Comment Opinion & Features

Don’t alter the Our Father

Many years ago, when my father found himself in an international setting, someone asked him – I believe it was a Hungarian linguist – what the Irish language sounded like.

Pa decided to recite something that everyone could follow, even in an unknown tongue. So he said the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic, beginning “Ár n-Athair atá ar neamh, Go naofar d’ainim, Go dtagfadh do ríocht, Go ndéantar do thoil ar an talamh mar a dhéantar ar neamh.”

The listener could follow every word of this universal prayer – in Hungarian.

There have been various attempts, over the years, to “update” the Lord’s Prayer by modernising the language, and some Christian denominations have even considered the possibility of making it “gender neutral”, commencing with “Our Parent, who is in heaven …”

And now Pope Francis has approved the Italian bishops’ proposal to alter the line “lead us not into temptation” because it implies that God might be the cause of putting temptation in our way. This line is to be replaced in the Italian version by “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

It’s not a major alteration to the text, and yet I think it’s ill-advised. The Lord’s Prayer is, in its composition, akin to a poem. It has a very distinct rhythm and cadence. It is structured in such a way that people can say it easily in unison, and can accept, without quibble, archaic verbal forms such as “art”, and the use of the now defunct, in English, second person singular, “Thy”.

I have heard it recited in so many settings. In Ireland, I have heard it at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings where people may conceive of their “higher power” as being anything from Nepalese spirituality to angelic forces, and yet, they can identify with the poetic spirituality of the Lord’s Prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread” reminds all that every life is lived a day at a time.

Lapsed Catholics who only appear in church for weddings and funerals have told me that it is the last remnant of faith that comes flowing back to them, and in which, almost automatically, they can join in. The Lord’s Prayer has lasted so long, and reached so far, that I would say, meddle with it at your peril. Or at the peril of losing touch with the faithful for whom it has meant so much.

The interpretation of “lead us not into temptation” as being some kind of accusation against the Lord can be seen as logical. But isn’t it also somewhat literal-minded? Sometimes you have to allow for poetic licence, and most people already grasp that it means “do not let us fall into temptation” – without a change of wording.

In a poem-prayer of just 57 words, there is an exact balance and rhythm. In Irish, in English, in Hungarian alike.

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The most affecting part of Michael Gove’s story is that he was born in Aberdeen to a 23-year-old single mother, who subsequently placed her baby for adoption. (I dislike the term “gave up her baby”, as though a mother, unable to raise her child, abandoned that child, rather than altruistically allowing the child better life chances with adoptive parents.) And thus baby Michael (born Graeme Logan) grew up as the son of Christine and Ernest Gove, who, in their turn, made real sacrifices to
give him a fine education – at which he of course excelled.

His admission that he took cocaine as a young journalist back in the 1990s has now been used to harm his political career. (Matthew Parris, the former Tory MP, says that he wouldn’t be surprised if there were “dirty political tricks” behind the publicising of this.) Gove has regretted his error “bitterly”.

But he’s still been called a hypocrite for deploring drug habits.

“A man may affirm an ideal even if he is unable to reach it,” I remarked to a thoughtful friend.

“Oh, nobody would understand that nowadays,” he replied.

Then we are, surely, all doomed.

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Yes, we live in a judgmental age, when Ann Widdecombe is “no-platformed” – by the Women’s Institute – for “apparently controversial” views on LGBT matters. Ann has always been forthright and outspoken: why engage a controversialist and then swoon with shock at their opinions?

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4