Universalis

Understanding the Latin 'Our Father'

In this week's Catholic News, a Benjamin wrote in to express shock that the Our Father was being sung in Latin at a mass he attended. He basically says that:

1. We don't understand Latin
2. We can't pronounce Latin
3. Therefore it takes away the meaning of anything
to sing in Latin

4. Therefore Latin is unnecessary
5. Therefore, let's keep to English.

It is true that we don't understand Latin. But we do know what the Our Father says, so we do in fact know the meaning of Pater Noster. In an interesting coincidence, Peter Low in another part of the CN refers to the Latin mass:

"We were singing in a language that we did not speak, but that doesn't mean we didn't understand it (the worship)," he said and likened the practice to that of Buddhists who chant in Sanskit and Muslims in Arabic."
I'm in favour of selective use of Latin as it's strongly endorsed by Popes JPII and Benedict XVI as the language of the Roman Catholic Church. It's a connection not only between nations but with our past."
He feels that singing the "Our Father" and the "Creed" in Latin adds a sense of the sublime.

"Adds a sense of the sublime" - I second that

I wonder if any public debate will be ignited by Benjamin's
letter.

There has been some previous debate about the reintroduction of Latin into our masses. Please go to Should we sing the 'Our Father' in Latin? and On the recent changes to the way we celebrate mass in Singapore to read those posts.

I will now here attempt to share what little I know about the latin Our Father so that those of us who come across it can have better appreciation of it. After singing it for so long in mass, I have been able to remember to and even understand it a little, as English has many roots in Latin. Do give understanding it a try; its not that difficult.

Pater noster qui es in coelis,
Father-our-who lives in-heaven,
sanctificetur nomen tuum;

sanctified-your name,
adveniat regnum tuum,

come-your kingdom,
fiat voluntas tua,

be done-your will,
sicut in coelo et in terra.

as-in-heaven-and-in-earth.
Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie,

Bread-ours-daily give-us-today,
et dimitte nobis debita nostra,

and-forgive-us-sins-our,
sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.

as-and-we-forgive-those who owe us.
et ne nos inducas in temptationem

And-not-us-induce-in-temptation
sed libera nos a malo.

but-liberate-us-from-evil.

Basically, if you sing the Our Father in your head, you'll find that you can already guess at the meanings of lots of the words. Here's some words that you'll find easy to understand:

pater: Father
noster; nostra: Our (Latin can have different inflexions on a word but the root meaning remains)

nobis: us
adveniat: advent/coming
fiat: by fiat means to have something done by will
voluntas: will, same root as voluntary
sicut: as
terra: earth, as in terrestrial
Panem: panis means bread
et: and, as in et cetera - and the rest
demitte: forgive
debita: sins, or debit/due
malo: evil

I hope that by knowing these few words, you might be willing to attempt praying the Our Father in another language. It would certainly be an interesting experience. Try it!

22 comments:

Nick Teo said...

yes, i was rather taken aback by the comment made by benjamin. after all that was said by pope and cn about the shift from vernecular.

rather surprising isn't it? esp when the pope's reasoning had made so much sense.

though i appreciate benjamin's reaction, i think he should give it much more thought.

Daniel said...

Isn't the point of singing the Our Father in Latin about appreciating the prayer in that language?

How does translating the words or knowing the words in English make that point?

I mean, let's say you go for a Tamil Mass, and you read from the leaflet the pronunciation of the Tamil version of the Our Father. You know that you are singing the Our Father and you know what the prayer means. But the fact that you cannot sing it properly, no matter how well the choir can, means that you cannot participate fully in that part of the Mass.

In the same way, given the English version of the Latin prayer defeats the purpose of using the Latin version in the first place, does it not?

ChrisYeo said...

One other post that has to do with the Latin rite is this: http://thresholdofhope.blogspot.com/2005/08/good-ole-liturgy.html

ChrisYeo said...

On Nick's point:

No need to be surprised. I'm sure a lot of people feel the same way as he does. The good thing is that they have asked a question and are now opening themselves to answers.

On Daniel's points:

Not really sure I understand what you are saying, but regarding a Tamil mass for example, would I be able to participate fully in the mass even though it is in Tamil? I think so! Why? Because I can understand what prayers are being said (such as the Our Father for example).

What is the purpose of singing the Our Father in latin? In my view - communion and continuity. It's about sharing the same common language as churches in other countries, and sharing the same language with the past and tradition of the Roman Catholic church.

I don't really think it's about "appreciating" the prayer in that language. In any case, doesn't understanding the Our Father in Tamil make me appreciate the Tamil Our Father more?

Perhaps not for you, but I find that I appreciate the Pater Noster so much more when I understand the words rather than sing it just as meaningless sounds. I hope that by sharing my (admittedly pityful) understanding of Pater Noster, others can appreciate it too.

The issue of Latin in the modern mass is one that is still very much fluid. By no means is the debate settled. I for one am not a proponent of Latin, althought I do not oppose it for very limited parts of mass.

Norman said...

Don't forget that Sacrosanctum Concilium said that "steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them." (para 54).

Also, from Redemptionis Sacramentum, "Except in the case of celebrations of the Mass that are scheduled by the ecclesiastical authorities to take place in the language of the people, Priests are always and everywhere permitted to celebrate Mass in Latin." (para 112).

The letter by Benjamin seems to suggest that *all* Masses should be in English, and by extension, the vernacular. I am highly reluctant to accept this notion, if it were really what he suggests. As part of Church Discipline, Latin remains the liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church. It is disappointing to see that we have Masses in all sorts of languages, except Latin.

Let us recall His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI's remarks that "Learning [prayers in Latin] will make it easier for the Christian faithful who speak different languages to pray together, especially when they meet for special circumstances."

It also seems that the unwillingness to have Latin at Mass suggests a reluctance to learn what the prayers mean. The congregational responses are simple. We already know the prayers in English, and it takes a leap of understanding to see why can't put the two texts (English-Latin) side by side to aid our comprehension.

Norman said...

What I'm essentially saying is this. We have Masses in all sorts of languages, except Latin. Why isn't Latin available? Let the laws of demand and supply come into force - if you have an all-Latin mass, let's see how many people turn up. If you are uncomfortable with Latin, there is no shortage of vernacular Masses for you to go. So the letter writer Benjamin can find another Mass to go to.

Daniel said...

Norman:

The Church of St. Teresa celebrates a Requiem Mass every 1st Wednesday of the month. I know not the attendance at this Mass. But as the frequency of Latin Masses in Singapore is small compared to Masses in other languages, it can be concluded that there is little demand for Mass to be conducted in such a language in Singapore.

Either that, or people who want to have Mass in Latin are just not interested in taking active steps to bring about an increased number of celebrations in the Latin language.

All:

On another note, being Singaporeans, our national language is Malay. Yet how many of us know the language well enough to speak it? How many of us know the meaning of our national anthem? Sure, we were taught it in our schools, but can you honestly say you sang it proudly each time it is played, whether on National Day or at any flag-raising ceremony?

In the same way, if we revert to Latin hymns, in the years to come, there will inevitably be a large proportion of Catholics who will forget the meaning of the words that they sing.

And if we say, heck care them, they're just not interested enough in their faith to care to find out, then are we being Christian in our attitude?

Didn't Jesus come to dwell among us as one of us, speaking our language (or at least the language of the commonfolk, the vernacular)? Isn't that the whole purpose of celebrating Mass in the vernacular? So that those who need Jesus most may not be hindered by means of barriers such as language?

Norman said...

Didn't Jesus come to dwell among us as one of us, speaking our language (or at least the language of the commonfolk, the vernacular)? Isn't that the whole purpose of celebrating Mass in the vernacular? So that those who need Jesus most may not be hindered by means of barriers such as language?

In introducing the vernacular, do we have to throw out centuries of liturgical and musical tradition along with it? As Chris Yeo says,

What is the purpose of singing the Our Father in latin? In my view - communion and continuity. It's about sharing the same common language as churches in other countries, and sharing the same language with the past and tradition of the Roman Catholic church.

There is certainly a place (in fact, many!) for an all-vernacular Mass, but there should also be a place where we get reminded of the traditions of the Church traditions like Gregorian chant eg. in the manner of singing the Our Father in Latin to chant melodies.

In the same way, if we revert to Latin hymns, in the years to come, there will inevitably be a large proportion of Catholics who will forget the meaning of the words that they sing.

And if we say, heck care them, they're just not interested enough in their faith to care to find out, then are we being Christian in our attitude?


I am all for making translations available when Latin hymns are sung. There should also be all-English Masses available for those who are uncomfortable with languages foreign to them at Mass.

Daniel said...

Is it not part of our ongoing tradition to use the vernacular language at Mass? Or should we throw that out in favour of pre-Vatican II norms?

My point about translations is that no matter how well-translated something is(be it a hymn or a bible), part of its original meaning is always lost in the translation. Hence, having English translation for the Latin hymns does no good in restoring its meaning. One has to learn the language itself to obtain that full meaning, not just memorising the English translation.

I am all for having Latin hymns sung at major churches such as cathedrals and for communities where all its members have some understanding of the Latin language. But the rest of the parishes where the commonfolk attend should celebrate Mass in the common language of the people.

Anyway, there are far more important issues in the Church than worrying about whether or not to sing some hymns in Latin or English.

ChrisYeo said...

My point about translations is that no matter how well-translated something is(be it a hymn or a bible), part of its original meaning is always lost in the translation. Hence, having English translation for the Latin hymns does no good in restoring its meaning. One has to learn the language itself to obtain that full meaning, not just memorising the English translation.

I find what your said really interesting. Of course, you are defintely right, but you have failed to see the larger implications of your own reasoning. One very strong reason for reintroducing Latin is that the English translation of the Latin rite is inevitably inperfect. Since translations are flawed, then we should return to Latin (and learn Latin!).

I don't necessarily agree, but some say that the church has perfected worship over the centuries into the Latin rite, with the church organ as the most perfect instrument of muscial expression. They therefore are pushing for greater reverance towards Latin and the pipe organ.

Anyway, there are far more important issues in the Church than worrying about whether or not to sing some hymns in Latin or English.

In fact, what seems like a superficial matter actually runs quite deep. This whole debate has to do with the future of church worship. Will the Catholic church become inclusive of various forms of worship, or will it be split down the middle into 'conservative' and 'modern' elements. The obvious answer for me is that we must be inclusive, but in so doing, we must must fully understand, experience and accept both sides.

Daniel said...

Is worship in a foreign language being inclusive? It strikes me as being exclusive, particularly those who are not familiar with the worship. Does it not make it more difficult for Catholics to introduce non-Catholics to it?

The thing about Latin is that it is a language for the highly- educated. It is reserved for the clergy, theologians, scientists etc. But 80% of Catholics are not highly-educated.

If the Church is concerned with being inclusive, why does it want to exclude the majority of simple Catholics by worshipping in a language that is foreign to them?

Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

I have been following the comments here with some interest. I am concerned though that most of the points are rather subjective and fail to take into consideration the fact that first and foremost the Liturgy is objectively the Prayer of the Universal Church.

As such, arguments about inclusivity, comprehensibility etc are pastoral arguments which take a subordinate position vis-a-vis the integrity of the Church's liturgy.

I think what this post lacks is a basic grounding in Liturgical theology and ecclesiology which may help put things in perspective.

Although I empathise with the pastoral considerations and I believe the Church has seen the value of the vernacular for missionary and pastoral purposes, we ought not to ignore the recommendations of Vatican II that the Latin Church must retain Latin in its Liturgy.

In all the above comments, I am distressed that so little reference has been made to the teaching of the Church on this matter, which is after all, at the heart of the Church's life.

As such, apart from referring you to Sacrosanctum Concilium, may I also recommend 'Veterum Sapientiae' by Pope Blessed John XXIII: http://www.adoremus.org/VeterumSapientia.html

Anyone who has been to an international Mass or even travelled overseas and attended Mass in a foreign vernacular tongue would appreciate a universal language like Latin...

I think a less insular outlook on this issue is necessary.

Daniel said...

As a matter of fact, I was just in India last week. I attended a Mass celebrated in Italian at Mother Teresa's house, where yes, I agree, that a universal language like Latin would have been good.

However, I also attended Mass in rural India - where the village gets attacked by elephants every week, and the students are too poor to pay for school fees, and have to pay with firewood.

Here, I was glad that Mass was celebrated in their language, because there were so many families with elderly Catholics who never even got the chance to go to school. Many of these children can't even afford to pay for their school fees, let alone attend a course on learning a new language such as Latin.

As I said before, Latin is the language of the scholars, reserved for the educated and the affluent. Definitely not for the poor and the uneducated. We must not forget that these comprise a large number of the Catholic faithful, and that it is this type of people that Jesus identified with most.

Br Lawrence, O.P. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

Daniel,

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. However, you might know that I spent a year working in the slums of Manila, in a Dominican parish that was considered one of the poorest in the Philippines.

That parish recently celebrated Mass entirely in Latin and I was told by the parish priest and some parishioners that they found it a solemn, prayerful and elevating experience.

We ought not to forget too that Latin was used in poor Catholic parishes the world over for centuries... the Anglo-Catholic experience is that the very poorest inner-city parishes were the first to clamour for Latin ceremonial etc.

The 'affluent and educated' often make the mistake of condescension when it comes to the poor. They are materially impoverished, yes, but this does not mean they are stupid or that they do not have a craving for the 'finer' things in life? Why do we assume that only the rich can appreciate Latin, chant, incense, etc?

I fear the argument about educating the poor in Latin is specious because you make the prior assumption that one has to comprehend Latin in the liturgy absolutely. However, other commentators have pointed out that we do infact understand (as best as we can apprehend these mysteries) the Ordinary of the Mass even when we pray it in another tongue. After all, when in India, when the Mass was in Tamil, did you feel you were not praying or did not understand what was happening?

I lived a year in Manila with Masses in Tagalog daily and I did not feel that I was not praying or understanding! I prayed the eternal words of the Liturgy in my heart and grew to pray them in the language the Liturgy was celebrated in - Tagalog. The same can be true of Latin.

In any case, I am not advocating an entire Mass in Latin as normative for the Church universal. I think the issue at hand here is some Latin in the Mass as a sign of our catholicity. The 'Pater noster' is a fine example of where this may be introduced. The readings, in conformity with Vatican II, will be in the vernacular of course.

We ought to note also that the famed Taize community in France which is non-denominational, ecumenical and international uses Latin for the vast majority of its chant and prayers. This is because, the late Br Roger has said, Latin is a universal tongue which all those who go to Taize can pray in. One could never accuse him or his community of intellectual snobbery with regard to Latin!

With regards to India, I ought to add too that the Syro-Malabar rite which is used in Kerala and its environs, since the time of St Thomas the apostle, was until very recently in Syriac. Only in the last decades was it translated into Malayalam. What is noteworthy is that this unique and ancient rite was maintained in India despite the fact that it was in a liturgical language not 'understood' by the poor masses. But of course, in actual fact, they understood what they were saying and praying through catechesis and being taught in Church.

The same can be true of Latin in the Latin rite churches, where ever they may be.

Please do not make the mistake of allowing your pastoral care for the poor etc become a sort of superiority of the affluent and educated!

And finally, I think the issue is far more complex and nuanced than you have thus far allowed it to be.

Daniel said...

Thanks for your sharing Lawrence. I did find myself twiddling my thumbs throughout the Hindi Mass because I didn't understand what was being said. Because of the language difference, I found some parts to be somewhat apparently different from a Mass celebrated in English. Not sure I know how to explain what I mean here.

I suppose you can say that the reason I speak out so strongly against celebrating Mass in a foreign language really comes from a personal reason, rather than a pastoral or liturgical reason, now that I think of it.

In Singapore, my generation grew up with being forced to learn to be proficient in our mother tongue, mine being Mandarin. I failed Mandarin every year and had to go for tuition. I resented being forced to learn this language, and up to now, I still resent the language and anything to do with it.

I fear that if Catholics are similarly forced to learn a language that they are not familiar with, they may similarly come to resent it and anything to do with it.

While the ideal case where people want to learn is there, we can't deny that the majority of Catholics are those who are silent in Mass, coming to receive the Lord in nourishment, through the Word and through the Eucharist, without having the time and will to really learn more about their faith.

Another reason I have problems with Latin is because when I get into a discussion with someone about liturgy, they start quoting sources in Latin to me, as though saying, "If you haven't read this, you are not worthy to discuss this matter with me." I get very upset when people take such a air of superiority in their discussions, because such an attitude excludes the majority of Catholics.

I now know that I have been wrong to argue against this case based on my personal bad experiences with users of the language, and I apologise for mixing up my personal reasons with what I thought to be pastoral and liturgical issues.

I do agree with you, in the long run, having the Latin Mass universally celebrated is an ideal case. But the going will not be easy and there will be a lot of resistance. There always is, when it comes to change.

Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

Daniel: Thank you for your humility. I just want to note something, for the sake of clarity. I am not advocating "the Latin Mass" per se.

Rather, I am advocating the use and knowledge of some Latin in the Liturgy of the Roman rite, as is right and proper and mandated by Vatican II. To enable this, I am agreeing with the original post and indeed, I am suggesting that the Pater noster is a good place to start re-introducing Latin into the Mass in Singapore, albeit not necessarily everyday nor even every Sunday.

Chris Yeo: You mentioned that the pipe organ is the "most perfect instrument". The Church recommends first and foremost that the voice is unaccompanied in liturgical music. The voice is the most perfect instrument because it is natural and created by God. To support the voice, the pipe organ is allowed and most fitting.

Why? Because it produces sound following the same principles as the human voice - the expansion of air that is pushed through pipes and expelled as a melodious sound. On this principle, the organ was felt to have the same natural tonality as the human voice and hence best suited to complementing the human voice.

Organ music in its own right is a later innovation and because it works like a human voice, it is tolerated in church. Otherwise, the Church still frowns on the use of all other musical instruments in church... This is because the human voice is the only fitting instrument used in praise of God and musical instruments can and often do drown out or obscure the human voice and the sacred texts which they sing in praise of God.

Moreover, to clarify, the term "Latin rite" refers to the Liturgical books celebrated in Rome, which are typically in the language of that City. We 'Roman Catholics' follow that rite, hence we are also called Latin-rite Catholics. The Latin rite is also called the Roman rite. These days, the Latin rite has been translated into the vernacular but when one says Latin rite, we mean the liturgy of the Roman church and those affiliated to her and not primarily the language of the Mass.

Thank you.

Daniel said...

That's a most interesting explanation, Lawrence. Thanks for sharing.

Daniel said...

I went for a Mass today at CSS where Pater Noster was mangled. In any case, I found myself trying to pronounce the words so much that I didn't have time to focus on the meaning of the words. >.<

Seriously, if not done well, having Latin back in Masses here is really impractical.

ChrisYeo said...

Thou should not use one mass to make a judgement on Latin. :) especially one held by CSS!

But, exactly like you said, if it's not well done, then there's no point. So it needs to be well done, and it can be well done, if we just take it seriously enough.

greg said...

I've been for several CSS masses where the Pater Noster was fine. Moreoever, most of the hymns at mass on that Friday were not lead or sung properly.

Anonymous said...

hi guys

your comments are really great and balanced... maybe you should consider posting comments on the Singapore Catholic news website... it seems the editors claim that many readers, mostly young, have complained about the use of latin

deo gratias