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Thursday, July 12, 2007

I Need a Latin Lesson

When I was recently reading Fr. Z.'s post about "sister" Joan Chittister's misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Catholic beliefs and the Motu Propio, I came across the following phrase, repeated by the priest while upon the altar:

Domine, non sum dignus

I know that it means, "Lord, I am not worthy!"

For reference, here is what Fr. Z. stated in his post:

Ehem…. one of those things the lone male priest is saying silently up there at the altar Sister can’t approach is "Domine, non sum dignus… Domine, non sum dignus… Domine, non sum dignus…" before anyone else says it."

Please understand that I have not had the opportunity to study Latin, although I love the language. My experience is in Spanish as my second language (I used to be quite proficient, nearly fluent), and due to my study, I am actually able to discern the meanings of many words in the Latin-based languages.

Additionally, this post is *not* about our worthiness or lack thereof to receive, nor is it about where this is in the Bible; this post is about pure linguists and the theology behind the usage of the Latin and specifical theological context with regard to the chosen words.

So, here is my question:

The word "dignus" is clearly the source for the word in English, "dignity". Theologically, "worth" and "dignity" are very much linked, but in English, they have very different connotations, and I am seeing, in spite of the differing connotations, they are absolutely related. But then that lends to a theological conundrum for me.

I agree that none of us is "worthy" to recieve Jesus, none of us is worthy to be saved by Him, none of us is worthy of the graces, the love, and the very gift of life given to us by God. We have inherent dignity, but we are not worthy of that dignity given so freely to us.

So, I completely understand why the priest is praying, " Domine, non sum dignus, Lord, I am not worthy". Over and over.

But if I translate it, "Lord, I do not have the dignity", that changes the meaning, at least, in English.

We know that as human beings, we have inherent dignity, and perhaps I have just understood the term "dignity" as being at a lower value than "worth". When I see the word "worthy", that denotes a quantatative value. The word "dignity", however, is a dignity given to us which is equal across the board. There is not quantitative value to the term. I believe that when God became man, He elevated our dignity, for, as it states in the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, 22, "He worked with human hands, he loved with a human heart..." etc. Jesus elevated our existing dignity ever further by becoming one of us...but this is not the same thing as elevating our WORTH.

Because even within our dignity as human beings, and thus our "worth", we cannot possibly be "worthy" ENOUGH for what God has condescended to give us so lovingly.

I simply do not see the equality in the terms "worth" and "dignity", although I do see their relationship to each other.

Can someone please explain to me why "dignus" is translated as "wothy" and not "dignity" as it appears it should be?

What am I missing theologically and linguistically? (Um, a lot, but let's just start here....)

It really seems to me that the use of Latin in the liturgy requires not just an understanding of the bare translations (for those so inclined) but of the theological value of the words chosen and the meanings behind those words, such as "dignus". It seems they cannot be taken on simple face value, but must be understood historically and within a certain linguistic and theological context. This perception actually deepens the respect I have for the Old Form of the Mass (Tridentine), although I have never attended it. I have attended a Latin Novus Ordo, and loved it, my only desire being that I wish I was actually well versed in Latin.

So....can anyone explain this translation of "dignus" to "worthy" and give me a Latin lesson 101 as it pertains to this particular wording?


Odysseus said...

Well, I think there are (at least) two possibilities here.

1) Dignus, while related to the present term 'dignity' is simply not equivalent to that word. I.e., it has been a couple thousand years. In linguistic matters, sometimes a certain sound and spelling survive the ages but the meaning alters. Thus, it is possible that 'dignus', back then, meant 'worthy', and that a similar-appearing word in modern English means 'dignity'.


2) the priest is saying 'dignified' and you have been duped into believing he was saying something else. :) Also, IMO, the stress on human dignity lately is overdone.

Really, it is not that he isn't saying this in the New Mass. The New mass is written in Latin just as the Old mass, and I assure you the text in Rome says "non sum dignus". Regardless of how we have translated them, the words 'non sum dignus', whatever their meaning, are the real, unchangeable words of the mass.

If it really is a blow to our 'dignity', then we just have to accept that.

Adoro said...

Thanks, Rob.

About "dignity" ~ I don't think so much that dignity is overdone of late, but rather, certain political groups have tried to twist it to redefine it. Those who know what "dignity" is are forced to bring it up properly in context and by definition in order to refute the poisoned version of the term. I think the problem is that dignity has not been emphasized enough, because no one knows what it is!

Anyway, the "blow to dignity", yeah I have no problem with that. If we aren't worthy, we aren't worthy, and if we are in a state of mortal sin, well, then we should abstain.

Our culture likes to think we're entitled to everything we want.

With the terms, though, dignity and worthiness, they can in some instances be interchanged and carry a same or similar meaning. Of course the wording of the Mass in Latin has not changed; I understand that. I'm just looking for a linguistics lesson so I can wrap my mind around the more theological significance of this "dead" language.

One of these days I pray to attend a TLM. The Latin Novus Ordo was beautiful, but clearly, it's not the same thing.


Anonymous said...

"Worthy" is the best translation. While the Latin dignus went on meaning "worthy, proper, fitting" the word "dignity" took on its own connotations as it began its career in English. Kind of like a spin-off :) But, as you noted, you can still see the idea of "worthiness" in the current meaning of "dignity" (not the hijacked meaning): the dignity that can be possessed by a judge or a janitor.

You can hear the word dignus used in the same way earlier in the 1970 Missal, at the conclusion of the dialog that begins Sursum corda.

Don't have time to copy the whole thing here, but the priest says "Let us give thanks to the Lord our God" and then...

in Latin, the congregation responds, "Dignum et justum est". The current bad English translation is "It is right to give Him thanks and praise." Older, better translations give "It is meet ("appropriate", "worthy") and just [to give Him thanks and praise.]" Here dignus is translated "meet."

Father Schnippel said...

Adoro, thanks for bringing up the question. It is something that I say so often that it is tempting to just rush right past it.

The following is from the "The Church at Prayer" series, volume 2 on the Eucharist: (page 215)

It is appropriate that the actual communion be preceded by a moment of recollection. Meanwhile the priest chooses one of two prayers; he is to say it in a low voice, since he must respect the other members of the assembly who are praying in silence as they engage in intense spiritual preparation.
The celebrant then displays the Eucharistic bread to the faithful. To the words "This is the Lamb of God..." he adds a verse from the Apocalypse (Rev 19:9). The response of the congregation is a single "Lord, I am not worthy..." and not a triple one as in the past. The verse from the Apocalypse, "Beati qui ad cenam Agni vocati sunt," is difficult to translate in an unambiguous way, since it supposes a better than aveage biblical formation. For this reason our Missal has: "Happy are those who are called to his supper." The penitential tone that historical circumstances had attached to this moment of the celebration needed this additition, which makes it somewhat like the "Holy things to the holy!" of the Eastern Christians.

(Ok, I realize it doesn't directly answer your question, but it was the best I could do on short notice. I'll look through one other of my old textbooks if I get a chance.)

Unknown said...


Your biggest confusion is created by taking only one phrase of one sentence of one parable and attempting to translate it.

I believe that this is what apologists call "proof texting", taking something out of context and ascribing to it meanings that it doesn't have.

One better definition: By proof-texting I mean the use of individual scripture texts to produce apparent support for a doctrinal position without adequate regard for the contexts of the individual texts which may indicate differences and nuances.

The correct sentence should be "O Lord, I am not worth that Thou shouldst enter under my roof; say but the word, and my soul shall be healed."

Before you balk at the "Thou" and the "shouldst", remember that this is the second person singular (conditional?) ("intimate, with friends) form of the verb "shall" in the English language, a form which is not used in normal speech today.

"Domine non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum mea, sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur anima mea."

This comes from the incident of the "Cure of the Centurian's servant" in Matthew 8, verses 5-13

When you understand the original Greek, as translated into Latin, as translated into English of the entire incident, pluse their use in other places in the Old and New Testaments, then you "should" (conditional) be able to discuss the definition of the word "dignus" as "dignity" or "worthiness."

Adoro said...


This is the context of what I was quoting. It's not the entire phrase, but what Fr. Z. stated in his post:

[Ehem…. one of those things the lone male priest is saying silently up there at the altar Sister can’t approach is "Domine, non sum dignus… Domine, non sum dignus… Domine, non sum dignus…" before anyone else says it." ~ Fr. Z.

Sorry, should have been more clear about that, but the reality is that I'm not "proof-texting" but taking a specific phrase used in the context of another post, and which is repeated by the priest before the laity states it.

Just out of curiosity, why would you assume I'd have a problem with the words "shouldst" or "thou"?

Warren said...

The origin of the prayer is the statement by the Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his child, to Jesus, "Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak the word, and your servant shall be healed". This was the centurion, a Roman, not a Jew, of whom it was said that Jesus marvelled, for he had not seen a man with such faith in all of Israel.

We are imitating the form, most of all, because we wish to approach our Lord in the same spirit of humble trust in his divine capability to supply all that we lack, and that even our own unworthiness to approach him is not in itself a reason not to approach, for will he not overcome all difficulties, even healing a young girl without even walking over to her house.

What seems a problem to man is no problem at all for God. This is a very important point to keep in mind when we deal with our worthiness to receive.


Adoro said...

Peony Moss and Fr. Kyle ~ Thanks for the info. Very interesting!

Warran ~ my Latin question is not about worthiness of us to recieve....not at all. I do not question that. My question is very specifically about the linguistics and the translation of the Latin to English with regard to the term "dignus" and how it related to dignity v. worthiness.

I don't have time to edit this post right now, but please see my prior comment to Ray. There's no question where the phrase comes from, but as Fr. Z. stated in the link I posted, this phrase, "dominus non sum dignus" is repeated BEFORE the laity says anything. He says it silently, and I am not questioning WHY at all.

I am only focusing on the translation. Period.

Sorry, all, for the confusion. I'll try to edit when I can to clarify so that you don't try to give me a lesson in my lack of worthiness. :-)

Adoro said...

OK, I just edited and now I have to run! Will check in later for more info from all you scholars!

Deacon Bill Burns said...

Hi, Adoro.

As Rob mentioned, the meaning of the term in English has shifted from the original meaning of the term in Latin. Even though they're cognates (which means the form of the words are related), the meaning is subject to changes of environment and usage. There are several types of semantic shifting: pejoration, amelioration, metonymic (for lack of a better term). The words gay and nice have essential switched their connotations over the years. The word "bread" actually comes from the word "brot" in old English and meant "slice" or "piece," which the word "loaf" comes from the old English word for bread, "hlaf."

So it's not surprising to see semantic shifting occurring between two cognates.

Unknown said...


Father Z may have typed only the words "Domine non sum dignus" three times.

But there is no doubt but that he took those words from the "Centurian's prayer" which was said three times by the priest in the 1962 and previous Latin Masses.

That is "artistic license" and has been done by many writers.

Even if it were not the case, when properly translating Latin from Old and New Testaments, serious translators look at the Greek translation and other uses of the same words to help them in their final decision as to the proper translation.

I explained "Thou" and "shouldst" because there are many people who read your blog and I wanted to make my explanation as clear as possible.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ray

~ Adoro

Anonymous said...

and my 2 cents would merely add that words, in any language, are symbols used to represent some concept or construct. translation of those words to another language does not always have to be in the word-form most similar to word being translated. synonyms represent these same thoughts and ideas using different words to more fully approach the reality of meaning being expressed...because word meanings sometimes change and our understanding today may not be, in the vernacular, the same as it was when written in the original. ergo, 'dignus' becomes worthy, so we may understand in our word-form a more correct representation of the original thought.

Warren said...

Adoro ~ I was not questioning your confidence, I was merely pointing out that if you wish to understand something, maybe textual analysis is not 100% of what you need, whether in Latin or in English - maybe understanding comes more with context than with dissecting individual words.

Does the prayer intend to say dark things about the general human condition, to make theological/ontological assertions?

I would argue that understanding the roots of the prayer (the centurion's prayer), help us to see that our conscious acts of
self-deprecation in prayer are not in fact destructive of, or contradictory to our dignity as Christians, but only signs of piety, in this case a direct imitation of the piety of one who has the unique distinction that his faith caused Our Lord himself to marvel.


Anonymous said...

(Getting a bit irreverent here)

Domine, non sum dignus

Sr. Chittister probably thinks that mean "God doesn't have a dingus" :)

Anonymous said...

dignus - adjective - worthy

sum - first person present of the verb "to be" - I am

non - not

Non sum dignus

I am not worthy

Dignus is in apposition with "I" and can be translated as worthy - it is more idiomatic than saying "i am not dignified" and adds to the humility of whatone is saying.

Just my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

oh yes...dignus is the equivalent of the Greek "axios" meaning worthy...that might have something to do with it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Frank, that helps!

~ Adoro

Anonymous said...

Great posts and beautiful illustrations. I've been studying Latin for some time and use a great online Latin Dictionary. It is one of the most complete set of English-Latin dictionaries I know on the Web (and it is FREE:-). If anyone knows of any other good one, please let me know.