Catholics to Stop Saying/Singing the Name Yahweh

In an interesting development, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a directive to all bishops’ conferences on June 29, 2008, stating that Catholics are to no longer say the name Yahweh. The US Bishops’ Committee for Divine Worship, which is the responsible committee for liturgical issues in the US, forwarded the directive to all dioceses on August 8. It is expected that it will take some time to implement the change.

To those who have been a fan of the song, “Yahweh, I Know You Are Near,” such a change is surprising, if not disappointing. I’ve been on many retreats and participated in many Masses where this song has captured the hearts of the people and helped us to pray more deeply. Ironically, last Sunday while on travel we sang this song at Mass in a small town. Now, the song needs to be changed to replace the name Yahweh.

What is behind this new directive? Why are we to no longer pronounce the name Yahweh in a liturgical setting, whether in song or spoken prayer? A bit of history is helpful here. The name Yahweh was the ancient Hebrew name for God and was originally spelled YHWH. Thus, it had four consonants and no vowels, rendering it unable to be pronounced.

As the letter from the Vatican explains, “As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it 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.'” In other words, another name was always substituted for YHWH when God’s name was spoken out loud in liturgy. Thus, the directive bring us back to the ancient tradition where the name YHWH was not spoken out loud, emphasizing respect for God in a profound, meaningful way.

Since this blog helps to connect faith and daily life, it is only appropriate to explore if there are any other present-day venues where someone’s name is not to be spoken out loud. One example that comes to mind is in the Harry Potter books. In this narrative, the villain Lord Voldemort, has a name which is never spoken by anyone except for Harry Potter and a few others. When others refer to Voldemort, they say, “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” As the storyline goes, the villain is so evil and so terrible, that out of fear people don’t use his name. This is a twisted form of respect for a powerful being.

Of course, in the Harry Potter example, the villain is as far from God as possible. The villain is pure evil as becomes obvious throughout the books. His great weakness is that he is incapable of love. But there is something interesting here. We believe that God is pure, unconditional love and goodness, totally holy. In the fictional account, a character who fully embodies a trait (evil) has people refraining from using his name out loud. Is it so far-fetched, then, for us to choose to refrain from speaking the proper name for God, who fully embodies a much more important trait (love and goodness) out of respect? 

Maybe what the Vatican is trying to do is to retrieve the dimension of God as totally Other, as Mystery. Certainly, in the present day, the pendulum has swung in the direction of God being seen as totally familiar and intimately involved in our lives. Personally, I like this. But perhaps we have lost something by ignoring the other end of the spectrum which emphasizes God as “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” as Rudolf Otto coined in his profound book, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine.

How do we hold onto our closeness to and intimacy with God, while also balancing God’s Other-Worldly dimension? A current day book helps us to do exactly this. What Is God?: How to Think about the Divine, written by John Haught, a theologian and professor at Georgetown University tackles this brilliantly. He proposes several images for thinking about God — as Depth, as Future, as Freedom, as Beauty, and as Truth. All of these lead to the image of God as Mystery. 

This wonderful little book is well worth reading. For Haught, mystery does not mean a gap in knowledge. As Haught describes, Mystery “denotes a region of reality that, instead of growing smaller as we grow wiser and more powerful, can actually be experienced as growing larger and more incomprehensible as we solve more of our scientific and other problems. It is a region of the ‘known unknown,’ the horizon that keeps expanding and receding into the distance the more our knowledge advances. It is the arena of the incomprehensible and unspeakable that makes us aware of our ignorance, of how much there yet remains to be known.”   

I want to know more about this God of ours who is as a horizon which expands as we approach. But, honestly, I know I will miss singing the song, “Yahweh, I Know You Are Near.”

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