon the prayer that Jesus himself gave us! The story was not entirely accurate, of course. In this era of fake news you might name this story as one more example.
Pope Francis did not and does not want to change or improve upon the Lord’s Prayer, but that does not mean that the translation of the prayer cannot be improved, and that is what the pope was getting at. Pope Francis was referencing in particular the English version of this most important of prayers. And frankly, he is not the first person to have questioned the wording of the prayer; I have had parishioners ask me about what certain lines mean, because they can be confusing. The line that has been getting all the attention is, “…lead us not into temptation.”
The pope suggested a better translation would be, “do not let us fall into temptation” which for example is the wording of the prayer in French. In my humble opinion, the pope is spot on! God does not lead us into temptation, so why would we ask him not to do something that he would never do anyhow? This concept is clearly and directly addressed in the scripture, when St. James in his epistle says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13-14).
Before we protest, thinking the prayer should not be tampered with, it might be good to know that the English translation of the Our Father that we universally use was actually the responsibility of King Henry VIII—the same King Henry VIII who broke away from the church and started his own religion because Pope Clement VII would not grant him an annulment to marry his girlfriend. Henry was rightly concerned that there were different English versions of the prayer that were being used, so he issued an edict saying, “His Grace perceiving now the great diversity of the translations [of the Our father] hath caused a uniform translation of the said Pater Noster, Ave, Creed, etc., to be set forth, willing all his loving subjects to learn and use the same and straitly (sic) commanding all parsons, vicars and curates to read and teach the same to their parishioners.”
The Lord’s Prayer is certainly not the only prayer that has a confusing English translation. Think of the Apostle’s Creed, when we say that “Jesus descended into hell.” I actually wrote a whole column addressing that line a few years back. We know that Jesus did not go into the fiery hell but that he went to the place of the dead, so as to bring the Gospel to those who had died before him. Hence this too is a prayer that could use some translation fine tuning.
And how about the English version of the Salve Regina (“Hail Holy Queen”) with the line, “…mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” Or is it “…mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”? Well it depends on what English-speaking country you are praying in. If you are in England, you say “vale”; if you are in other places it is “valley.”
The point is that the language is always developing, so there is always room to adjust how we say certain prayers. What is most important is that we stay faithful to the original words that Jesus taught us, and Pope Francis was right on track when he suggested that we should change the words of the Lord’s Prayer to be more faithful to what the Lord originally said. —Father Richard Kunst
Note: This commentary first appeared in The Northern Cross--the diocesan paper of the Diocese of Duluth where Father Kunst has written a monthly Apologetics column since its inception in 2005.
Why Do We ‘Dare’ to Say the Lord’s Prayer?
The 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Richard Kunst
Curiously, during this past school year I got the same question from more than a few kids. It was about something we priests say in the context of the Mass, and I have to say, the question is a good one, worthy of good answer. Paraphrasing, the question went like this: “Father, why do you say at Mass that we ‘dare’ to say the Our Father?”
Observant kids! About 10 or 12 years ago, when the new and more accurate translation of the Mass was introduced to the English speaking world, the priest’s introduction to the Lord’s Prayer changed from the priest’s own discretion to an expected formula, which by now we are all familiar with: “At the Savior’s command, and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say.”
So why do we “dare” say it? When we were kids, we probably all played truth or dare at some point. A dare was meant to be a scary thing, or at least a flexing of some courage, so why does it take courage to pray the Lord’s Prayer? The first thing to note is that we need to pay attention when we are saying familiar, memorized prayers. There is a vast difference between saying prayers and praying. And DARE I say that many of us do not pay much attention to the words we are actually praying? Because truth be told, the Our Father is a bit radical, and it takes courage to meaningfully pray it.
Though there may be many reasons we dare to say this prayer, there are three that I will touch on. First, it’s how we start the prayer, referring to God as our Father. Or, if we were to be more true to the original language, we are actually referring to God in the less formal way as our dad. Start the prayer that way some time, and you will see how different it feels: “Our Dad, who is in heaven ….” Though the Old Testament is much longer than the New Testament, there are only 11 times in which God is referred to as a father, and in some of those 11 times he is compared to a father, not actually called a father. So when Jesus revealed God as our heavenly dad, it was a radical departure from the norm. When we enter into an intimate relationship with anyone, it can become risky for us, but to enter into such an intimate relationship with God brings it to a whole new level. It takes guts; it takes courage.
A second point in which we dare to say the Lord’s Prayer is when we say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are asking God to be in control on earth as he is in heaven, and that is not easy. God gives us free will to choose whatever we want, and he respects that free will, but when we pray that important line, we are giving God control of everything, or at least asking him to exercise his will over everything. In the Old Testament, when the Hebrew people were asking to have a king like all the nations surrounding them, the prophets said that God himself was their king, but the Hebrew people rejected that concept, so God anointed Saul as their king, and from that point forward the people slowly wandered farther and farther from God.
To surrender our will to the divine will of God is no easy task, and when we do that we are certain to experience suffering and even rejection, but in the end it will be the source of the greatest joy. Still, it takes guts and true discipline to ask God to have his will done on earth just as it is done in heaven.
Finally, and I have written about this in past columns, the third reason we “dare” to say the Lord’s Prayer is when we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Though God’s love is inescapable and without condition, his mercy and forgiveness certainly have conditions. The most difficult condition for us to receive his forgiveness is that we must forgive others who have sinned against us. In essence when we speak these words towards the end of the prayer we are asking God to forgive us only to the degree that we first are willing to forgive.
That is actually a pretty clear theme throughout the New Testament, but for Jesus to put it into the one prayer he taught his disciples turns it up a notch. Think of all the times we have been hurt by people, especially if the hurt was bad. Have we held a grudge? What if the person does not ask to be forgiven? What if we think they don’t deserve our forgiveness? It doesn’t matter. God bestows mercy and forgiveness in reckless abandon, and so should we: seven times seventy, Jesus once told Peter, meaning without limit. This is, in fact, extremely difficult, but it is necessary.
So next time you pray to your heavenly Dad in the Our Father, pay close attention to the words rather than just mindlessly saying them. It takes guts to say and ask what is contained in this most famous of prayers, but at the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare say it!