Yesterday, in a thread here on bloggie, Franco quoted the "IMPROPERIA"
, the lovely Greco-Latin verses sung in Catholic churches every Good Friday. Here is a taste of it, translated:
I gave thee a royal sceptre, and thou hast given My head a crown of thorns.
I have exalted thee with great power, and though hast hanged Me on the gibbet of the Cross.
I have heard this chant many times and always thought it extremely touching, the Lord's agonized rebuke of sinful mankind from the cross. It had never occurred to me to think of it as an anti-semitic sentiment, or a rebuke of Jews in particular, but rather an accusation against man in general (and me in particular), because He suffered for the sins of all (and would have suffered for mine alone). It doesn't even make sense if I try to read it as a reproach to Jews alone, since Jews didn't do most of the stuff He's rebuking us for. He was scourged, pierced, crowned, and crucified by pagans, not Jews.
Today, I looked around the Internet, and I found that some Christians do indeed think the Improperia
refer only to Jews. Those guys are wrong. I apologize on their behalf.
From the name Improperia
, a reader with only a rough knowledge of Latin might think it is somehow the "Improper" chant, and come away very confused. But even though the word looks like "improper," it doesn't mean improper; it just means slow, as in "The Slow Chants." The prayer was so named because it is chanted slowly and somberly.
But even Latin scholars are confused, and usually get that wrong. If you look up Improperia
in almost any source, the translation is given as "reproaches." But it never meant reproaches; it only acquired that meaning in the 19th Century, because of this chant (and likely because of confusion with improprius
, meaning incorrect).
The whole reason the Church uses a dead language for her rituals is that the meaning of every word is supposed to be timeless and precise. But as improperia
proves, it doesn't always pan out that way. A dead language that is used, for any purpose, ceases to be entirely dead.
I mentioned all that to pave the way for another explanation: even though perfidus
looks like the English word "perfidious," it doesn't mean perfidious. It doesn't even really mean "faithless" (that would be infidus
). The truth is, there is no single English word that captures the ancient Latin sense of perfidus
, which is something like "having a different faith."
Every Good Friday, just before the Improperia
in fact, Catholics pray nine prayers, collectively called the Oratio Fidelium
. Prayers 1 through 6 ask for continued blessings and guidance for Catholics. The last three prayers ask God for the conversion of the whole world to Catholicism. One prayer for Christians, to reunite the Church. One prayer for the faithless, to receive the gift of faith. And one prayer for everyone that's not in the other two groups. That would be Jews.
In Latin, the prefix per-
can signify "different," or by extension, "wrong." This meaning is seen in such words as pervertere
(to overturn), perjurare
(to swear falsely), and permutatus
was chosen to describe the Jews, to distinguish them from the infidus
heathens (The Pro Conversione Infidelium
is the next prayer). Jews are manifestly not infidels or idolaters; they are believers in the true God, keepers of His holy word, and faithful to His commands. The only thing they lack is recognition of Jesus Christ. They are not faithless, just "differently faithful," as we might say today, or perfidus
, as they decided to put it in ancient times. I swear, it was meant to be a compliment!
The line about "removing the veils from their hearts" is also to show they are blameless compared to heathens. The prayer for the infidels asks to "remove the iniquities from their hearts." Jews don't have iniquity, just a curtain that keeps them from seeing the light of Christ. It's not an evil thing, just an obstacle.
But over time, the meaning of perfidus
was corrupted. Not just in English, but even in Latin, the word took on the meaning we know as "perfidious" today: treasonous, treacherous, lying. (Infidus
suffered the same fate. Consider, an infidel just lacks faith, but infidelity means betrayal!) Maybe it was an erroneous usage, as with improperia
. Maybe it was an ineluctable evolution, and any word meaning faithless will eventually come to mean shiftless. (Heck, even "faithless" has sinister overtones.) But that's not how it started, and the Church never meant to brand the Jews as traitors with this prayer.
Besides which, calling Jews traitors for rejecting Christ would make no sense, since you cannot betray someone without first pledging loyalty to him. Jesus was indeed betrayed, by His own disciples; not by "the Jews." I hope it is clear that no imputation of what we now call "perfidy" was in any way denoted by perfidus
when this prayer was written.
Realizing the needless hurt being caused by the misunderstanding of perfidus
, the Church updated all English translations of the word to "unbelieving" in 1955. And in 1960 the word was entirely removed from the Latin prayer, too, so it no longer said perfidus
anywhere at all. This was all done before the Second Vatican Council.
There was a brief mention of the event in the August 15, 1960 issue of Time magazine
Maybe some people are offended by the very idea of someone praying for their conversion. I'm not, but I've met some who take umbrage at this. I reckon millions of people are praying for my conversion to their religion all the time. If they sincerely believe their religion has some efficacy, then they have the best of intentions. And meanwhile, they're leaving me alone.
Maybe some people are offended that people of other religions believe that their own beliefs are wrong. I see that as more of a tautology; if you have friends who don't share your religion, you just have to accept that those friends think at least some of your beliefs are untrue. I can't mollify such people, except to suggest that they consider maybe not being offended.
But to anyone offended by the particular language in this particular prayer, I can say that I fully understand your offense, even though it was never intended, and that the Church and I are doing everything we can to correct this misunderstanding. I hope that this explanation has helped serve this purpose.