Not translating the Our Father

The Second Vatican Council called for a revision of Catholic Liturgy and an increased use of the vernacular. In 1969, under the authority of Pope Paul VI a revised Missale Romanum was promulgated.

This was the Novus Ordo – the new rite of the Mass. It incorporated features called for by the Council, including dialogue, the penitential rite, the prayer of the faithful, much more Scripture, and new Eucharistic prayers.

It kept the Pater Noster exactly as it was prayed before the Council. This became available in English translation in 1973.

That English translation has been revised and in 2011 we have begun praying a new translation of the Mass of Paul VI. One thing which will be the same in both translations is the text of the Our Father.

Ironically, since 1984 most New Zealand Catholics have been praying a more modern translation of that prayer.

The translators of the 1970s made a brave decision with respect to the Pater Noster. They did not introduce a new translation but chose to use the form of the Lord’s Prayer that the Anglicans were praying throughout the English-speaking world.

Anglicans had been praying the Our Father in English since the Book of Common Prayer came out in 1662 with its text very close to that found in the Gospel of Matthew in the King James Bible (1611). In 1928, in a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer, they had modernised the text slightly (“which” in the first line became “who”; “in earth” became “on earth”; “them that trespass” became “those who trespass”).

Anglicans also prayed a doxology at the end of the prayer, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.”  This reflects very early liturgical practice. It appears in some ancient manuscript variations of the Gospel of Matthew and a similar doxology is attached to our other ancient witness to the Our Father, the second century text  The Didache.

The Mass of Paul VI included this doxology, but separates it from the end of the Our Father by another prayer.

This prayer is called “the Embolism” and is an expansion of  “deliver us from evil”  influenced by Titus 2:13 “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Christ Jesus”.  This influence is seen more clearly in the newer translation.

So, for a time, English-speaking Christians prayed the prayer that Jesus taught in the same words, though the Catholics did not usually join in the doxology. In the decades since this ecumenical unity has broken down.

English has changed since 1661, the word ‘trespass’ has acquired a different sense from its then equivalence to ‘sin’.

“Lead us not into temptation” does sound as if God is actively tempting us, rather than merely permitting it.

Different church communities introduced new translations of the Our Father.

In the 1980s an ecumenical group now called the English Language Liturgical Consultation offered to the Christian churches a modern English translation of the Lord’s Prayer. This is the one that the New Zealand Catholic Dioceses, except Christchurch, permitted and encouraged in the Mass. This is what most NZ Catholics call ‘the new Our Father’.

The hope of the ecumenical group was that this form of the prayer would be accepted world wide.

Their hope has not, so far, been fulfilled.

Many places are using the modern translation but it has not supplanted the traditional forms; it has not ‘swept the field’, and instead of restoring unity it has effectively added to the diversity.

The five New Zealand dioceses were almost alone in the Catholic Church in introducing the new Our Father. The vast majority of the English-speaking Christian world pray the ‘old Our Father’ – it is still the most successful ecumenical text.

This may be why the Congregation for Divine Worship did not accept the New Zealand Bishops’ request that the new Our Father be part of the New Zealand Missal.

So, among all the new translations we will be hearing and praying in Advent of this year there is going to be one text that is far from new, and to be honest, is not a great translation. Its strength is its long history, its popularity and its familiarity to many Christians throughout the world.


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