Pope Francis has approved a change to the official Italian liturgical translation of the most basic of Christian prayers: the ‘Our Father’, or ‘Lord’s Prayer’.
The Italian Roman Missal had translated the penultimate verse, "and lead us not into temptation” (“e non ci indurre in tentazione”). This has now been changed to “and do not abandon us to temptation” (“e non abbandonarci alla tentazione”).
The reason given for this was that the older translation gave the revolting impression that God tempts us to sin. Pope Francis' desire to clear up confusion is typical of his pastoral emphasis. But what this has led to, is a serious and entirely unnecessary error.
The Italian prayer is meant to be a translation of the universal liturgy used by the Western Catholic Church, the traditional language of which is Latin.
These ancient words used by the Church come from St. Jerome (347-420 AD), a great Saint who was famous as a great translator and theologian. He rightly taught that “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”, and gave us the scripture translation used for over a millennium by Catholics: the Latin Vulgate.
St. Jerome however, was himself translating from the Greek of the original New Testament, and it’s here that we see the true meaning of what Jesus was saying.
In Matthew 6:13, the Greek reads, “kai m? eisenegk?s h?mas eis peirasmon”. When St. Jerome translated this into Latin, he rendered it “et ne nos indúcas in tentatiónem”, which in literal English corresponds to the “and lead us not unto temptation” that many Christians know as the traditional rendering of the prayer.
Was St. Jerome right then, or is the newer translation closer to what Christ himself taught?
To answer this, there are two words we need to focus on.
The first is eisenegk?s, which comes from the verb eispher?. This means to ‘lead’ or ‘bring into’. So, Jerome and the older translation have it right with inducas and ci indurre: “lead us”. The ‘abandon’ of the new Italian translation favoured by Pope Francis then is simply wrong as a translation, and as an interpretation of what Our Lord was saying.
The plot thickens when we consider the second word, peirasmon, the last word of the line, traditionally translated as ‘temptation’. The original meaning of peirasmon is actually ‘trial’, as in a ‘test’ of one’s faith or integrity. Now, of course, a ‘trial’ in this sense can include temptations, but it more generally means any kind of difficulty, or trouble.
What Our Lord is saying we should pray for in Matthew 6:13 then, is that we should ask that God not lead us into ‘trial’, as in a situation of difficulty that will test our faith and resolve in holiness. We are asking God not to “put us to the test”.
Did St. Jerome commit a mistranslation, then? In fact, not at all. While he used the word tentatiónem (literally, ‘temptation’) to translate peirasmon (‘trial’), in the meaning of his day, tentatiónem also carried the meaning of ‘trial’ or a ‘test’.
The problem is not with St Jerome's Latin, it’s with our modern understanding of ‘temptation’, which in Italian as in English only means ‘drawing to sin’. Arguably then, Pope Francis’s mistake is that he changed the wrong word. A clearer vernacular translation of Matthew 16:13 would be “And lead us not unto trial” (or for Italians, “e non ci indurre nella prova”).
Rather than impose a re-translation however, it would have been far better to use this as an opportunity to better teach what this verse of the Lord’s Prayer actually means.
Pope Francis is right that God is a loving father who does not tempt us into sin. He can and does however, put us to the test. Our Lord prayed that he be delivered from his trials in the Garden of Gethsemane. We must notice however, that the answer to his prayer was ‘No’.
We pray precisely the same in the prayer he taught us, in the knowledge that God is the ultimate father, who not merely creates the universe, but is its source and ground: he sustains and preserves us at every moment. He is the author of history. As such, he has providential control over all the situations of our lives, including the trials into which he may lead us.
Just as Our Lord trusted his father as he went to the cross, so we may ask to be delivered from our own crosses, but trust in the awesome God of providence who does all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).