The Hebrew name for God is not to be used or pronounced in liturgical celebrations, songs and prayers, Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has said in a letter addressed to the bishops’ conferences of the world.
The letter concerns the use of the “Tetragrammaton,” the name which uses the four Hebrew letters YHWH. In English the name is pronounced “Yahweh.”
Cardinal Arinze’s letter teaches that the Tetragrammaton is to be translated as the equivalent of the Hebrew title “Adonai” or the Greek title “Kyrios.” He lists as examples five acceptable translations of the title in five European languages: Lord, Signore, Seigneur, Herr, and Señor.
Regarding translations in the liturgical context, the letter instructs, “Adonai” is to be translated in English as “Lord” and the Tetragrammaton YHWH is to be translated as “God.”
“The words of sacred Scripture contained in the Old and New Testament express truth which transcends the limits imposed by time and place,” the letter explains. “They are the word of God expressed in human words, and by means of these words of life, the Holy Spirit introduces the faithful to knowledge of the truth whole and entire, and thus the word of Christ comes to dwell in the faithful in all its richness.”
Cardinal Arinze, citing the instruction Liturgiam Authenticam, explains that translators must use the “greatest faithfulness and respect” regarding the name of God.
He describes the YHWH as “an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God,” which he says “was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: Adonai, which means Lord.”
This translation tradition has importance for understanding Christ, the cardinal explains, since the title “Lord” in fact “becomes interchangeable between the God of Israel and the Messiah of the Christian faith.”
Cardinal Arinze particularly cites St. Paul’s writings in the Letter to the Philippians, in which he wrote: “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name… every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Bishop Arthur Serratelli, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Divine Worship, said in a note to U.S. Bishops that the instructions do not force any changes to “official liturgical texts” but might result in “some impact on the use of particular pieces of liturgical music in our country as well as in the composition of variable texts such as the general intercessions for the celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments.”
To fulfill the directive, songs with phrases such as “Yahweh, I know you are near” will need to be modified.