As I See It

Fr. Raymond de Souza

April 25, 2011

Many Catholics are reading the pope's most recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week, as spiritual reading this Holy Week. Does many mean all?

Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI sheds light on a matter that English-speaking Catholics will encounter later this year. The new translation of the Roman Missal, which will take effect in Advent 2011, changes the words of institution, the words the priests says to consecrate the bread and wine, transubstantiating them into the Body and Blood of Christ. Holy Week is a good time to examine that.

In the current English translation the priests says over the chalice, "it will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven." The new translation will say, "will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins."

The straight translation issue is easy enough. The Roman Missal — the book of prayers for Mass — is promulgated in Latin. The various translations are to be just that — translations of the Latin. In the Latin, the consecration formula says "pro multis" and has always said "pro multis." To translate that as "for all" is simply a linguistic mistake — "pro multis" in English is "for many."


The Latin has never been "pro omnibus" or "pro universis," which would be translated as "for all." The new translation was done precisely to correct the many errors, elisions and excisions that marred the current translation, and this would seem an obvious and straightforward case.

When the current translation was prepared some 40 years ago, "pro multis" was translated as "for all" in English, and in other languages as well, for example, "per tutti" in Italian, or "per todos" in Spanish. Interestingly, French maintained the "pro multis" in its translation: "pour la multitude."

The reasoning was that Christ, as the scriptural witness and doctrinal teaching of the Church makes clear, died for all.

In 2006, Pope Benedict took the decision that "pro multis" should be properly translated as "for many" and its equivalents in different languages. English-speakers will hear this for the first time this coming Advent. In the letter explaining the decision, it was made clear that Christ in fact does die for all, but that this is a doctrinal point for catechetical explanation, not a matter of translation.

The scriptural accounts give us Jesus saying "for many." Benedict XVI notes this is not just in the consecration formula found in Matthew and Mark, but also in Jesus' own description of his mission in Mark 10.45: "For the Son of Man came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many."

The first point then is that the Church's liturgy is in Latin, and the Latin says "pro multis," which means "for many." The second point is the words of Jesus in the Gospels themselves indicate that "for many" is correct.


The third point is that theological explanation — Jesus died for all — belongs to proper catechesis, not to changing the plain meaning of words in the liturgy and the Scriptures.

Having made this decision in 2006, Benedict returns to the issue in greater depth in Jesus of Nazareth. He writes that the "many" spoken of in the prophet Isaiah is fulfilled in Christ, and takes on a new universal dimension in the Church — so Christ indeed did die for all.

The expanding applicability of Christ's death is captured in how we hear and understand "for many." For example, in 1 Timothy 2.6, it is written that Christ "gave himself as a ransom for all." The Church comes to understand early on that Christ died for all, but maintained in her Scriptures and in the liturgy the expression "pro multis."


We don't read the words of the liturgy with the ears of the world — perhaps thinking that "for many" is restrictive — but with the ears of the Church's tradition, which understands the universal character of the sacrifice of Christ. So there ought not to be any theological nervousness about the new translation.

An additional point that Benedict makes is that while Christ's death is offered for all, the sacramental memorial of the same — the Eucharist — does not have the same range. Christ died "for all" but those who receive the Eucharist are "many," not all. Some are not aware of the Gospel, some are not initiated in the sacraments, and some choose not to receive them. Christ died for them too, but he does not force the sacraments upon them.

To say "for many" does protect the importance of our human freedom. It leaves room for our response. God counts us among the many. Do we choose to be so counted?

Fr. Raymond de Souza —