Equality and Inclusion in the Roman Canon

By Christopher Lazowski, OSB

Fr. Joncas’ contribution “Grappling with Changed Cultural Conditions” addresses an important issue, one that I think is part of the third dimension of the “triple fidelity” of liturgical translation Pope Francis mentions in his recent letter to Cardinal Sarah, that of the “comprehension of the text by the recipients,” a comprehension that is always conditioned by their cultural context. It is of the greatest importance that liturgical translators take care that the texts they translate be “audible,” not only in the receptor language but also in the receptor culture; thus Fr. Joncas raises some important issues and sets us in the right direction for resolving them. I would like to go a little further down the road he has indicated.

We need to begin by trying to understand how Christians in Late Antiquity heard and understood the text. This is a difficult, but not impossible task unless all historical study is impossible. It implies a goodly dose of intellectual ascesis, by abstracting ourselves from our own cultural preconceptions, and even some of our dearly held moral convictions, like the horror of slavery. Once we have done this, we will be equipped to ask how to translate in it today’s very different context –where slavery is rightly held to be horrific – because we will know what we need to get across.

Because we’re dealing with translation, we need to begin by analyzing the vocabulary. I will deal with just one word, “famulus,” in only one of its occurrences in the canon, in the “Memento” of the living. But we need to do more than to take into account the meanings of words in Antiquity in general; to understand what they mean in the liturgy, we need to look at how they are used in biblical translations, Patristic writings, and in other liturgical texts. I will follow Tom O’Loughlin’s study of the “Memento vivorum,” drawn from his article “The ‘Commemoratio pro vivis’ of the Roman Canon: A Textual Witness to the Evolution of Western Eucharistic Theologies?” published in Studia Patristica 71 (2014), p. 69-91.

(The whole volume, containing the proceedings of conferences on early Roman liturgy held at Blackfriars in Oxford in 2009 and 2010, is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the Roman Rite before its Carolingian hybridisation with the Gallican liturgies in eighth and ninth century Frankish Gaul.)

I shall attempt a brief summary of O’Loughlin’s analysis of the formula “famuli famulaeque” just to give an idea of what he has to offer.

Ancient Christian Rome, in its Eucharistic praying, interceded above all for the community itself in the widest possible terms: for Christians, men and women, and not, as in all other early anaphoras, for specific groups distinguished by their rank or their office. The only thing taken into account was people’s relationship with God as “famuli”. This is in itself remarkable in the context of the highly stratified society of Late Antiquity.

But the equality established between men and women is no less remarkable: “The inclusion of women ‘qua’ women is unique to this prayer. In other liturgies, there are references to specific groups, most commonly virgins but sometimes virgins and widows, but only here are women referred to in terms of their relationship as ‘famulae’ of God and using the same terminology as that applied to men.” (p. 77) This inclusion isn’t even grammatically necessary because nobody in Late Antiquity contested the inclusion of women in the grammatical masculine gender. Moreover, the two terms are linked by the enclitic conjunction “-que”; “et” can imply a distinction of rank or degree within an enumeration, whereas “-que” establishes a collective whole composed of equal partners. (There are a few orations in the Verona Sacramentary, often misleadingly called the Leonine Sacramentary, which use this expression, but they are all clearly inspired by the text of the canon.)

Is it possible to discover where this formulation, surprising in what looks like sensitivity to contemporary concerns with inclusion, comes from? In Didache 4: 9, we learn that Christian slave-owners should not “Give harsh orders to their male and female slaves” (“douló sou é paidiské”; the primary meaning of “paidiské” is a slave-girl, and also fairly often a prostitute; the Greek word for brothel comes from the same root) in a way that would shock them and distance them from their masters’ faith. Early Christians probably learned parts of the Didache by heart, as people have done over the centuries with other catechetical texts (see Aaron Milavec, The Didache: Faith, Hope, and Life of the Earliest Christian Communities 50-70 C.E., p. 70-76). Thus “doulos kai paidiské” entered Christian vocabulary and became a habitual way for the Roman Church to refer to itself.

The first letter of Clement quotes an early Roman liturgical prayer in Greek that asks “Do not take account of the sins of your male and female slaves, (doulón sou kai paidiskón), but purify us by the purification of your truth” (60, 2). As in the canon, this is a prayer of the whole Church for the whole Church in which those who pray identify their particular relationship to the Father: “By the latter decades of the first century, this church in Rome had already developed a custom of referring to themselves collectively in prayer by the simple designation of ‘God’s male and female slaves’. While in society there were few issues as important as one’s place in the social order, in the rhetoric of the church, people were made equal before the Father as servants” (p. 78). This is a pretty radical subversion of both pagan social norms and of pagan vocabulary.

But why, when Rome moved from Greek to Latin, was this expression translated by “famuli / famulae”? Latin has an abundant vocabulary for talking about slaves and servants. In the Vetus Latina and the Vulgate, “famulus/a” is used for servants and slaves who have a particularly close relationship their master, who can almost be what we would call “assistants.” (We also need to remember that slaves occupied extremely varied roles in Antiquity; high-ranking civil servants and even what we would call cabinet members were often slaves).

Looking through the Vetus Latina and the Vulgate, we find that Moses is called “famulus Domini” 13 times in these Latin versions of the Old Testament, and when the Book of Wisdom portrays Moses as the great intercessor in favor the People of God, it calls him “famulus,” your slave (Wisdom 18: 21). This terminology is taken over to Hebrews 3: 5. Other leaders of the people are called “famulus,” in Judges 2: 8, 1 Kings 8: 25, 1 Chronicles 17: 23, and 2 Chronicles 6: 21. The word is applied to the whole People in various places, for example, Numbers 32: 5. When she prays for a son, Anna calls herself “famula Domini” (1 Samuel 1: 11). The word is used for the king’s ministers in 1 Kings 1: 26, and for the concubines of the Patriarchs in Genesis 33: 1.

We can summarize our findings about “famulus /a” by saying that although it is also used for ordinary slaves, in the tradition of Latin biblical translation and euchology, particularly in Rome, it is used above all for “the intimates of the master, those with a special relationship with the master as ministers, and those who can come before God as his chosen servants” and intercessors (p. 79).

So it looks like “famulus /a” was deliberately chosen to translate “doulos / paidiské” in order to attain at least two ends.

First, to maintain the equality of all Christians before God, while getting rid of the “sting” of the prayer quoted in 1 Clement. Christians are not properly speaking God’s “slaves,” but his “ministers,” his “intimates.” This function of the expression acts as a counterweight to the (more recent) parts of the prayer that distinguish, without separating, the work of the clergy and laity in offering the eucharist by using “servus” and “servitus” to refer to the ordained and what they do, and “plebs tua sancta” and “cunctae familiae tuae” for the laity and what they do. I say “without separating” because “sed et” does not imply an opposition; Albert Blaise’s Dictionnaire latin-français des auteurs chrétiens says that it means “and also”, and cites “Abraham, Isaac, Iacob, sed et cuncti prophetae” (CSEL edition of the Works of Lucifer of Cagliari, p. 25), “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, as well as all the other prophets.” I would suggest “along with” as a possible translation of “sed et” in the canon.

Second, the biblical use of the word points to the role of Christians as intercessors, members of a priestly people. An analysis of the word “vota” would show the properly sacrificial dimension of this work, but this would take us too far. If readers do want to go further, I suggest they consult Tom O’Loughlin’s article.

This is the sort of groundwork we need to lay before asking how we might translate an expression like “famuli famulaeque” into English today. It might be particularly useful as it also gives us an insight as to how our distant predecessors approached the question of translating the Greek original of these words into Latin centuries ago.


  1. What a magnificent contribution to the discussion on the “famuli/famulae” vocabulary in the Roman Canon! I am convinced by Fr/Br Lazowski’s arguments and will happily let go of my concern that the Canon equates God with a sovereign “slave-owner” and Christians with “house slaves” (let alone non-Christians as “field slaves.”) He rightly invites me to deepen the method I was employing: doing “more than to take into account the meanings of words in Antiquity in general;” I “need to look at how they are used in biblical translations, Patristic writings, and in other liturgical texts.” That was actually part of my training at S. Anselmo (under the wise tutelage of Benedictines), but I chose to present an intuition I had about the text’s meaning without a wealth of supporting testimony.

    As a possible support for the remarkable positioning of male and female Christians as equals in the rhetoric of the Canon pointed out by Fr/Br Lazowski, I remember one of my professors calling attention to the perhaps-surprising number of female names in the commemoration of the saints. In addition to the lists of apostles (with Peter and Paul heading the list), bishops of Rome, and martyrs with various kinds of connections to Rome, we find Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, and Anastasia mentioned by name.

    So once again thanks to Fr/Br Lazowski for wisely furthering our discussion.

  2. Many thanks to Frs Joncas and Lazowski for illuminating discussions on this topic.

    I’ve posted previously on the work of Mary Douglas, the anthropologist. Her thinking might shed some light on the translation challenge that the two posts raise.

    Slave vs free is a prime example of what Douglas would call “grid”: a classification over which the classified has little control or choice. Positioning in such a classification depends entirely on the will of others, or on life conditions that are easily observed and unchangeable.

    But to quote Fr Lazowski, “Ancient Christian Rome, in its Eucharistic praying, interceded above all for the community itself in the widest possible terms: for Christians, men and women, and not, as in all other early anaphoras, for specific groups distinguished by their rank or their office. The only thing taken into account was people’s relationship with God as “famuli”. This is in itself remarkable in the context of the highly stratified society of Late Antiquity.”

    This seems consistent with St Paul’s grid-flattening statement in Gal 3.28, RSV: “There is neither Jew nor Greek [grid], there is neither slave nor free [grid], there is neither male nor female [grid]; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

    For Douglas, this reduction of grid is a balancing element that makes a hierarchy – what she came later to call a ‘positional system’ – benign and human.

    Can we not use “servants” rather than “slaves” to translate famuli / famulae? A servant exercises choice in taking on the role or leaving it. It is true that domestic servants struggled, still struggle, to escape the economic constraints keeping them in role. The Victorians preached to their servants about being content with their “station in life”; and even those who weren’t content couldn’t do much to get out of it.

    But today, “servant” implies some degree of choice, of mobility on the Douglas grid. The pope is the “servant of the servants of God”. The Orthodox liturgies refer to “the servant of God”, without evoking Downton Abbey. And it’s clear from the New Testament that entering service to God is a choice, albeit one with enormous consequences – “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

    The Lord wouldn’t have said that to his slaves.

  3. Can we not replace the language of service and servitude with the language of family?
    We are instructed to call God “Father.”

  4. Fr. Joncas and Jonathan Day are very kind, but their praise is misplaced; it should be for Tom O’Loughlin, not me. All I have done is to summarize and present part of his paper. In particular I would like to point out that the passage Jonathan quotes and seems to attribute to me is of me quoting O’Loughlin. Perhaps I wasn’t sufficiently clear, and if so I do apologize! The only part for which I can take any credit is the paragraph dealing with what “servus” and “servitus” mean in this context, and how to translate “sed et”. But anyone who knows how to use a dictionary could have done the same.

    I agree with Jonathan’s suggestion for translating “servus”. Slave won’t do, because today it will always be understood in the light of early modern to contemporary experiences of slavery, far too distant from that of the Bible and pagan Antiquity for the term to be understood as the original translators of the early canon (into Latin) meant it to be. As well, “servant” is consistent with the semantic shift from “douló sou é paidiské” to “famulorum famularumque tuorum”.

    As to replacing the language of service with that of family, I’m not so sure. Complete it, yes, of course. But the language of service just seems to be too important in the New Testament for it to be simply abandoned. Jesus is, after all, among us “as one who serves”, and he isn’t play-acting. It is by imitating (ontologically) the Son who became (ontologically) a servant, indeed a slave, that we becomes sons and daughters of the Father, members of God’s family. It is important to take culture into account, but culture also needs to be evangelized.

  5. The Ordinariate Missal, using the translation sometimes [mis-?] attributed to Miles Coverdale, continues to translate the phrase as ‘servants and handmaids’.

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