Saturday, February 4, 2012


One of the most troublesome changes in the new English translation of the mass is the revised version of the words of consecration said over the chalice: “This is the chalice of my blood... which will be shed for you and FOR MANY.” Frankly I had never noticed that there was this discrepancy between the official Latin text and the English translation until I was chatting one day a few years ago with Francis Cardinal Arinze, the then Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship (talk about name dropping, huh!). He mentioned to me that his office had been getting some vehement written protests over the mistranslation of the Latin words of consecration which should read “for you and for many,” not “for you and for all.” So I wasn’t shocked when I saw that the new translation had gone back to the literal translation of the Latin.

But just why did the translators decide to change Christ’s words from “for all” to “for many?” Before answering the question let me point out a couple of assumptions about theology that grew out of the post-Vatican II era.

Assumption #1. For centuries Catholic Christians had been taught an image of a strict, authoritarian God whose main jobs seemed to be things like making rules, keeping count of sins and punishing people in purgatory or hell. Pope John XXIII and the Council fathers were at pains to show the world another side of God as the loving, compassionate and all-forgiving One. The fear of God drifted into the background in light of this new emphasis, and we children of the Vatican Council got comfortable dealing with only the “nice” aspects of God and of religion, and so have little patience with any negative concepts such as sin.

Assumption #2. We children of Vatican II also make an assumption based on the idea behind translating the mass into English: The texts for the mass and the other sacraments were translated into English so that everyone could understand easily what was going on. So we automatically assumed that everything in the liturgy must be immediately and completely comprehensible to the average person the first time it is read or heard. This was surely one of the assumptions driving the English translation of the mass texts that we’ve been using the past 40 years (in which so many rich prayers got simplified to the point of being downright pedestrian). This assumption is, not surprisingly, the basis for one of the chief criticisms leveled at the new translation: “All liturgical texts should be simple enough for everyone to understand immediately upon hearing them, but the new texts are sometimes complicated and difficult to understand.”

I’m mentioning these two assumptions in order to caution the reader that they might not necessarily be correct, or at least may get in the way of appreciating what's behind some of the new translations. With regard to Assumption #1, maybe some of the translations will point out certain theological concepts that have been pushed into the background in the past half-century, such as human sinfulness and our need for redemption. And, contrary to Assumption #2, maybe some of the new translations actually require (God forbid!) deep reflection and instruction over time before we can appreciate the more profound mysteries they express.


So, why DID the translators decide to change Christ’s words from “for all” to “for many?”
Remember Assumption #1 above, that everything must be understandable immediately and effortlessly? Well, that won’t work on this passage. We will need to do some work in order to do it justice. If you’re willing, let’s start with Sacred Scripture.


One of the so-called "Suffering Servant passages" (Isa 53:12), often seen as a prophecy about Christ, reads “he bore the sin of MANY, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Jesus echoes this passage in his preaching about humility: “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for MANY” (Mk 10:43b-45).

In his commentary The Gospel of Mark, (Sacra Pagina Series, Liturgical Press, 2002) John R. Donahue, S.J. says on page 313 “The [Greek] term pollon literally means ‘many’ but can also carry the sense of ‘all’ (e.g. ‘Many have been created but few will be saved’ (4 Ezra 8:3)).”

Now let’s take a look at the account of the last supper in Mark’s gospel, in which Jesus’ words over the cup are “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for MANY (hyper pollon.)” (Mk 14:24). Once again using Donohue’s commentary (p. 396) we find that although in English “many” is often equivalent to “not all,” in Aramaic and Hebrew “many” can be understood in these two passages from Mark as equivalent to “all.”

In an article in America magazine Msgr. Richard Antall reminds us that these words [“for many”] have been translated first from the original Aramaic our Lord spoke, then from Greek to Latin and from Latin to English. The Latin phrase “pro multis” never changed when the new order of Mass appeared after the Council. What changed was the translation of the Latin.
Partly, this new translation was based upon biblical studies that said that, for all practical purposes, the two phrases meant the same thing. (By the way, apparently Aramaic didn’t even have a specific word for “all.”)

In what seems to me to contradict Fr. Donahue, Msgr Antall writes that the problem was that the Greek preserved the distinction between “for many” and “for all.” He says that the “Greek of the New Testament did not express the equivalence that the liturgical translators insisted upon.” In other words, the Greek NT word does not have the sense of both “many” and “all.” This assertion is borne out in two Greek lexicons I consulted.

In any case, the official Latin version was and is still “pro multis” which means “for many” and is translated as such in the Greek, Syriac, Armenian and Slavic Oriental Rites of the Eucharist. Now the new English translation is in line with the official Latin. The other languages (e.g. French, Spanish and German) that had opted for the interpretive translation “for all” must also change their translation.

So, is this new translation saying that Christ did NOT die “for all”? Certainly, a lot the people in the pews must be wondering about this. And they aren’t the first Christians to reflect on the phrase and its implications.
The church’s greatest theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) comments on why the Gospels and the Mass say “for the many” and not “for all.” He makes a fine distinction which it is worth trying to follow. “The blood of Christ has been shed FOR ALL concerning its sufficient power [i.e. it certainly is intended to save all] but ONLY FOR THE ELECT as regards to its efficacy [i.e. in fact it does not necessarily have to work in every case].”

This is very far from the “double predestination” taught by John Calvin, who said that Jesus’ blood was the redemption of only an elect group, with the rest of the people basically created to go to hell. St. Thomas clearly says that “for many” does not imply that God does not desire salvation for all. IT SIMPLY RECOGNIZES THE POSSIBILITY THAT SOME WILL NOT BE SAVED.

This rubs many moderns the wrong way (remember our Assumption #2 above). In the back of their head lurks the idea that-- no matter what-- everyone is going to end up in heaven. This is the other extreme from Calvin’s “double predestination” (by which the elect are predestined to heaven and the others to hell).

No, what’s at issue is simply this: If hell doesn’t exist, that means that everyone is dragged into heaven whether they choose it or not. But that would mean that we are not truly free, and that human freedom would become a myth. Contrary to Assumption #1 we should not think that there are only happy endings in the universe: Our human freedom is a wonderful and a terrible thing, because we can lose our souls.

Perhaps, some suggest, the translators made a pastoral mistake by changing "for you and for all" and upsetting people who aren't trained to make fine theological distinctions. But, since the change is now in place I suggest (as I always do on this blog) that rather than complain about it we should see what we can learn from it instead.

What can we take away from the phrase “for many” which we will be hearing at mass for the rest of our lives?

One lesson that I’ve drawn from the new translation of “for many” is that it implies that my personal salvation is not automatic, but requires that I cooperate with God’s grace. It reminds me, in other words, that I mustn’t take my eternal salvation for granted, but rather that I must cooperate freely and responsibly with God’s grace at work in my heart.

A second lesson I can take away from “for many” is based on an idea I found in Fr. Donahue’s commentary cited above concerning Jesus’ offering of the chalice “for many” at the last supper: “The Markan Jesus understands his imminent death as bringing about a covenant community that will benefit all humans (p.396). But I am part of that covenant community (the "MANY") through which Jesus wants to benefit ALL of humanity. What am I doing to help extend Christ’s saving sacrifice from “the many” of which I am a part to “all people” according to Christ’s plan for the Kingdom? Do I extend myself toward others in Christ-like kindness and generosity? Do I bear witness to sacred joy by my demeanor? In what ways do I help make Christ present to more people every day?

If the new translation “for many” still rubs you the wrong way, try letting it remind you not to presume that you are automatically saved, and perhaps it can even encourage you as one of the "many" to go out and by your actions extend Christ's love to “all.”

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