The Lord’s Prayer: Guardini vs Bergoglio

Did The Lord’s Prayer need revision? Have we had it wrong all these centuries? Pope Francis thinks so. He announced last week that he is blue-penciling the Our Father.

By Francis’ lights, that ancient Matthean phrase “Lead us not into temptation” needs correction. It has been misleading from the get-go. The wording ought to go more like like this: “do not let us fall into temptation.” Francis explained:

It is I who fall, it is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell. A father does not do that, a father helps you get up immediately.

His explanation has a soothing paternal ring to it. Unhappily, the price of this comfortable redraft is to abolish a layer of meaning that unveils the profundity of the prayer as it has been recited down the ages.

Fra Angelico. Sermon on The Mount (c.1440-45).


In his little book The Lord’s Prayer, Romano Guardini approached the prayer as a catechism-in-a-nutshell, a gateway into the purest expression of Jesus’ own thoughts. Guardini devoted an extended meditation on each phrase of the prayer. Let us look at what he wrote about the phrase that Francis would alter.

At the simplest level—the outer, most obvious layer of meaning—the papal rewording aligns with our own conscious intentions. But Guardini does not rest with the obvious:

It might be interpreted to mean that God should not bring us into the possibility of sinning. But it cannot mean that, for we are already situated in that possibility, and to extricate us from it would require a miracle.

Adam’s heirs, we are poised for the commission of sin. The possibilities of it are inherent in existence. Viewed from the perspective of that mythic day in the Garden, the petition can mean only that we ask God to keep from happening that which is “potential by necessity.” Guardini does not deny validity to an uncomplicated surface dimension of the petition, but there is more to it.

Guardini probes deeper, penetrating to the core of the traditional phrase. He turns to the Book of Samuel for a narrative Jesus himself—called to Torah and knowledgeable in the Tenakh— would likely have known.

James Tissot. Jesus Teaching in the Synagogue (c. 1897). Ann Ronan Picture Library, London.
James Tissot. Jesus Teaching in the Synagogue (c. 1897). Ann Ronan Picture Library, London.


For practical reasons, Israel needs a king. God orders the prophet Samuel to appoint Saul. Early in his reign, he must battle the Philistines. The enemy is gathered in great numbers against Israel but war is not to begin until Samuel arrives in Gilgad to offer sacrifice with Saul. But the prophet’s arrival is past due. Time is running out. Courage is waning among the Israelites; some are defecting. A pragmatic man, Saul makes a burnt offering on his own to reassure his troops, maintain his initiative, and begin the campaign.

Samuel arrives after the sacrifice has been completed. Appalled at Saul’s disobedience, rooted in doubt, he foretells the end of Saul’s kingdom. Someone else will be chosen to lead Israel: “The Lord hath sought a man after his own heart.”

Anonymous. Saul, David, Solomon (after Maerten de Vos) 1599.


The Lord had tested Saul. Tempted by the demands of expediency—all of them quite reasonable in worldly terms— he failed the test. The Lord was looking for a faithful man, not an opportune one. Saul proved himself not to be a man after the Lord’s own heart. God rejects him.

Guardini comments:

It can happen to anyone, and it can happen again and again, that the multifarious distractions and allurements of life—which no foresight can guard us against—may turn the possibility of sin into urgent danger and, from that, into fierce temptation. And so the prayer pleads: Deliver us from it! Thou hast the right to put us to the test. Thou hast the right to lead us into the perils of decision. But, Lord, consider our weakness!

He goes further, adding a statement that carries a certain chill. It is a caution against the complacent sentimentality that threads through Francis’ thinking:

But there is still another layer of meaning. Can God permit temptation to become so severe that we must fall? If we deny that He can, and that, in view of His divinity, He may, we are making God innocuous.

That passage cautions us against taking for granted the prerogatives of divinity. Testings come. Do not fathers all test their children, take their measure, in various ways? In the traditional wording of the Lord’s Prayer, we beg not to be tested beyond our frailties and fears.


Anonymous engraving. Bench of Bad Students (1884).


Guardini’s meditation takes on distinct poignance in light of Francis’ having cited Guardini as one of his intellectual mentors. Last week Sandro Magister remarked on a new biography of the pope: Jorge Mario Bergolio: Una biographia intellettuale, by Massimo Borghesi, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Perugia and a papal intimate.

In his summary of the book, Magister gives high marks to Borghesi’s deft illustrations of the work of the great theologians Bergolio names as shapers of his own thinking. Then he adds:

And he does all he can to demonstrate how in the writings of Bergoglio both far and near in time, before and after his election as pope, the genius of his teachers lives again.

But it is precisely in this transition from the teachers to their disciple that Borghesi’s reconstruction is most debatable.

Magister’s phrasing ascends from “debatable” to “truly arduous” and on to this: “. . . one gets the impression that the gap between Bergoglio and his celebrated teachers is truly very profound.”


Pieter Codde. Young Scholar (c.1630-33).

Next comes notice of “the gaping discrepancy between his illustrious teachers and the concrete figures of whom Pope Francis avails himself as his confidants and ghostwriters: from the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, a rhetorical yarnspinner, to the Argentine Víctor Manuel Fernandez, a theologian with a less than mediocre reputation.”

In short, Bergolio is no Guardini.

Read the entirety on Magister’s blog.