“For all” or “for many”?: mission and heresy

The publication of the April letter from Pope Benedict XVI to the bishops of Germany has re-ignited a surprising controversy, namely that concerning the change of “for all” in the consecration narrative for the chalice at Mass back to “for many”. A translation of this letter can be found at the end of Sandro Magister’s report, though it requires careful reading as it is written for theologically-trained bishops. Kate at Australia Incognita has some good commentary on the issue. Here it has not so far been addressed, but exasperation at seeing an online petition seeking to restore “for many” has removed all hesitation. [Rather than provide a direct link to the petition, which requests three changes in total to the Missal, if you feel so moved to sign it or see it you can go to change.org and find it there. To be fair, the petition is couched in a respectful tone, and is not aggressive. But apart from its misguidedness, its ‘let’s be nice and hug-a-tree’ attitude is aggravating, because it implies that doctrines and their expression are matters of feeling and not of truth.]

In fact, the whole controversy is most surprising really. Until the post-conciliar reform to the Mass, the words for consecrating the chalice at Mass had always contained pro multis, “for many”. Never had the words pro omnibus, “for all”, been used. And when the reformed, or Novus Ordo, Mass was promulgated in the wake of the Council its official Latin text still had pro multis. The problem was that the translators, and not just the English ones, decided to change the literal, and only reasonable, meaning of these words when translating into English. Why? Most likely it was done to reflect a theological interpretation of the words, one which made the Church seem more “inclusive” (and inclusiveness is precisely the stated motive behind the online petition just mentioned).

Quite how that original post-conciliar translation was ever approved by Rome is still a question that I cannot answer satisfactorily. It was such an amazing break with a previously unbroken tradition, a tradition that spanned both east and west. Moreover, tinkering with the words of consecration, the crucial part of the Mass, is not something to be done lightly or without good cause.

To a large extent, and Kate at Australia Incognita (see above) touches on this point, the change was based on theories as to what would have been the equivalent Aramaic expression. Granting the argument that since Jesus would have spoken in Aramaic day-to-day, the Aramaic naunce thus should be the over-riding interpretive tool. This is problematic in more ways than one. For a start, it is not certain that Jesus would have said these particular words at the Last Supper in Aramaic. In the Passover meal, the crucial parts were said in Hebrew; it remains equally possible, perhaps probable, that Jesus said the words over the bread and chalice in Hebrew given its importance in his eyes. However, more fundamentally, an argument based on what we do not have [ie, a record of Jesus speaking these words in Aramaic] is the weakest argument of all, barely rising above guesswork and wishful thinking. For the fact is that the only record we have of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, in the gospels, is in Greek (e.g., Matthew 26:28, and Mark 14:24). The Greek of the gospels is clear enough: πολλων, ie “many”. The unbroken tradition in the Latin liturgy has been to translate the Greek exactly, πολλων becoming multis, not omnibus.

Surely (the argument goes) Jesus died for all, and so this is what Jesus really meant at the Last Supper; therefore, this meaning should be reflected in the words of the consecration. The French have employed a compromise, la multitude, “the many” which retains the literal translation of πολλων but introduces the definite article, urging us to infer that this is a euphemism for “all”. When translating from Latin this is justifiable since Latin has no articles; they are assumed according to context. However the Latin is itself a translation of the Greek gospels; there is a definite article in the Greek language but it is not present in the Greek gospel texts.

So often there is more than one level of meaning in what Jesus says and does. It holds true here. For Jesus is not just instituting the memorial of his sacrifice on the Cross at the Last Supper; he is also elaborating his identity. His Jewish disciples would have clearly heard in his use of “many” an echo of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, who was to make “many to be accounted righteous”, and who “bore the sins of many” [Isaiah 53:11-12]. This echo is lost to us when “many” is replaced by “all”.

Both the French and the English use of “for all” seems just a little patronising. It seems we need to be spoon-fed the ‘correct’ meaning, and to that end the text was changed to reflect the ‘correct’ meaning. But this interpretation of the text ends up doing away with the text altogether, and substituting another in its place. This is not honest. Furthermore, far from enriching our understanding, the use of “for all” has impoverished it. Interpretation is best left to catechesis and instruction: if something has a meaning not fully obvious then rather than eliminating it, it should be explained. Babies and bath water come to mind.

A lamentable result of the change to “for all” was to extinguish a fertile ambiguity and creative tension, which contained an implicit challenge to believers. Yes, Christ died for all humanity; salvation is a gift offered to all people. That is the clear teaching of the Church. However, to give a gift to all does not mean that all will receive it fruitfully. A gift is given, but it must also be received and accepted if it is to be of any use. You may give people money, but if one of them does not spend it or invest it then it has no effect for that person. The gift was certainly bestowed, but it bore no fruit: it was given in vain.

In Christ’s words in other places this ambiguity is fostered. While he has come for all people, he recognises that not all will accept him. He will be salvific and fruitful only for those who accept him and follow him. So we find that Jesus, in the high priestly prayer of his final days, prays not for all people, but only for those who have accepted him:

I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. John 17:9

Does this mean that Christ did not die for all people? No. It means that his death will only have effect for those who believe in him, with all that belief entails. Again, in St Matthew’s gospel, Jesus states that, as the Son of Man, he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” [Matthew 20:28]; and in the Letter to the Hebrews talks of Christ being “offered once to bear the sins of many” [Hebrews 9:28], both references again to the Suffering Servant. It seems evident that Jesus’ clear self-identification with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah was strong enough to lodge in the memory of the infant Church.

So let us be clear: the reference in these texts is not to those whom it is intended that Jesus die for, but to those for whom his death will have an effect. The one thing that Jesus cannot do is save those who reject the gift of salvation that comes in and through him. Salvation, and all grace, is precisely a gift, not an obligation. We are not puppets in the hands of God, but free agents who can choose to accept God or reject him. This freedom reflects the radical and sovereign freedom of God, in whose image we are made. There can be no love if there is no freedom. Without freedom, we have can certainly have duty, but not love.

So this deliberate and divine ambiguity is a challenge to believers to express their love in missionary enterprise enjoined on us in our Lord’s great commission, to “go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). In other words, at the very heart of the Church’s memorial of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is a divine impulse to include as many as possible among the “many”. The very tension we feel when we acknowledge the Christ died died for all and hear his indication that not necessarily all will benefit from the pouring out of his blood should move us not to eliminate the source of the tension and discomfort, but to answer its implicit call. If we feel uncomfortable at the thought that not all might benefit from the shedding of Christ’s blood, we need to ask ourselves what we have done to address this awful possibility? This is the truest inclusiveness, not that we merely assert without due warrant that all will benefit from the shedding of Christ’s blood, but that we work to make it a reality rather than a vain assertion.

Actually, we might ask ourselves another question: do we blithely assume that we ourselves are among the many? Do we hear the challenge to ourselves at each Eucharistic Sacrifice? Christ enacted for us the greatest form of love, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). In the very next verse Christ identifies these friends for whom he has died: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). So, have we always done what he has commanded us? Have we… really?

Ultimately, I suspect that lying beneath all the outrage at the correction of this crucial text found in the new Missal, is not just a hollow and sentimental desire for inclusiveness. It seems rather to give voice to the unacknowledged heresy that is so prevalent among modern Catholics: universal salvation. So much of the opposition to the correct translation of pro multis seems to reflect unease its opponents feel in the face of the reminder it voices of the inconvenient truth that hell exists and it is a real possibility for all humanity. Shutting our eyes and ears and shouting “all will be saved” repeatedly will not do away with this inconvenient truth. In fact, such an attitude is a subtle form of exclusiveness. Inasmuch as we refuse to acknowledge that salvation comes only to those who accept the gift of it, and so failing to play our part in the Church’s divine mission of including as much of the world as possible among the ‘many’ of the Body of Christ, by accepting Christ’s salvation, to that degree we exclude the world from the communion in the Body of salvation. If so, do we perhaps eat and drink judgement upon ourselves as we partake of the Eucharistic Body and Blood? (1 Corinthinans 11:29)

In the Pope’s letter, he makes the same conclusion. Affirming the identification of the “many” with the Church, Christ’s Body, Pope Benedict then tells the German bishops that,

The many have responsibility for all. The community of the many must be light on the lampstand, city on the hill, leaven for all. This is a vocation that concerns each one in an entirely personal way. The many, who we are, must have the responsibility for the whole, in the awareness of their mission.

24 thoughts on ““For all” or “for many”?: mission and heresy

  1. Salve Pater,

    It is astonishing to me how the controversy over the new ICEL translation of the Roman Missal rumbles on, and the lengths to which some objectors will go to justify their dissent from it.

    As far as I can see, the old ICEL translations, with their perhaps over reliance on “dynamic equivalence”, were nearer to paraphrases than translations. The new ICEL translations are more faithful renderings of the Latin texts. This surely is a good thing, and in the spirit of. Liturgiam authenticam.

    How clearly the Pope spells things out in his letter to the German bishops.

    Yet the arguments go on. If it isn’t pro multis, it’s something else.

    Many people tell me that the Nicene Creed should begin “We believe..” “Why ?” I ask. “Bcause,” they reply, “the Council of Nicaea used the Greek πιστευομεν which means “we believe”.

    “Yes,” I reply. “But the ICEL has translated into English not the profession of faith in Greek from the Council of Nicaea, but the Nicene Creed in Latin from the Missale Romanum. That’s what it is : a translation (approved by Rome) of the Missale Romanum from its original Latin into English. Nothing else. Stick to the text. The liturgy is a given, not a construct.”

    But, honestly, it’s like talking to a brick wall !

    In case this comment is horribly garbled somewhere above, I should explain I’ve been trying to write “pisteuomen” in Greek, using the ASCII codes for HTML. I shan’t know it works until I read it in Father’s comment box.

    It is therefore with great trepidation that I click on “post comment”.

    Pax et bonum



    1. Well, Petrus, your Greek word worked! Let us be thankful for every small success.

      As to the issue of whether “we believe” or “I believe” at Mass, I did address that in an earlier Missal Moment. Foundational to the translation issue is the question of what role the creed plays at Mass. It is not a re-stating of the faith for the sake of it. It is a re-profession of our baptismal faith, and by it each acknowledges before God and the congregation that s/he is baptised into the one Church and so able to approach the one altar of that one Church. To put it very crudely, at the creed each professes his or her right to be there.

      Ironically the nomenclature of the Mass prior to the conciliar reforms clearly delineated a structure dating from the early Church. The Mass of the Catechumens ended after the homily, at which point the not-yet-baptised were dismissed; the Mass of the Faithful then began with the creed, professed by those remaining, the baptised, who would now celebrate the Eucharist proper.

      In talks I have given I have found that once this point is grasped the clamour against “I believe” wanes markedly.

      Pax semper!


  2. Many thanks to Father Hugh for his, as always, kind and helpfu reply.
    Yes, I well remember as a child the Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful in my daily Missal. Our kindly teachers explained what this meant, and we understood it, even at that age ! People today seriously underestimate children’s ability to absorb knowlege. A tragic mistake, I think.

    Be that as it may, this was meant to be a postscriptum because my comment is somewhat incomplete. I wanted to thank Father for a deeply fascinating meditation on the meaning of pro multis. I only hope someone in the German Bishops’ Conference read this post (well, you never know ..)

    I did not intend my comment to wander off topic, so to speak, but I was very taken with Father’s words :

    “This interpretation of the text ends up doing away with the text altogether, and substituting another in its place. This is not honest.”

    Precisely ! In my opinion, translators do better to remain faithful to the text, and not wander too far down the path of interpretation, or there is a danger that the meaning of the text will be lost.

    As Father says, interpretation is better left to catechesis and instruction.

    Pax et bonum



    1. Absolutely right about children – they are sponges for knowledge. We patronise them far too much. It is now recognised, for example, that baby talk is deleterious to an infant’s progress in language skills. Speak simply but normally to them is the new norm – no talking gobbledygook or talking down.

      As for the rest, your kind words make me blush so I shall say thank you, and hereafter remain silent! 😉



  3. Thanks for the fine post. It reminds me of those chilling lines contained
    in the Sequence for Corpus Christi:

    Both the wicked and the good
    Eat of this celestial Food:
    But with ends how opposite!


    1. Patrick, thank you! How apt are the words you quote from the sequence, which are themselves an affirmation of St Paul’s teaching on receiving unworthily… and to think that so many believe that the old liturgy had so little scripture in it!



  4. The key – if you wish to be true to the original meaning is – what the original Greek text means by “for many”. In that text the meaning does not exlude – I repeat so you all focus on this: DOES NOT exclude – the meaning of “for all”. Using the French version stays true to this meaning, but using “for many” in English excludes and denies the meaning “for all”, which means it is a wrong translation of the original Greek text.


    1. Hello. The English “for many” most certainly does not exclude and deny the meaning of “for all”. And for the reasons I cite, the dynamic tension created by “for many” is apt and fruitful.



      1. Hello & thank you for the quick answer!
        I am not a native English speaker, but I have circled the topic quite many times and I must disagree with you in the denial of “for all” by “for many”. In the languages: English, German, Italian, Hungarian and Finnish I am quite confident that “for many” has the embeded meaning of “for many but not for all” and as such the meaning of “for many” denies and excludes the meaning “for all”. You mention the dynamic tension, which I suppose is coming exactly beacuse of this meaning of “for many”.
        If I read you correctly by the “dynamic tension” you mean that people shall think whether they are part of the many or not, but that meaning is simply not there in the original Greek text. It means that it is an added “explanation” which is exactly the problem many had with the translation “for all”. I think it is potentially a distortion of the Image of God to include such meaning in the founding words of the self sacrificing covenant of love. In my opinion we shall follow the French “for the many” to stay true to the original meaning.



      2. Good morning.

        I am a native English speaker, have spent years studying theology, the history of theology and liturgy. Naturally I am not an expert but I probably know more than most Catholics by now.

        The main danger in any theology is to read things out of their context. The translation of pro multis is not merely an exercise in linguistics. The phrase takes its fullest meaning from the whole theology of redemption and salvation. Part of that theology is that while all are redeemed, not all are necessarily saved. Unless you can accept that Christianity will ultimately make no sense.

        The Latin rite has, since time immemorial, chosen to say pro multis in the words of consecration, and no one till the post-conciliar liturgical reforms has sought seriously to question this tradition. Why? For many reasons, but certainly because it comes from the apostles themselves. As far as liturgy is concerned, whatever the possible nuances of the Greek in scripture, the Latin of our liturgy use pro multis. It is Latin that is the basis of our translation, not French.

        We cannot now start changing centuries of clear, unbroken, hallowed and theologically sound tradition merely to suit the sensibilities of those who find the possibility that some people might be damned too disturbing. That may suit the Anglican communion, but certainly it should have no place in Catholicism.



  5. Hello & Thank You for the lightning fast answer! 🙂 It is getting hot in here …
    Let’s make things clear: Mt. 22.14 For many are invited, but few are chosen.
    And we find here the same “many” which means all here… 🙂
    πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσιν κλητοὶ ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί
    It is an old heresy – and still the teaching of some, like Calvinists – that the blood of Christ is not poured out for all, so why are we hinting that in the very heart of the mass, when using the translation “for many”, when it is not even the correct translation from the original Greek text?
    You asked to respect the theology and I ask the same. If we conclude that the correct Greek translation is “for the many” and that is theologically also correct than what is wrong with that? If the Local Bishop Conferences decided to choose “for all” and “for the many” for their own languages why to force them back to hinting the heresy of predestination?


    1. Matthew 26:28, which obviously informs the formula at Mass, says in the Greek peri pollwn, without any article. The only incontrovertible translation can be “for (concerning) many”. If it were necessarily to imply “all” then there would have to be a definite article, or the explicit phrase peri pantwn.

      The Church seeks to translate Christ’s words as they have been received, not as we would like them to be. That should never change.



      1. The translation of “peri pollwn” is closer to “for the many” as it does not exclude and allows for the meaning “for all” in Greek. In your article you hint that the Greek text in the scripture does not have the “definite article” and you reason that as a consequence the latin “pro multis” shall NOT be translated as “for the many”. That reasoning is missleading, because “pero pollwn” allows for the meaning “for all” also as written and does not exclude it.

        As a consequence the correct translation of the Latin “pro multis” – based on looking at the original Greek text which allows and does not exclude the “for all” meaning – shall be “for the many”. Would you agree?


      2. It is merely your assertion that peri pollwn is closer to “for the many”; and your authority is not greater than the unbroken tradition of the Church. You yourself actually agree with my argument: “for many” allows for and does not exclude “for all” necessarily. But neither does it require “for all” – far from it! Given that the definite article could so easily have been included in the Greek and never was, this is enough for me to accept “for many” as the reasonable translation.

        Actually all I really need is the authority of the Church which alone has the power to regulate the liturgy. The authority has spoken, and its position is more than reasonable.



  6. Thank You for this discussion!
    I think we can agree to disagree. My point is that the original Greek text does not exclude the meaning “for all” like other languages, such as English, German, Italian, Hungarian and Finnish do. In your article you falsly hint that the original Greek text does not support the translation of “pro multis” to “for the many” because it actually does. It is not my authority which says that, it is the Greek language which does not use that word as an “exclusion” (for many but not all) but instead as an “inlcusion”: for you and the “multitudes”.
    My message in short is that the German Bishops and the French Bishops should not be made fun of because they have a strong theological, lithurgical and traditional foundation to use “for all” and “for the many”.
    The Second Vatican council has put that power in their hands.


    1. Hi. A couple of things. I do not falsely hint anything. The Greek does not support the campaign to have “for all” as the definitive translation. The interpretation of “for all” is possible but not required by the text. It is all highly doubtful and the Church errs on the side of taking the words as they are written, not as some might wish to interpret them.

      I do not remember making fun of the German and French bishops. But be sure, Vatican II gave them no power whatsoever to impose their own meaning in the Church’s liturgy: the Eucharistic Prayers belong to the whole Church, and are part of the spiritual cement that binds the universal Church together. That a few bishops can decide to do their own thing is little short of appalling. It is based on a willful misreading of the texts of the Council, and we have suffered for nearly 50 years because of such misreading.



  7. I am sorry for the potentially insulting wording of “falsly hinting”!

    I meant that the Greek text – as is – supports the translation of “pro multis” to “for the many”. No need for a “definite article” to get that meaning.

    The translation “for the many” is correct and is more correct than the “for many” translation which contains “interpretation”.

    If “for all” is rejected as an interpretation, than “for many” shall be rejected too, and “for the many” shall be used.

    The Bishop Conferences are responsible for the translation of the liturgy to their own languages. So they decide how “pro multis” is translated… “for the many”, “for all”, “for many”… they carry the weight…


    1. How you can say that “for the many” is more correct of a phrase which has no definite article is beyond me. It is a possible translation; it is not the obvious one, nor a precise one. “For many” can hardly be rejected if it is the precise and exact translation. This is all very nice, but in the end it comes down to who has the authority to change tradition.

      Bishops’ conferences are responsible for drafting translations (if they wish to have them – vernacular is not obligatory), but they are always dependent on approval of the Holy See, which is to say, of the Holy Father. The Holy Father actually carries the weight and Vatican II did not change that – not least because it couldn’t.

      So let’s not argue about who one might want to have the power, or what we would like Vatican II to have said. It is fruitless: the last authority on earth is the Holy Father. That is not going to change.



  8. “For the many” is the better translation as it does not introduce what you called the “dynamic tension” iterpretation (caused by “for many”) which is not present in the original Greek.

    The Pope is the highest authority in matters of faith as you said. The pope and the councils of bishops are the care takers, explanators, and protectors of the Teaching. They are all responsible for what the correct translation of “pro multis” shall be. “For many”, or “For all”, or “For the many”…


    1. You keep saying the same thing, asserting that “for the many” is better for no adequate reason than that it suits you. So we had best end here.

      And while the bishops have an important role to play in the life of the Church, none individually or collectively has greater authority than the Pope. No council decree has force unless the Pope confirms it.



      1. I think we finally found common ground at least in one point: it is pointless to continue. I have written the reason 7 times above why “for the many” is the correct “explanation free” translation and you concluded that the reason I have given is that it suits me. It is not the reason I have given…
        8 is a perfect number:
        In the translation of “pro multis” to other languages, “for the many” is the best choice, as the original Greek text does not support the additional meanings (dynamic tension) associated with “for many”.
        Thank You for this discussion!
        Peace: Aron


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