Rewording the Lord’s Prayer: Pope Francis and the Complexities of Translation

by Fr Feidhlimidh Magennis, Director Liberal Arts

The perils of translation and complexities of textual analysis are highlighted as Pope Francis and the Italian bishops are engaged in seeking to render in contemporary Italian the sense of a prayer composed two thousand years ago transmitted to us through many languages and traditions of interpretation.

There was great media interest in the recent approval by Pope Francis for the revision of the Italian text of the Lord’s Prayer used in the liturgy. But much of the reporting was fr-feidhlimidh-magennisconfused as to what Pope Francis was actually approving. Was he changing the words of the Lord’s Prayer from “lead us not into temptation” to “do not let us fall into temptation”, or simply the wording of the translation? And what were his reasons for doing so? A little clarification on what actually happened will allow us to answer the two questions.

For celebration of the Mass in the Roman Rite, the Catholic Church issues the Roman Missal in Latin. The current missal is in its third edition (editio typica) of the Missal first promulgated by Pope Paul VI (1969) after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). All vernacular translations of the Missal are based on the editio typica and require approval by the Holy See. Following the promulgation of the third edition in 2000, there has been need to review and update, where needed, the vernacular translations. The English translation of the third edition, prepared by the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL) on behalf of the episcopal conferences of a range of English-speaking countries, came into use at the end of 2011. The Italian Episcopal Conference is currently revising the Messale Romano, their translation of the Roman Missal and, as part of that process, they sought permission to use a revised translation of the Lord’s Prayer. It is this approval that has generated the recent media interest. There has been no change to the Latin text of the Lord’s Prayer in the editio typica. Rather, the changes are in the translations.

The actual change under consideration concerns the line ne non induces in tentationem, (lead us not into temptation). The line in Italian has changed to non abbandonarci alla tentazione (do not abandon us to temptation). This follows, according to O’Hanlon (2019), a similar change made by the Spanish bishops, who for several years now have been using the equivalent of “do not let us fall into temptation”. The French bishops in 2017 revised their translation to Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation (do not let us enter into temptation). In January 2018, the German bishops’ conference chose not to change their translation of the Our Father. They noted “philosophical, exegetical, liturgical and, not least, ecumenical” reasons to leave the translation untouched (Brockhaus, 2019). While ICEL has released a statement indicating that it is not currently considering the text of the Lord’s Prayer (Dodd, 2019), the Irish Bishops’ Conference has indicated that it is giving special attention to the change: “The bishops will look at the implications for both the Irish and the English translations of this much loved and universal prayer” (Catholic Communications Office, 2019).

So in conclusion, the media interest focuses our attention on the process of translation. All translation is a matter of interpretation, and this process has repeated itself many times in the history of the Lord’s Prayer. First delivered by Jesus in Aramaic, we have three ancient versions in Greek – two in the Gospels (Matt 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4) and one in the Didache (8:2), a very early Christian document of disputed date of composition. Those Greek texts (particularly the Matthean version) were used in early Christian worship which, in the Western Roman Empire, shifts from Greek to Latin. The Latin text is then translated on numerous occasions into vernacular languages in processes that continue to today’s revision of the Catholic Church’s Roman Missal. Pope Francis and the Italian bishops are engaged in seeking to render in contemporary Italian the sense of a prayer composed two thousand years ago and which has been transmitted to us through many languages and traditions of interpretation. Good scholarship today requires us not only to seek the original form(s) of the prayer when we translate it today, but also to pay attention to the traditions of interpretation which are represented in this long history of usage and interpretation.

The Lord’s Prayer comes to us from the early Church in three versions – the Lukan short version of five petitions (Luke 11:2-4) and two closely related long versions (Matt 6:9-13 and Didache 8:2). It is the Matthean version that is used predominantly in Christian worship. The prayer divides into two parts of three petitions each: the three you-petitions (using second person singular in verses 9c-10) and the longer we-petitions (first person plural in verses 11-13). So what is at stake in the rendering of what is considered the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer?

Greek kai me eisenegkes hemas eis peirasmon         alla rusai hemas apo tou ponerou
Latin et ne nos inducas in tentationem:                      sed libera nos a malo
English and lead us not into temptation                         but deliver us from evil


non abbandonarci alla tentazione                      ma liberaci dal male

non ci indurre in tentazione                               ma liberaci dal male

There are two key issues for translating the first half of this petition. Firstly, what does peirasmon refer to? The word can be translated as “temptation” or “test”, and the choice is often based on whether we understand this as an everyday occurrence (an affliction, suffering or temptation) or a reference to the tribulations of the end times (the final testing). Use of the word in the New Testament and in Jewish literature of the time almost always takes the first option (Luz, 1989, 384). However, later Christian asceticism began to consider all of human life as a testing and as preparation for the final tribulations, shifting the understanding of peirasmonto ‘test’. Yet this line of thought is present in the Gospels where Jesus and others after him interpret the difficulties of the present time as part of the eschatological woes of the end time (Davies & Allison, 1988, 613). From such a perspective, it would be reasonable to petition God not to bring us to that situation but rather (as in the second part) to save us from such a situation. This petition asks for God’s assistance in present difficulties, for divine support now, so that one does not fall foul of apostasy in the final moments.

The second issue has absorbed much consideration throughout the traditions of the Church and of biblical scholarship: how can one avoid the statement that it is God who leads us into temptation. As stated in the Letter of St James (1:12-13), God tempts no one, and as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 10:13 “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it”. In an oft-quoted statement in an interviewwith Italian Catholic television network TV2000, Pope Francis lauded the French bishops’ decision, and he expressed concern that certain translations could give the impression it is God “who pushes me toward temptation to see how I fall” (O’Hanlon, 2019). However, it is understandable that in prayer, the subtle analysis of philosophy and theology are not in view. Instead, the prayer focuses on God’s absolute power and authority over the life of the petitioner.

While the media focus has been on the change of wording introduced into the Italian translation, this debate challenges us to consider carefully the wider context of the whole petition. Its location in the linguistic and theological perspectives of the Gospels and early Christianity suggest a creative ambiguity. The petition asks for action by God that is complex: both negative (“do not”) and positive (“do”). As is common in biblical poetry, the two parts are in parallel to give two perspectives on one reality, the saving power of God. Secondly, there is the ambiguity of living in the eschatological end times where the Kingdom of God is here already but not yet fully manifest. If earlier generations were more conscious of the imminance of the end time and prayed that God would lead us from that “testing”, perhaps our generations are more conscious of the immanence of God’s protective presence in daily life and pray God does not let us fall into the temptations that surround us. Who would think that a matter of translation would open up such vistas of eternal life?