Pope Francis and the Our Father: Why Context is Key

A guest blog post by Fr Devin Roza, LC (devin.roza@upra.org). 

This is the first of three posts discussing and clarifying Pope Francis’s recent comments on the Our Father.  Initially, Dr. Mark Ward at the Logos Blog posted his thoughts regarding the Pope’s comments.  You can read them here.  We welcome your thoughts and perspectives.

Pope Francis recently caused quite a controversy in an interview in which he suggested that some translations of the Our Father are “not good.” He was speaking about the 6th petition of the Our Father, which English translations generally render, “lead us not into temptation.” The Pope said that the Italian version, which reads non ci indurre in tentazione (literally, “do not induce us in temptation”), was “not a good translation”, and expressed his preference for the current French translation, Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation (literally, “Do not let us enter into temptation”).

After Dr. Mark Ward responded to Pope Francis’s remarks on the Logos blog, the Verbum team reached out to Fr Andrew Dalton and me, asking if we would like to offer a Catholic perspective, as well as respond to Dr. Ward’s comments. We gladly accepted the invitation in a spirit of fraternal dialogue. While we both generally agree with Dr. Ward’s interpretation of the 6th petition of the Our Father as present in the Gospel of Matthew, we also are convinced that Dr. Ward’s position can be further enriched, and at times corrected, by considering the context of the Pope’s remarks, and of the 6th petition of the Our Father in the Scriptures.

In this post, I will discuss the context of Pope Francis’s remarks, and in the next posts, Fr. Andrew Dalton will comment on the meaning of the 6th petition of the Our Father in the Gospel of Matthew.

Context is Key

In Biblical studies, we learn that context is key. There is a famous phrase, that “A text, taken out of context, is a pretext.” Rephrased positively, this means that we need to consider the original context when interpreting someone’s words, or we risk inadvertently misinterpreting them.

As a Catholic priest and Bible scholar who is fluent in both Spanish and Italian, and has lived for extended periods of time in Latin American countries and in Italy, I would like to give a bit more context to the Pope’s comments about the Our Father. To understand Pope Francis’s remarks about the Our Father, context is key.

There are three areas where context is important: (1) the interview, (2) the Our Father as a prayer, and (3) Pope Francis’s pastoral perspective. I’ll take these up one by one. We can only properly interpret the Pope’s words if we take all three of these contexts into account.

1st Context: The Interview

The most immediate context of the Pope’s words is the interview itself. What were they discussing? Who was doing the interview, and why? The answer to these questions sheds light on the Pope’s remarks.

The Interviewer: Fr Marco Pozza, prison chaplain in Padova

Towards the end of 2016, Fr. Marco Pozza received an invitation from Pope Francis for lunch. But the invitation wasn’t just for him. Fr. Marco is the chaplain at a jail in Padova. And on November 6, 2016, he, along with about 30 prisoners, joined Pope Francis for lunch at the Pope’s residence at St. Martha’s House, in the Vatican, following an audience with around 4000 prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families, who had come from around the world at the Pope’s invitation. Pope Francis’s words that day can be found here.

Fr. Marco introduced his interview with Pope Francis recalling these events, how that day when his prisoners ate at the same table as Pope Francis, he saw them crying, smiling, and hugging each other, and how from that moment, everything was different for them. It made him think, he explains, of so many who must have been similarly touched when they experienced the merciful gaze of Jesus in his public ministry.

Months later, Fr Marco was hoping to put together a television show about the Our Father. He told one of his inmates, who innocently replied, “Tell the Pope!! For sure he’ll want to help.” Fr Marco replied, “That’s crazy!” Nonetheless, that afternoon he wrote Pope Francis. A few days later he received a telephone call from Pope Francis, and the rest is history.

We’ll come back to this context to see how it relates to the Our Father when we discuss the Pope’s pastoral perspective, but for now what is important to note is that the interviewer is a prison chaplain, and the audience is also, at least in part, those prisoners Pope Francis had personally met. How might such an audience influence what makes for a “good” or “not good” translation of the Our Father?

The topic of the Interview: The Our Father… prayed

What was the topic of Fr Marco’s interview with Pope Francis? What were they speaking about?

The interview lasted almost an hour, and is available in its entirety here, in Italian. Fr Marco introduced the topic of the interview with these words (original video here, what follows is my translation):

“I wanted to begin (this interview) from here, from the word, “father”, because that’s the prayer my Dad taught me when I was a little kid, the Our Father. It is amazing to think that God wants us, his creatures, to speak to him on such intimate terms. I would like to hear from you what it means to you, also as Pope now, to pray the Our Father speaking so intimately with God.”

The topic of the interview is the Our Father, considered as prayer. What does the Our Father mean when we pray it?

This context is maintained throughout the entire interview, including when the Pope mentions that “the French have now changed that text, translating ‘don’t let me fall into temptation.’” The change he is referring to is the liturgical prayer of the Our Father. Beginning on December 3 of this year, throughout France, Catholics began using a new translation of the Roman Missal for their celebration of the Eucharist, which includes the mentioned change to the Our Father.

This important point has been missed by many commentators. Dr. Mark Ward, for example, in his article proposes answering the question, “Is the pope’s (re-)translation of the Bible here right or wrong?” But context makes clear that the Pope was speaking about the version of the Our Father which parents teach their children, and which is prayed in the liturgy, rather than the versions of the Our Father as found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

2nd Context: The Our Father as a prayer

And that leads us to our second essential context to understand Pope Francis’s remarks: The Our Father as a prayer. What difference, if any, does considering the Our Father as a prayer have in what makes for a good or “not good” translation?

Here I will consider three examples of the Our Father as a prayer: the Didache, the Spanish Our Father, and the Italian Our Father. Each of these will shed some light on the context of Pope Francis’s remarks.

The Our Father in the Didache

The oldest instance in history outside the Bible of the Our Father as a prayer is found in the Didache. The Didache was a sort of ancient Catechism, and is currently dated by most scholars to the first century (cf. O’Loughlin). It includes the instruction to pray the Our Father three times a day. What is most interesting, however, is the version of the Our Father it instructs believers to pray. It is generally similar (with three minor differences) to that of the Gospel of Matthew, but includes the ending “because yours is the power and the glory forever” as an integral part of the prayer.

Where did this doxology come from? The minor differences between the Our Father in Matthew and the Didache, together with the addition of the doxology, have lead scholars to conclude that “it is hard to suppose that the Didache quotes directly from the text of Matthew’s Gospel.” Rather, it was “the liturgy that served the Didachist as source” (Niederwimmer). Metzger agrees, writing that the doxology at the end of the Our Father in the Didache and in some (generally late) manuscripts of Matthew “was composed (perhaps on the basis of 1 Chr 29:11-13) in order to adapt the Prayer for liturgical use in the early church” (my emphasis).

Niederwimmer notes 6 different instances in the Didache (9:2, 3, 4 and 10:2, 4, 5) in which the prayers described in the Eucharistic celebration end with a similar or identical doxology, and concludes that the most plausible setting for this early liturgical adaptation of the Our Father was the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Already in the first century, the Our Father used in catechesis and daily prayer came from the version used in the liturgy, which the first century believers felt a certain freedom to adapt. While this dynamic may seem foreign to some today, for the first Christians it was natural. Jewish and Christian liturgy is where the faithful participate in the events of salvation history (for Christians, in the Paschal Mystery of Christ above all), and thus is where the Scriptures are most alive, and most at home (Danielou).

This helps provide the proper context for Pope Francis’s remarks about the Our Father in French. As of December 3, 2017, French believers began reciting a new version of the Our Father in their liturgy. And, like the faithful at the time of the Didache, from there they will use that version now for catechesis and personal devotion as well.

The Our Father in Spanish: What Our Father did Pope Francis grow up with?

The second version of the Our Father which provides needed context for Pope Francis’s remarks is the Spanish Our Father. Dr. Mark Ward errs when he writes that Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, has prayed countless times the version of the Our Father which reads No nos metas in tentación (“do not place us in temptation”). Rather, for the last 350 years, Spanish speakers around the world have prayed No nos dejes caer en tentación (“do not let us fall into temptation”).

The Spanish historian and philologist, Dr. Luis Gil Fernández, has studied the history of the Our Father in Spanish in his article Versiones del Pater Noster al Castellano en el Siglo de Oro. He notes that, while in the 16th century, there were still at least three common versions of the Our Father in Spanish (including the translation, no nos metas in tentación), by the time we reach the mid-17th century, with few exceptions the entire Spanish speaking world, both in Spain and in the New World, had united around the translation no nos dejes caer en tentación for liturgy, personal prayer, and catechesis. Why this change?

Dr. Gil Fernández’s initial hypothesis was that the change was imposed from above, by Church authorities. To his surprise, however, he found that all the evidence points to the change coming from below, as a common conclusion that the translation no nos dejes caer en tentación was more helpful for catechesis (p. 282).

The reasons, he discovered, were two-fold. First, the more literal translations of the Latin ne nos inducas in tentatione had become charged with negative connotations. While the Latin verb inducere means “to bring / lead into”, the Spanish inducir had taken on the meaning “to induce”, that is, “to succeed in persuading or leading (someone) to do something.” It had become what linguists call a “false friend.” Rather than communicating “lead into temptation”, people were hearing “entice to sin”. In a world in which people learned both the Latin and the Spanish Our Father, the Spanish no nos dejes caer en tentación (“do not let us fall into temptation”) served both to correct a common misunderstanding of the Latin, and to complement its meaning. Between the two versions, believers received a relatively complete picture of what the original Greek means when understood in context.

The second reason, intimately related reason, was the evangelization of the New World. The Spanish church had undertaken the mission to evangelize the New World. The evangelization was done in Spanish and, whenever possible, in the native languages. What version of the Our Father would allow believers (and potential believers) in the New World to best understand the meaning of the Our Father when prayed?

The linguistic difficulties that led to the Spanish speaking world embracing the translation no nos dejes caer en tentación helps to illustrate how the Our Father exists as a prayer within cultures and languages that evolve. What makes for a good translation in one time and place, may not do so in another. Which is precisely the Pope’s point about the Our Father in Italian.

The Our Father in Italian

The line from the Our Father which the Pope said was “not a good translation” was the Italian non ci indurre in tentazione.

Dr. Mark Ward presupposes in his blog post that the Italian version corresponds to the English, “lead us not into temptation,” but that is incorrect. As Andrea Pacquola correctly pointed out, “A literal translation of the prayer of ‘Our Father’ from Italian to English would result in wording slightly divergent from the official translations in English. The literal English for Non ci indurre in tentazione should be ‘Don’t induce us in temptation.’”

A translation like “Don’t induce us in temptation” in English could very easily be misunderstood to mean “When I am in a state of temptation, don’t induce me (to sin)”. Such a misunderstanding in English would conjure up images of a Father who incites his children to sin, who tempts them. Like in Spanish, indurre has become a “false friend” of inducere.

And this is precisely the objection Fr Marco Pozza brings up in his interview. “I can’t believe God is tempting me.” That is how his “friends, non-believers or believers” are (mis)understanding the Italian non ci indurre in tentazione. Pope Francis’s response also presupposes this difficulty with the current Italian, when he explains that a Father doesn’t induce us into temptation “to see, then, how I fall.”

And it isn’t just Pope Francis who has noted this problem with the current liturgical translation in Italian. In his previously cited article about the history of the Our Father in Spanish, Dr. Gil Fernández noted that a translation like the current Italian indurre obliges one to take the faithful through a series of “hermeneutical somersaults” (malabarismos hermeneuticos) to explain why the Our Father doesn’t mean what they naturally understand by indurre (p. 284-285)! And in 2008, the most widely used Bible translation in Italian, the Sacra Bibbia, updated its translation from non ci indurre in tentazione (“do not induce us in temptation”) to non abbandonarci alla tentazione (“do not abandon us to temptation”) in part to respond to this situation.

This context is important to understand Pope Francis’s remarks: he criticized the translation of the Our Father currently in use in the Italian liturgy, as many have, for reasons which simply don’t apply in languages like English or Latin, where “to lead into” and inducere still correspond relatively well to the Greek.

Of course, even in Italian, some prefer keeping an etymologically literal translation, and simply going through those “hermeneutical somersaults” to explain what is meant. But is that really the best way, especially for a devotional and liturgical prayer? And that leads us to the third and final context needed to understand Pope Francis’s comments about the Our Father: his pastoral perspective.

3rd Context: Pope Francis’s pastoral perspective

Oftentimes Pope Francis says that he wants “shepherds who smell like sheep.” He also likes to invite the faithful to go out to the “peripheries,” to those who are suffering and marginalized. Every translator has an audience in mind, and some translations can work better for some audiences than for others. But one audience Pope Francis does not want anyone to forget is those who are on the “peripheries of existence”, those who are suffering and lonely. Even prisoners, like those Fr. Marco Pozza cares for, and with whom Pope Francis had lunch.

How might Pope Francis’s pastoral perspective influence what makes for a “good” or “not good” translation for a devotional prayer?

The Our Father, as a prayer, has the broadest of all possible audiences. Children learn it from their parents. The faithful pray it together every Sunday. Many pray it every day, and some, like those first-century Christians of the Didache, three times a day. Children, parents, faithful and unfaithful, scholars and prisoners, the weak and the strong, the educated and the uneducated.

With such a broad audience, it is particularly important to avoid translations that could communicate a false concept of God. And if, like Pope Francis, we are particularly interested in those on the peripheries of existence, where such a risk is higher, this becomes even more important. For them, especially, the Italian indurre is “not a good translation.”

My personal opinion

Pope Francis is right. As both a Biblical scholar and a Catholic priest, I agree with Pope Francis about the Italian version of the Our Father. Not only is it prone to misunderstanding, but the vision of God it promotes when misunderstood is contrary to that of the Our Father. God does not induce our temptation, even if he does sometimes lead us into temptation/trial (Matthew 6:13).

And so, while I favor changing the Italian liturgical translation of the Our Father, I see no need to modify the English (or Latin) translation. Neither suffers from the difficulties present in the Italian.

I am also just fine with the Spanish version which the Pope has prayed his entire life, no nos dejes caer en tentación (“do not let us fall into temptation”). I pray daily the Our Father in Spanish as well as in English, without qualms. While this may surprise some, over the next two days, Fr Andrew Dalton will argue on this blog that when we read the 6th petition of the Gospel of Matthew in context, translations like that of the Spanish Our Father are acceptable. And I find his arguments persuasive.

I think we must also always consider our audience and linguistic context. What makes for a good translation for my university Bible class, or for a homily about the Our Father, may not always be the best translation for a broader public. In my scholarship and in my ministry, I want to live what St. Paul expressed in his letter to the Corinthians: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22).  I want to give “solid food” to those who are ready for it; but I am willing to give “milk” to those who are still “infants in Christ” (1 Cor 3:1-2).

I think Pope Francis would agree.

Fr Devin Roza, LC is visiting professor of New Testament at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome. He has a licentiate degree in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and a licentiate in philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum. He is the author of Fulfilled in Christ: The Sacraments.

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  • Thank-you very much for taking the time to help us understand better what Pope Francis might have been getting at. It seems the Holy Father can certainly be source of confusion and frustration at times. Maybe it’s because we lack the context of this comments and see him mainly filtered through the secular news outlets. Your insight and explanation was very helpful! As was Father Dalton’s. BTW the training videos from Verbum, “Verbum Advanced Academic Training” was excellent. I would recommend anyone who uses Verbum (or LOGOS for that matter) would benefit from watching those training videos! Thank-you also for your commitment to LOGS/Verbum. Your involvement in Verbum gives it that extra special something that keeps me a loyal customer!

  • I support our Pope’s wanting to change the wording regarding ‘lead us not into temption’. I always say ‘guide me away from temptation*, as I do not believe our Lord leads us into temptation.

  • A friend of mine suggested that I include links to some Italian dictionaries of “indurre,” to show how it no longer signifies “lead into” in a neutral sense. I had done this during the preparation of this article, but didn’t want to overwhelm people with foreign language resources. For those who are interested, however, here are two Italian dictionaries as examples: https://dizionari.repubblica.it/Italiano/I/indurre.php and https://www.dizionario-italiano.it/dizionario-italiano.php?parola=indurre.
    In the first, the top definition reads “convince, persuade, induce someone to do, say, or think something.” The second dictionary reads similarly, “move someone to do something, persuade.” Neither of these definitions corresponds to a meaning of the Greek “eisphero.”
    Interestingly, the first dictionary mentions that an old meaning of “indurre” was “condurre.” That Italian verb means “to lead into.” That meaning of “indurre” in Italian is no longer used. Thus the need to find a new Italian translation.

  • Thank you very much Fr. Devin for presenting the contextual and pastoral view of the Pope’s Francis response as find this approach very much part of the way I should relate and live out the faith.

  • Of course, we in the US would not have the essential context available but for you, Father. Thank you for an instrumental and necessary clarification.

    I think a great deal, if not virtually all, of what is circulated concerning the Pope’s verbalizations are cast as pretext, a lack of awareness that presses ahead in service of what is considered newsworthy.

  • Right on. I read Dr Ward on the subject first and wondered about the wisdom of such detailed word/ language analysis. Reminded me of angels and pin heads in the way it missed the point, while Jesus clearly was teaching a new less formal way of praying to people with the Pharisees as their primary example. Today we have a tendency to slip back into the formalism of the Pharisees which Jesus was challenging.
    While word /language studies may be a necessary evil they tend to hide the purpose of the Bible to bring us into (closer) relationship with God and strengthen the natural teachings of conscience. This is a pastoral responsibility first of all and if it takes experts to achieve it and not shepherds, it misses the mark IMO.

    • Certainly our priority should always be God and our relationship with him. That being said, Pope John Paul II expressed beautifully in his encyclical Fides et Ratio that faith and reason are like two wings that allow us to fly. I think we could say the same thing for faith and Biblical exegesis, when properly done. Even in depth word studies can be very fruitful for faith. Personally I commend Dr. Ward for that – he is clearly someone who is serious not only about his scholarship, but also about his faith, and I very much enjoyed (and generally agree with) his word study.
      I hope that my response can help open some horizons for him of Catholic and liturgical context that he may have been unfamiliar with. And… keep your eyes out for Fr Andrew Dalton’s “word study” on these topics! Hopefully you’ll find it nourishes both your head and your heart!

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