"For many" or "for all"? Pope Benedict on the Translation of "pro multis"

Pope Benedict XVI wrote to the German Bishops explaining why the liturgical text "pro multis" is to be translated as "for many" (für viele) rather than "for all" (für alle), and giving guidelines for the catechesis that should prepare priests and laity for the revised translation.

This translation is made from the German text on the German Bishops' Conference website.

April 24, 2012: letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the members of the German Bishop's Conference, on the Question of the Translation of the Words spoken over the Chalice.

Pope Benedict wrote a letter dated April 14, 2012 to the member of the German Bishops' Conference. In this letter he takes up the matter of the appropriate way to translation the words pronounced over the chalice in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Holy Mass. The Bishops' Permanent Council discussed this letter on April 23, 2012. We here make public the text of the Holy Father's letter.

Your Excellency!

Venerable, dear Archbishop!

During your visit on 15 March 2012 you let me know that regarding the translation of the words “pro multis” in the canon of the Mass, there remains no consensus among the bishops of the German speaking regions. Apparently there is a danger that in the soon to be expected publication of the new edition of the “Gotteslob”, some parts of the German speaking regions want to maintain the translation “for all”, even though the German Bishops’ Conference had agreed to use “for many”, as was desired by the Holy See. I promised you to express myself in writing about this serious matter to head off such a division in the heart of our prayer. The letter which I hereby send through you to the members of the German Bishops’ Conference, I will also have sent to the other bishops of the German speaking regions.

Let me first speak briefly about the origin of the problem. In the 1960s, when the Roman Missal was to be translated into German under the responsibility of the bishops, there was an exegetical consensus that the words “the many” and “many” in Is. 53, 11 and following was a Hebrew expression signifying the totality, “all”. According to this view, the word “many” in the accounts of Matthew and Mark was a Semitism, and must be translated as “all”. This understanding was also applied to the actual Latin text that was to be translated, the “pro multis” of which refers back, by way of the Gospel accounts, to Is. 53, and therefore must by translated as “for all”. This exegetical consensus has since that time crumbled; it no longer exists. In the German translation of Sacred Scripture the account of the Last Supper says: “This is my Blood, the Blood of the Covenant,  which is shed for many” (Mark 14:24, cf. Matt. 26:28). This indicates something very important: The rendering of “pro multis” with “for all” was not merely a translation, but an interpretation, which certainly was and remains an interpretation with arguments in its favor, but which is an interpretation and not just a translation.

This mingling of translation and interpretation belongs in hindsight to the principles that immediately after the Council guided the translation of the liturgical books into the vernacular. One was conscious of how removed the Bible and the liturgical texts were from the language and thought of modern man, so that even when translated they would have to remain to a great extent incomprehensible to those taking part in the liturgy. In this new attempt the sacred texts would be opened up in translation to the participants of the liturgy and yet would remain very remote from their world, indeed, their remoteness would now be even more visible. Thus it seemed not only justified, but even obligatory to mingle interpretation with translation and so to shorten the way to the people whose hearts and minds were to be reached by these words.

To a certain degree the principle of translating original texts according to their meaning, not necessarily a word-for-word translation, remains justified. Since I frequently have to pray the liturgical prayers in various languages, I notice that one can often hardly find any common meaning between the various translations, and the common text that underlies them is often only distantly discernible. Into these translations have crept banalisations that are real losses. Thus over the years it has become ever clearly to me, also personally, that the principle of non-literal but structural equivalence as a translation guideline has its limits. Following such insights, the instruction on translation, Liturgiam authenticam, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 28 March 2001, once more brought to the fore the principle of literal equivalence, though of course without dictating a one-sided verbalism. The important insight that lies at the root of this instruction consists in the above-mentioned distinction between translation and interpretation. This is necessary both in regard to the Word of Scripture and in regard to the liturgical texts. One the one hand, the sacred Word should, as far as possible, be presented as itself, including its foreignness and the questions it bears in it; on the other hand, the Church has been given the task of interpreting – within the limits of our own understanding – so that the message which the Lord has meant for us may come to us. The most sensitive translation cannot replace interpretation: it belongs to the structure of Revelation that the Word of God is read in the interpreting community of the Church, that faithfulness and making now present are united. The Word must be there as itself, in its own form, which may be strange to us; interpretation must be measured by its faithfulness to the Word itself, but at the same time must make that Word accessible to the modern hearer.

In this context the Holy See has decided that in the new translation of the Missal the words “pro multis” must be translated as such and not immediately interpreted. The simple translation “for many” must replace the interpretative rendering “for all”. In this context I want to point out that in both Matthew and in Mark there is no article: not “for the many”, but “for many”. If this decision is, as I hope, quite understandable from the perspective of the fundamental relationship of translation and interpretation, I am still aware that it presents an enormous challenge for all who have the task of interpreting the Word of God in the Church. For regular patrons of the church this almost inevitably appears as a rupture at the heart of what is holy. They will ask: did Christ not die for all? Has the Church changed her teaching? Can and may she do so? Is this indicative of a reaction destructive to the heritage of the Council? We all know, through the experience of the last fifty years, how deeply the changes of liturgical forms and texts affects the souls of the people; how much must a change in the text on such a central point affect the people? Since this is so, when in view of the difference between translation and interpretation a decision was made for the translation “many”, at the same time it was decided that a thorough catechesis must precede the use of this translation in the individual language regions, a catechesis in which the bishops must make clear to their priests, and through them to their faithful, what the issue is really about. This preceding catechesis is the basic prerequisite before the new translation comes into force. As far as I know, such a catechesis has till now not been made in the German speaking region. The intention of my letter, dear brothers, is to ask you most urgently to develop such a catechesis, to discuss it with the priests, and at the same time make it available to the faithful.

In such a catechesis one must first very briefly explain why after the Council the word “many” was translated in the Missal by “all”: to unambiguously express the universality of the salvation that comes from Jesus, as he willed it. This leads of course immediately to the question: If Jesus died for all, why did he say “for many” at the Last Supper? And why do we stick to these institutional words of Jesus? To this we must add that Jesus, according to Matthew and Mark, said “for many”, but according to Luke and St. Paul he said “for you”. This apparently narrows the circle even more. But this is exactly the point from which we can arrive at the solution. The disciples know that the mission of Jesus extends beyond them and their circle, that he came to gather together the scattered children of God from all the world (cf. Joh. 11:52). This “for you” makes the mission of Jesus very concrete for those present. They are not some anonymous elements of a vast totality, but everyone knows that the Lord died precisely for me, for us. “For you” reaches into the past and into the future; I have been named very personally; we, who are here gathered, are known and loved as such by Jesus. In this way, “for you” is not a narrowing of the mission, but a way of making it concrete, that is valid for every community that celebrates the Eucharist, that unites itself concretely to the love of Jesus. the Roman Canon united the two Biblical readings in the words of consecration, saying accordingly: “for you and for many”. During the reform of the liturgy, this formulation was then adopted for all the Eucharistic prayers.

But now once again: Why “for many”? Did the Lord not die for all? That Jesus Christ, as the Son of God made man, is the man for all men, the new Adam, belongs to the fundamental certainties of our faith. I would like to call to mind just three passages in Scripture indicative of this: God delivered his Son “up for us all,” Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans (Rom. 8:32). “One man died for all,” he says in the Second Letter to the Corinthians about the death of Jesus (2 Cor. 5:14). Jesus has “offered himself as a ransom for all”, it is said in the First Letter to Timothy (1 Tim 2:6). But even more then must we ask again: If this is clearly so, why does the Eucharistic Prayer say “for many”? Well, the Church adopted this formulation from the institution narrative of the New Testament. She says it thus out of respect for the Word of Jesus, to remain faithful to him even in his very words. Respect for the Word of Jesus is the reason for the formulation of the Eucharistic Prayer. But then we ask: why did Jesus say it this way himself? The true reason for that is that Jesus, in this way, showed himself as the servant of God of Isaiah 53, identified Himself as the form that the word of the prophet was awaiting. Respect of the Church for Jesus’ Word, Jesus's fidelity to the word of the “Scripture”, this double faithfulness is the concrete basis for the formulation “for many”. We join in this chain of reverent fidelity by the literal translation of the words of Scripture.

As we have seen, that the “for you” in the Lucan-Pauline tradition does not narrow, but rather makes concrete, so we can now recognize that the dialectic of “many” – “all” has its own significance. “All” moves on the ontological level – the being and action of Jesus includes all of mankind, past, present and future. But in fact, historically in the concrete community of those who celebrate the Eucharist, he comes only to “many”. In this way we can see an threefold significance in the relationship of “many” and “all”. Firstly, it should mean for us, who are allowed to sit at his table, surprise, joy and gratitude, that he has called me, that I may be with Him and may know Him. “Thanks be to the Lord, who has called me out of mercy into His Church…” [From a hymn of the “Gotteslob”] Then, secondly, this is also a responsibility. How the Lord reaches the others – “all” – in his own way remains ultimately a mystery. But without a doubt it is a responsibility to be called by him directly to his table, so that I may hear: for you, for me has he suffered. The many bear responsibility for all. The community of the many must be the light on the candlestick, the city on the mountain, leaven for all. This is a calling that concerns everyone personally. The many, who we are, must be conscious of their mission to be responsible for the whole. Finally, a third aspect may be added. In modern society we have the feeling that we are not at all “many”, but very few – a small swarm that is becoming ever smaller. But no – we are “many”: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues,” the Revelation of John says (Rev. 7:9). We are many and we stand for all. In this way both words, “many” and “all”, belong together and stand in relationship to each other in responsibility and promise.

Your Excellency, beloved brother bishops! With all this I wanted to indicate the basic content of the catechesis, with which priests and laity should be prepared as soon as possible for the new translation. I hope that all this can serve a more profound celebration together of the Eucharist and thus enter into the great task that lies before us in the “Year of Faith”. I hope that the catechesis will soon be presented and thus become part of the liturgical renewal for which the Council worked from its very first session.

With an Easter blessing, I remain in the Lord,


Benedictus PP XVI.

First Priestly Blessing

It is commonly held that a priest can offer a "first blessing" for the entire first year as a new priest. Sometimes it is said that there is a plenary indulgence attached to receiving a blessing from a priest within the first year after his ordination to the priesthood. I have been looking for the origin and basis of this tradition, but haven't found much. Maybe one or another of my readers know something about this.

The two questions I have are: first, is the notion that there is something special attached to a priest's blessing within his first year of priesthood based on (1) a pious tradition, (2) some liturgical tradition, or (3) a determination made by some pope?

Second, what is that "something special" that is attached to the blessing of a new priest within the first year of ordination (if not an indulgence)?