We say what? Answers to your questions about Catholic prayers

A Pillar explainer

It happens to everybody. You’re praying with a friend. Or maybe someone you’ve never met before. And suddenly… it’s weird. You just asked St. Michael “to be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.” At the exact same time, your new friend prayed for help against the “malice and snares of the devil.”

It gets weird for a minute. This is Catholic awkward.

After it happens, maybe nobody says anything, but you’re both left wondering who was right, who was wrong, and why we say our prayers in so many different ways.

Here at The Pillar, we wondered why some Catholic prayers have more than one version — and we wondered what some prayer phrases mean in the first place. So with help from some liturgical research, and an assist from Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington, we bring you answers to the most pressing Catholic prayer questions you never knew you had. 

Hail Holy Queen

“...to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears…” Or wait —  Is it vale? “Vale of tears?” 

The deal:

Don’t cry too much — This one is a toss-up: A vale is a valley. 

Msgr. Pope explained: “‘Vale’ is just an older version of the word ‘valley.’ Most people don't know what a vale is anymore, so a lot of the modern versions just say ‘valley.’”

Glory Be

You probably say: “...as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

Your priest often says: “...as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”

Eastern Catholics say: “...now and unto the ages of ages.”

The deal:

The “Glory Be,” or Gloria Patri, is an ancient Christian “doxology,” or hymn of praise, which has been prayed from the earliest centuries, or even decades, of Christianity.

The earliest version was probably sung in Greek or Syriac, and affirmed the Trinitarian nature of God. The Latin text, which dates from at least the first few centuries of the Church, includes a phrase that has proven difficult to translate: “saecula saeculorum,” which is meant to express the transcendent eternality of God. 

The text wasn’t frequently translated until the publication of the Anglican “Book of Common Prayer,” in the 16th century. That text translated “saecula saeculorum” as “world without end,” and the usage became common among both English-speaking Protestants and Catholics.

In the 1970s, the International Consultation on English Texts, while retranslating the breviary, offered an alternative translation: “will be forever,” which is used in the hours of the Divine Office, including Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

As the breviary is being retranslated now, it is not certain whether “will be forever” will really last much longer, or be replaced by something new — or, for that matter, something old.

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Come Holy Spirit

“...send forth your spirit, and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.” Who’s they? Who shall be created?

The deal:

The prayer evokes psalm 104:30, which says: “When You send Your Spirit, they are created, and You renew the face of the earth.”

In that Psalm, “they” refers to the “creatures of God.” 

But in the English translation of the “Come Holy Spirit” prayer, “they” seems to refer to “the hearts of your faithful,” which are mentioned earlier in the text:

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, enkindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.

Even that translation of the prayer is a bit confusing to follow, in part because of the word “created,” which is a translation from the Latin word “creabúntur” — while a more accurate English translation could be something like “they shall be recreated” or “they shall be made new,” other translations render the line “there shall be a new creation.”

Our Father

“...for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever.”

This line is not in Scripture, but it’s attached to the Lord’s Prayer during Mass. Why?

The deal:

The line is in Scripture, kind of. Here’s the story — 

An iteration of this doxology can be found as early as the first century, since it appears in the Didache, a first century text of catechesis, and liturgical descriptions. And it was appended to the Our Father during liturgies in the Eastern Church from early centuries, for reasons that are not quite clear. Because of this, Greek scribes would sometimes append it to the texts of the Gospel they were copying — sometimes in the margins, and sometimes directly in the text.

When the translators of the 1611 King James Bible worked on their text, they worked from a variety of sources — one of which was a Greek manuscript which included the doxology in the sixth chapter of Matthew. The translators included the appendage of the doxology, where it remains today.

The doxology has not historically featured in Latin Catholic liturgies, but it was added in the revisions of the Roman Missal in 1970, after the Our Father and a short prayer from the priest called an embolism.

Amen

“Ah-men” or “A-men” - How would Jesus have pronounced it?

The deal:

According to Msgr. Pope: “I think with Ah-men and A-men, you've just got different customs. Jesus would have spoken Aramaic. ‘Ah-meen’: That's how Jesus, when he was speaking Aramaic, would have said that.” 

Bonus: 

“...give us this day our daily bread….”

Did you know that “daily bread” is kind of a mystery?

Msgr. Pope:Another interesting thing about the Our Father is that there's a word that nobody knows what it means. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ - that's not really what the Greek says. The Greek word is “ἐπιούσιον” (epiousion) which doesn't mean ‘daily’ at all, but the problem is that it's a totally unique and untranslatable Greek term. It's not used in any pagan Greek literature, it's only used twice in Luke and Matthew. It's used nowhere else. Even the Greek Fathers couldn't agree on how to translate it. Literally, it means, ‘super-substantial.’ 

‘Give us this day our super-substantial bread.’

Now for some reason, everyone just kind of settled down with the term, ‘daily,’ but honestly, that's not what the Greek says.”

Ed. note: This report initially said the “Glory be” was translated by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy. It was in fact translated by the International Consultation on English Texts. The report has been corrected.