Rewording the Lord’s Prayer and “Pro Multis”

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There has been much talk in the secular news about Pope Francis changing the words to the “Our Father,” otherwise known as the Lord’s Prayer. While many Catholics are upset by this, a good deal of Evangelicals are concerned about it as well, asking me such questions as “how can the pope change the words of Jesus?”

Sadly, a lot of this information is a little off. The secular press is generally clueless about things related to the Catholic Church, and frequently fails to give important details that are necessary to understand the full story. So here’s the truth. Pope Francis did not “change” the Lord’s Prayer. What he did was suggest that it be changed, then the Italian bishops voluntarily made the change in a translation of the Roman Missal specifically for Italy, and then he “confirmed” or “approved” those changes. In other words, he got the Italian bishops to do the work for him. This has no effect on the English mass whatsoever, and English Catholics can breathe easily and rest assured that no changes are planned at the time of this writing (June of 2019).

Evangelicals can chill-out please. The pope didn’t change the words of Jesus. The Italian bishops conference did, and they did it only in Italian.

So here’s what really happened. The Italian bishops conference wanted to make several translation changes to the Novus Ordo (post-1970 “New Order”) Mass from Latin to Italian. One of those changes was a reinterpretation of the Latin text in the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) that says “Et ne nos inducas in tentationem.” The literal translation of that is “And lead us not into temptation,” which is why most vernacular versions of the Mass have translated it that way in nearly all languages. The tradition comes to us in English from the 1662 (Anglican) Book of Common Prayer as: “And lead us not into temptation.” The Italian version was the same: “e non ci indurre in tentazione.” It will now be changed to something akin to “non lasciarci entrare in tentazione,” which translates to “do not let us enter (or fall) into temptation” which the pope believes is more theologically correct.

This in spite of the passage of Scripture which explicitly says: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit [of God] into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). The Scriptures tell us plainly that the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, literally led Jesus to be tempted by the devil. So there is a Biblical foundation for the literal translation of: “lead us not into temptation.” Basically, we’re asking God not to lead us into situations where we might be tempted by the devil, as Jesus was. The petition pairs nicely with the following request: “but deliver us from evil.”

Look at it this way. Suppose you’re gunning for that promotion at work, but if you get it, you might be tempted to lie or cheat as part of doing the new job. Getting the promotion seems like a good thing, but if it leads to compromising your faith, it’s not really such a good thing after all. So you might be praying to get that promotion, but because you don’t know the future, you pray the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) to specifically ask God not to lead you into a situation where you might be tempted. So God, in his mercy, and in answer to your prayer to not be led into temptation, says “no” to the promotion you also asked for. You may never understand why you didn’t get the job, but God was simply answering your prayer not to let you get into a position where you might compromise your faith. The “lead us not into temptation” petition is a recognition of our weakness, and a willingness to sacrifice temporal gain for eternal joy. We know we can easily fail in our Christian walk, so this is sometimes a request that God not answer our other prayers (for promotions, riches, opportunities, etc.) because they might lead us to sin.

Overall, the change is not as traumatic as some in the press would have us believe. Something similar has already been done in the Spanish and French translations. Basically, the Romance (Latin-based) bishops are taking the lead on this. The German bishops, even though they are extremely liberal, have decided to leave it alone, and the English bishops (around the world) have a long history of sticking to the English Patrimony on this, which was preserved primarily by Anglicans for centuries, before Catholics adopted it for liturgical use in the post-1970 Novus Ordo Missal. Anglophone (English-speaking) Catholics have a strong attachment to the English Patrimony on some basic English prayers, such as the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer), Hail Mary and Glory Be. All of these have been rendered in most Catholic prayer books in Sacred English, according to the English Patrimony as follows…

Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be
Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy Will be done,
on earth, as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our
daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we
forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us
not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is
the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

This version of the Our Father was carried over to the vernacular English translation of the Novus Ordo Mass, even though the entire text is in modern English, this Sacred English version was preserved. Why? Because for centuries, Catholics mirrored Anglicans in their English recitation of these prayers for private devotion, as is evidenced by centuries of prayer books and Bible translations. Thus, historically speaking, English-speaking Catholics have a close connection to the same English-Patrimony used by Anglicans. Even in the wild 1970s, with its “shoot from the hip” liturgical translations, the Catholic bishops understood this important cultural connection, and left the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) translation unaltered.

Today, the English Patrimony is more entirely preserved in the Ordinariates of English Patrimony (or Anglican Patrimony). So if any English bishops conferences decide to follow the Italian, French and Spanish lead on re-translating the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) it won’t be a total loss. Catholics will still have access to the traditional wording in the Divine Worship Mass used in Ordinariate parishes. It will be a loss, no doubt, but not a total loss.

One thing the English-speaking bishops should not do is try to re-translate the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) using Sacred English. That would be a bastardization of the English Patrimony. It’s one thing to add new prayers into Sacred English (which is fine) but re-translating old ones is too much. It’s like trying to rewrite history, and seems dishonest, by taking something that’s new, and trying to make it sound old. It’s also offensive to those who cherish the English Patrimony, particularly Catholics who are members of the Ordinariates, and those of a more traditional Catholic mindset. If the USCCB, or some other primarily English-speaking bishops conference, decides to follow the Italian/French/Spanish lead on this, they should just translate the whole “Our Father” (Lord’s Prayer) into modern English, so as to avoid negative blow-back from those Catholics who cherish the English Patrimony, especially those in the Ordinariate, as well as those Catholics of a more traditional mindset. If they want to change it, they should do it respectfully of English heritage and tradition. Using a modern version of the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) should effectively avoid any unintended consequences. That way, if some Catholics want to hear the traditional English “Our Father” during Mass, they can still do so in the Ordinariate parishes, and they can always continue to use this version in their private devotions.

The Italian bishops made a few other cosmetic changes to their translation of the Novus Ordo Mass, which are much more significant than the change they made to the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer). Most of these reflect a more liberal theological perspective. The most notable is the change made to the pro multis, which is much more than cosmetic…

The pro multis is part of the prayer given during the consecration of the Holy Eucharist during the Mass, specifically the consecration of the wine, which becomes the sacred blood of Jesus Christ. It comes from the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:28 and Luke 22:20. The official version reads as follows in Latin: qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum. In English, this literally translates to: “which for you, and for many, is poured out for the remission of sins.” The Latin phrase pro multis literally translates into “for many.” That is the literal translation. There can be no other.

Yet Latin doesn’t always distinguish between “many” and “all.” The word multis could mean “many” as in “all,” but it could never mean “few.” The Latin word multis is where we get our English words: multiple, multiply and multitude. So when you’re referencing a crowd of people, you could say “the multitude” and that could be a reference to “all of them.” However, it’s generally not understood to mean “all” as in every human being on the planet. If you wanted to say that in Latin, you would have to use the phrase pro omnes, which literally means “for all,” but this is nowhere found in the Latin text of the Novus Ordo Mass nor in the original Greek version of the gospels.

Here’s where we run into problems. Some bishops conferences, our own USCCB included, have historically inserted the word “all” into the translation of this Latin phrase. For example; the original 1973 English translation of the pro multis prayer was: “which will be shed for you and for all men, so that sins may be forgiven.” The Latin phrase pro multis was mistranslated as “for all men.” This was later corrected, not to get rid of “all” (as it should have been), but to drop the word “men,” so as to appease the feminists. By the time I came into the Catholic Church, around the year 2000, the official English translation still defectively read as; “which will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven.”

The arguments in favor of using “for all” as a translation of pro multis are flimsy and both Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI absolutely rejected them. In 2006, the Holy See directed that all vernacular translations of pro multis in the updated 2002 Roman Missal be read as “for many” and not “for all.” This is how the Novus Ordo mass is translated into English now (June, 2019).

The problem isn’t so much the words, as it is what people typically do with them. For starters, the Scriptures don’t say “for all,” but “for many,” and we should always try to be faithful to what Jesus actually said during the Last Supper. Second, while the phrase “for all” is not technically wrong, in a theological sense, because Christ did shed his blood for the remission of all sins of all men, that doesn’t mean that all men are saved. Therein lies the catch. It wouldn’t be heretical to say that Christ shed his blood for all humanity. He did. But it would be heretical to imply that all humanity is now saved. That is not the case. Therein lies the rub. Because you see, many liberal theologians would like us to believe that all humanity has been saved, and everyone is going to heaven. Christ did indeed shed his blood for all humanity, but not all humanity accepts this, and therefore not all humanity is saved. Thus Christ said at the Last Supper, and our priests repeat at the consecration of the Holy Eucharist, that the sacred blood is shed “for many” (pro multis) not “for all” (pro omnes). The effect of a literal translation of pro multis (or “for many”) is to remind people that while the shed blood of Christ is sufficient to save all humanity, that doesn’t mean all humanity will be saved.

One has to wonder about the intentions of those who push the “for all” mistranslation of pro multis. Why is this such a sticking point for them? It’s a false translation, to be sure, and cannot mean, in this context, what they seem to want it to mean. It’s a theologically-imposed translation, which meets a certain theological ideal, but is not faithful to the Biblical text. The theological ideal is not wrong per se, but what people typically do with it is. Could this be the reason why some bishops push the “for all” mistranslation of pro multis? Are they attempting to passive-aggressively mislead the faithful into believing that all humanity will be saved? While this may sound like an outlandish presumption, it’s not without merit. Many catechists, priests and bishops have taught just that, or something similar. There is a temptation, among those who are themselves trapped in habitual sin, to soften the terms of our Lord’s teaching on hell, even to the point of asserting that nobody ever really goes there. These same people champion the “for all” mistranslation of pro multis, presumably because it makes it easier for them to feel better about themselves and misled others into believing the same error.

This is a prevailing heresy in our day, which is one reason why the Holy See championed the literal “for many” translation of pro multis up until just recently. What Pope Francis has done with the Italian bishops, and what he most likely will do with all bishops conferences, is turn the matter back over to them. The job of translating the liturgy is now in the hands of local bishops. Rome will continue to affirm the Latin text of the Novus Ordo Missal, but local bishops conferences will translate it into the vernacular. Under the Francis pontificate, he will simply “confirm” those translations for popular use. In other words, he’s shifting responsibility for liturgical translations to the local bishops conferences. He’s saying; it’s on your head now. He’s essentially saying; if you mistranslate the sacred liturgy, you are responsible for it, and for the souls you lead astray because of it. It’s like he’s washing his hands of it.

All I can say is this. If the bishops conferences want to mistranslate pro multis as “for all” instead of “for many,” they had better compensate with tough catechesis emphasizing that not everyone goes to heaven, that hell is real, and our Lord taught that many people really do go there. I’ve been a Catholic for twenty years now, and I have yet to hear this kind of tough teaching come from the episcopate in any kind of serious way. If the bishops want to mistranslate pro multis as “for all” then they better be ready to start preaching some hell, fire and brimstone from behind the pulpit, just to make sure there are no misunderstandings. If they’re not willing to do that, they probably ought to leave the pro multis alone.

10 thoughts on “Rewording the Lord’s Prayer and “Pro Multis”

  1. Ah, there’s nothing quite like using pedantry as an excuse to tell people to “chill”. Henry II did not murder St. Thomas Becket with his own hands, he is recorded merely to have said, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!” Some of his knights took the hint and did the deed. What need, then, did Henry have for penance for the crime? By your pedantry, none. But he knew better, and the Pope knew better, and the people of England knew better: a ruler who makes his desire plain shares in the honor or the condemnation when that will is enacted.

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  2. And why the Gloria mistranslation? Instead of “And on earth peace to men of good will,” the Italian bishops have changed it to something like “peace to men who do the Lord’s will.” And BTW, I have wondered for years how the Novus Ordo in English could put words into Our Lord’s holy speech that He did not say and that just after saying that Jesus said “for you and for all” at the Institution of the Eucharist. How could any priest affirm in this most solemn moment that Jesus “said” something He did not say? I have found this to be my biggest argument against the “for all” in the English, as it used to be for too long.

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  3. Bottom line no one can change God’s words and intent. No priest, Bishop, Cardinal or Pope can change God’s words or His intent. The Our Father should remain the same and no changes should be made to it. And all Catholics no matter the language should be saying the same form of the prayer. Just like the Church should not have changed from Holy Ghost to Holy Spirit. The Church should not have change the name of the Third Person of the Trinity.

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      1. How long ago did the expression “Holy Ghost” begin to be used?

        The sixteenth century, if not earlier. It might be worth noting that the word “ghost” and its cognates had a broader meaning then than they do now; e.g., Henry VIII called his spiritual director his “ghostly father”.

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    1. Not criticizing anything said above. Just pointing out something. English is a German-Latin hybrid language. The word “ghost” comes from the German word “geist,” while the word “spirit” comes from the Latin word “spiritus.” Both are valid and interchangeable in English, because English has two words for many things due to it being the merger of two languages.

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  4. Theological correctness should never be a factor in translation. Getting the intent of the passage across to the reader should be the goal. Both sides in this quarrel assume that the “temptation” mentioned in the prayer is temptation to sin. More likely, it refers to any test or trial that we might be subjected to — such as persecution, for example. Same with the “evil” we ask to be delivered from in the next phrase. It’s a request to be delivered from evils that people might wish to inflict upon us. To treat these phrases as if they were about internal struggles with sin is to miss the point of the petitions, and to badly garble the meaning of the prayer.

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