The Latin of the Latin Mass: The Pater Noster

The Pater Noster is the greatest and most familiar prayer of the Church, taught to us by our Lord himself.  Incessant repetition of a prayer is a very good and necessary thing, but if we are not careful, we may cease to ponder on it.  There are many fine commentaries by St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas, et alii, which bring out the spiritual riches.  I am only a philologist, a student of languages, and will confine myself to elucidating the words.  Some of what I have to say—and more—can be found in the podcasts we did on the subject.

First the introduction, which is virtually eliminated by the NO but it is very important: Admonished by teachings that bring salvation and formed by instruction or education that comes from God (divine is a tricky word), we dare to say.  Note the emphasis of audemus--not presume, but dare, or as the Anglicans say correctly, “we are bold to say.”  The implication is that we are relying on instructions from God, which is why we can actually have the courage to call upon Him as our Father. This underscores the first words, which are bold indeed, since we pray not just to The Father, who created the universe, but to Our father in heaven.  

Sanctificetur nomen tuum / Let thy name be kept sacred--that is, set apart from ordinary things because of its power.  Sanctificare.  We are sometimes tempted to forget that the ultimate object of prayer of the Mass is not our own happiness or safety or even salvation but to give glory and thanks to God, hence the term Eucharist.  The Council of Trent gave as the first meaning of this injunction that: 

The Faithful May Glorify Him.  In other words we pray that our minds, our souls and our lips may be so devoted to the honour and worship of God as to glorify Him, with all veneration both interior and exterior, and, after the model of the heavenly citizens, to celebrate with all our might the greatness, the glory and the holiness of the name of God.

I won’t dwell on every phrase, but pass on to: Give us this day our daily bread.  The first real difficulty.  The church fathers and doctors have quite properly emphasized that this is the food we need for our survival, but also the word of God and the bread of communion.  St. John Chrysostom says the phrase “this day” is included to tell us to take no concern for how we are going to be fed, as Christ instructed his apostles.  Also reminded of the Manna from heaven that spoiled if kept.

All of this makes sense and is true, but it does not diminish the fact that the Greek word translated as cotidianum or daily, is epiousios, which has never been convincingly explained.  We know what the sentence means, but we cannot be sure about the word.  It may mean supersubstantial, a technical term that anticipates the doctrine of transubstantiation, but it seems incredible that a technical term would have been inserted into what was to be this most common of common prayers.  One literal possibility is that it means the bread that comes to visit us, i.e., the Manna that prefigured the communion and was also only for a day.  In any event, both the Latin mistranslation and the English might mislead the unwary into thinking we are being asked to be fed with material food to keep our body alive, while we know from John’s Gospel, that Christ was telling his hearers something exactly opposite:  He was promising the bread from high that brings eternal life.

And forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors.  The Anglican translation “trespasses” is surely right in indicating a broad range of transgressions, but the Latin (and the Greek, which it translates) is plainer and reminds us of the story of the servant who owed his master and expected to  be forgiven but would not forgive the debt of a fellow-servant.  Debt, what is owed, also reminds us that when we sin against someone, we are then in a state of obligation to him, that we are debtors until we have made restitution.

And lead us not into the temptation.  Temptatio is not temptation in the sense of feeling attracted by candy we should not eat or lips we should not kiss--though such things may be included— it is the terrible ordeal of being put to the test, in Greek the peira, to which Christ was subjected to in the desert.  St. Thomas, after listing some of the physical temptations, points out that once we have conquered them, it is only to face a greater Tempter.  “The devil proceeds most cunningly in tempting us. He operates like a skillful general when about to attack a fortified city. He looks for the weak places in the object of his assault, and in that part where a man is most weak, he tempts him. He tempts man in those sins to which, after subduing his flesh, he is most inclined. Such, for instance, are anger, pride and the other spiritual sins.”

 This leads directly to the last sentence, libera nos a malo.   The last word is grammatically ambiguous.  It can be neuter, referring abstractly to what is evil in general, and this has been the emphasis in the West.  Evil is not every  misfortune that comes our way.  St. Thomas says  “We do not pray, "Deliver us from tribulation," but "from evil." This is because tribulations bring a crown to the just, and for that reason the Saints rejoiced in their sufferings: "We glory also in tribulations, knowing that tribulation worketh patience."

 The phrase a malo, however, is far more likely to be masculine, and a reference to the Evil One.  Ho poneros in the Greek original is a little more specific, signifying not simply what is unpleasant or morally wrong or ugly--which can all be implied by malus, but it can suggest a deliberate, albeit sneaking wickedness.  The enemy of mankind, the tempter, the slanderer, the evil one is primarily who is intended, as St. John Chrysostom understands, regarded as a great doctor in both East and West.  The Slavonic liturgy--both Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic--uses a word (Lukovago, the sly one) that can only mean devil, and it gives an added layer of richness to be reminded that it is the devil who puts us to the test and the devil from whom we need, above all, to delivered.  Closer to home, the Catechism of Council of Trent, which cites the authority of Basil the Great, Chyrysostom, and Augustine, says:

the devil is specially called the evil one, because he was the author of man's transgression.... 

The devil is also called evil, because, although we have never injured him, he wages perpetual war against us, and pursues us with mortal hatred...Wherefore we beseech God to deliver us from the evil one.

We say from evil, not from evils, because the evils which we experience from others we ascribe to the arch enemy as their author and instigator. 

These are all obvious points, though they were not obvious to me until I had gone over them, week after week, following the priest in praying the Mass.

The Pater Noster is followed by a very important request:  Libera nos, quaesumus domine, ab omnibus malis praeteritis, praesentibus, et futuris.”  Translate.  This is, technically speaking, an “embolism” or insertion added, probably by St. Gregory the Great in the late 6th Century.  While the Novus Ordo version is content to pray for peace in our time, preservation from sin and “anxiety,” (a very poor translation of perturbatio, which implies not merely brooding and worry about trivial things but conflict and tumult), the ancient version, which invokes the saints,  is also a profound meditation on the mystery of the Mass itself.  

Have you ever asked yourself how you can be freed from past evils?  Present and future evils, yes, but past?  Of course, through penance, absolution, and the sacrifice of the Mass, we are liberated from the evils of our own past, but here it is said that we are set free from all evils, past, present, future.  Does this mean that we are connected with those who have suffered evils in the past?  Of course it does, and we are given a list of indispensable persons who have overcome misfortune and whose prayers will enable us to overcome them: the Mother of God, the apostles Peter, Paul, and Andrew and all the saints.  

Here the emphasis is not on martyrs, as it was in the Nobis quoque peccatoribus, as on the four people in human history who, arguably, have done the most to liberate us from evil: First there is the Blessed virgin who intercedes for us.  Note the care of the Latin, which uses a present participle in an ablative absolute construction.  Impossible to translate perfectly, but the emphasis is not on the act of intercession of the Blessed Virgin but on the Blessed Virgin as she intercedes for us.  The Latin is more vivid and dramatic, making Saint Mary a participant in the Mass.  She is assisted  by the obviously subordinate three Apostles:  Cum Petro et Paulo atque Andrea.  Note the subtlety of the Latin.  “Peter and Paul and also Andrew.  The first two are cited together as the creators of the Church-- Saint Peter who founded the Church in Rome and was head of the entire Church, which is the instrument of the Holy Spirit for our instruction, Saint Paul who not only clarified the meaning of Christ’s Gospel but also spread the Gospel to us the pagans, and Peter’s brother Andrew, whose Propers are the first in the Church calendar, probably because Andrew was the first of John’s disciples to recognize Jesus as the Messaiah. 

In this prayer, perhaps more than any other place in the Mass, we truly realize that we are taking part not in a local ceremony for a particular group of people at a point in time, but we are united with all Christians who have ever and will ever receive the body and blood of our Lord, with the saints in heaven and, as the earlier prayers indicated, with the angels themselves.  This sense of transcendence is almost entirely missing from the Novus Ordo.

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Thank you, Tom. In a very real sense this the best “Christmas message” I have received, heard or considered this year.
    Simple, direct, full of wonder at words and meaning —-Delightful lights amidst the darkness. Reminded me of the opening lines of a Frost poem, Choose Something Like a Star

    O Star (the fairest one in sight),
    We grant your loftiness the right
    To some obscurity of cloud –
    It will not do to say of night,
    Since dark is what brings out your light.
    Some mystery becomes the proud.
    But to be wholly taciturn
    In your reserve is not allowed.
    Say something to us we can learn
    By heart and when alone repeat.
    Say something! And it says “I burn.”