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Fr. Kerper on Mass Prayers, “God” and “Father” | Catholic Life

Fr. Kerper on Mass Prayers, “God” and “Father”

I don’t think that I have ever mentioned how much I love Father Michael Kerper of the Diocese of Manchester (NH). His Q&A column in the diocese’s magazine is always a favorite and this past issue’s answer to “how can the church change the words of the mass?” contained a great explanation of the use of “God” and “Father” in the English liturgy.

In the official Latin edition of the Sacramentary, the book of Mass prayers, almost every opening prayer begins with “Deus,” the Latin word for God. In old Latin-English missals, “Deus” was always translated as “God”. But in the late 1960s, after the Church authorized Mass in other languages, the group charged with creating an official English version of the Mass generally translated “Deus” as “Father.” Was this incorrect?

Those who desire a precise literal translation of Latin to English would insist that the translation is clearly wrong. However, translation is not a mechanical process of replacing one word with its exact equivalent from another language. For one thing, many words have no precise equivalents. Moreover, good translation seeks to render complete ideas, not just words. This translation method is called “dynamic equivalence.”

In the case of “Deus,” we see the tension between translating ideas and words. Those who opted to render “Deus” as “Father” wanted to convey God’s personal and loving nature, which reflects the specifically Christian understanding of God. Is it a correct translation of the Latin? Definitely not. Is it wrong? No. Considering the totality of the prayer and its use in Catholic worship, “Father” is a reasonable way to translate “Deus.”

Now, let’s consider the fluidity of language. About 10 years after “Father” became the accepted translation of “Deus,” the insights of Christian feminism began to influence the liturgy. Some asserted that masculine language about God somehow contributed to the inequality of women. Hence, some people — men and women — called for gender neutral language about God. They proposed replacing the masculine “Father” with the neuter “God.” Some objected to this, claiming that it violated long-established liturgical tradition. However, the Latin always favored “Deus” and rarely used “Father.” In a strange reversal, the “reformers” unwittingly advanced a traditionalist position.

Which, then, should it be? Father or God? If someone wants a literal translation of the Latin or a gender-neutral term, “God” is preferred. If someone wants to express the loving and personal qualities of God, whom Jesus addressed as “Abba/Father,” then “Father” is favored. Neither word cancels out the other.

Father Kerper in Parable Magazine

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5 Responses to “Fr. Kerper on Mass Prayers, “God” and “Father””

  1. Thom 17. Aug, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    If the prayer says “God,” then it ought to be God.

    • Rae 17. Aug, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

      That is my preference as well as it skips the fights over how exactly we are supposed to express whatever attribute of God we find most compelling for the prayer. I am not yet ready to make “ought” statements though.

  2. Thom 17. Aug, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    You’re a much gentler soul than I. I “ought” to skip the oughts more often. :-)

  3. practicinghuman 17. Aug, 2010 at 4:06 pm #

    I think it’s an interesting liturgical dilemma that really depends on the context of the prayer. If the prayer is addressed to the Triune God, then it’s important to retain God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet other titles of God can be assigned to any person of the Trinity; in the Orthodox Trisagion prayers, “O Heavenly King” is addressed to the Holy Spirit (which makes more sense when you continue the invocation “the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who is everywhere present and filling all things…” but “O Heavenly King” could be God the Father or God the Son depending on the context of the rest of the prayer. When the person of the prayer is indistinct, I have a distinct preference to retain the “generic” title of God as simply “God.”

  4. James Cohen 18. Aug, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    Rae, thank you for posting this. I prefer to start prayer with God, rarely using Father other than in the Lord’s prayer. As an interesting aside St. Bonaventure believed that in order to ascent into the grace of God, “Prayer, then, is the mother and source of the ascent.”

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