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.