Over the past 37 years, English-speaking Catholics became accustomed to hearing a particular translation of the Latin text for the eucharistic prayer: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all men so that sins may be forgiven.”
Since 1985, the word men has been omitted, but never the word all. Now, however, as many bishops are mandating liturgy workshops to prepare their clergy to use the new third typical edition of the Roman Missal, formerly referred to as the Sacramentary, priests are being commanded to replace the word all. Among the many infelicities that the new English text, slated to become normative in Advent 2011, holds in store for Catholics is the replacement of the translation of the Latin “pro vobis et pro multis” that we have known since 1973 as “for you and for all [men]” with the newly proposed “for you and for many.”
Why is this happening?
I recently returned from an international meeting (the general chapter of the Order of Preachers) in Rome, where the Eucharist was celebrated in the many languages of the participants. I was particularly interested to note how the phrase “pro multis” was rendered. What I discovered, in brief, is that in German, the Eucharistic prayer says “for you and for all” (“für euch und für alle”); in Spanish the text is “for you and for all men” (“por vosotros y por todos los hombres”); in Italian the text is “for you and for all” (“per voi e per tutti”); and in French the text is “for you and for the multitude” (“pour vous et pour la multitude”), which evokes the great multitude of the apocalypse in Rv 7:9 and 19:6. In none of these translations of the Latin “pro multis” is there the implication, unmistakable in the proposed English translation “for many,” of a less-than-universal divine will for salvation in the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. These translations, of course, were all made before the instruction Liturgiam Authenticam was issued in 2001 by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship.
Still, as recently as September 2010, the German bishops’ conference rejected the Roman request for a new translation. The conference explained that the present sacramentary was widely accepted by both priests and faithful—a fact of great merit—and that this reception must not be jeopardized by replacing “good German texts” with “unfamiliar new interpretations.”
Because the Latin language does not have articles, the phrase “pro multis” can be translated either as “for the many” or “for many.” In English, without the article, many is restrictive rather than universal, suggesting some—perhaps a handful, perhaps thousands, but certainly not a majority nor the totality of human beings.
In talking about the new Missal, many U.S. bishops have expressed the opinion that a literally exact translation of the Latin text will restore the depth of meaning of the Mass text. Really? In this case, a slavishly literal translation of the Latin looks very much like the kind of mistake that a Latin teacher would correct in the work of a high school student learning the ancient language. “Don’t be afraid to add the definite article if the words don’t make sense otherwise,” the teacher might well say.
The words do not make sense. They run contrary to the church’s constant tradition of the universal salvific will of Christ. This has been expressed with perfect clarity in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 605), which reads:
[Jesus] affirms that he came to “give his life as a ransom for many”; this last term is not restrictive, but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us. The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men [sic] without exception: “There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.”
There is no ambiguity in this explanation (and several similar texts might be cited from the Catechism). On the contrary, the need for such an explanation raises the alarm that the new Missal’s translation of “pro multis” as “for many” is simply too narrow theologically and would require a similar explanation.
Without one, the ecclesiological overtones of “for many” mirror a growing tendency among “restorationists” to reinvent the church as a faithful remnant of those untouched by the ravages of secularization and cultural change—those, in other words, who are perfectly comfortable in a pre-Vatican II world, preoccupied with its own sanctity and well-being. This runs counter, however, to the ecclesiology of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” of Vatican II as expressed in its first statement of principle: “Christ is the light of the nations...and desires to bring to all humanity the light of Christ.... since the Church...is a sacrament—a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race...” (No. 1).
In the May 1970 issue of Notitiae, the official periodical of the Vatican’s Congregation for Worship, the eminent Jesuit biblical scholar Max Zerwick gave an exegetical explanation for translating a Hebrew text that underlies Jesus’ words as “for all”:
Pro multis seems to have been used by Jesus himself. This is so because calling to mind the Suffering Servant who sacrifices himself, as in Isaiah, it is suggested that Jesus himself would fulfill what was foretold about the Servant of the Lord. The principal text in question is Isaiah 53:11b-12: “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.”...
Therefore the formula pro multis [for many] instead of pro omnibus [for all] in our texts (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28; Mk 14:24; Mt 26:28) seems to be due to the intended allusion to the Suffering Servant whose work Jesus carried out by his death....
The Semitic mind of the Bible could see that universality connoted in the phrase “for many.” In fact that connotation was certainly there because of the theological context. Yet, however eloquent it was for ancient peoples, today that allusion to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah is clear only to experts.
The new English translation of the liturgical texts, which some claim to be more accurate and more faithful, is in fact expressed in English that is stilted, verbose and (as in the present case) theologically inadequate. What is lost especially is the matter of evangelization. The celebration of Sunday Mass is the most effective vehicle of evangelization for the greatest number of people. In many people’s lives, it is the one chance the church has to reach them and to awaken their faith. Do church leaders want to signal that the grace of Christ is available only to the regular, traditional churchgoer? Is their intention to leave out the rest? More and more it looks as if the covert message beneath the written text is one of effective exclusion rather than antecedent inclusion of all humanity in God’s will for salvation.
In general, the new Missal’s language is of no help here. At a conference held in Raleigh, N.C., last October, the St. Mary of the Lake workshop presenters offered as an example of a supposedly significant improvement in the translation of the Mass the following Collect (for Dec. 17):
Filled with the divine gift, Almighty God, we beg you to grant our desire that, enkindled by your Spirit, we may blaze like bright torches before the face of your Christ when he comes.
The Latin teacher mentioned above might well say to the translator, “Come on now, you can do better than that. Who talks like that?” Well, it appears we all will have to in a matter of months. Unless…
Examples of the coming changes  to the Roman Missal are available from the U.S. bishops' conference. For more on America's coverage of the controversy click here . To read this article in Spanish click here.