I have been celebrating the Eucharist in German since moving to Münster from Louvain, Belgium, in December 2006. I came to improve my German and to do research for my New Testament studies. In the course of that time, I’ve had several discussions on the inclusive meaning of the Latin words pro multis in the Eucharistic Prayer, which are used during the consecration of the chalice.

The English equivalent for the Latin phrase is “for many.” Yet for almost four decades, since the Roman Missal of Pope Paul VI was promulgated, this Latin phrase has been rendered “for all” in the English version: “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 so that sins may be forgiven” [emphasis added].

An important area of discussion among German Catholics has to do with a letter sent by Francis Cardinal Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, to presidents of the world’s conferences of bishops on October 17, 2006. Cardinal Arinze concluded his letter with the instruction: “The bishops’ conferences of those countries where the formula ‘for all’ or its equivalent is currently in use are therefore requested to undertake the necessary catechesis of the faithful on this matter in the next one or two years to prepare them for the introduction of a precise vernacular translation of the formula pro multis (for example, ‘for many,’ or per molti, etc.) in the next translation of the Roman Missal that the bishops and the Holy See will approve for use in their country.” According to Arinze, this new translation is forthcoming.

In response, the following year German theologians and biblical scholars published a collection of essays, edited by Magnus Striet, titled Gestorben für wen? Zur Diskussion um das “pro multis” (“Died for Whom? The Discussion on the ‘Pro multis’”).

An important part of the discussion of the precise meaning of the German or English translations of the words of consecration has had to do with the effect the new formulation (“for many” rather than “for all”) might have on listeners. Because the issue involves the meaning of the words used at the consecration, it is important to examine what the various texts and their scriptural sources tell us about the inclusive nature and extent of salvation.

Since the promulgation of the Missal of Pope Paul VI in 1970, many Western European language groups have adopted the phrase “for all” in their translation of pro multis. Among these are the Dutch, German, English, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish translations. One exception is the French, which uses the Latinate equivalent of “for many,” la multitude. As far as the English language is concerned, there is an important difference between many and all. “Many” often excludes; “all” does not.

Cardinal Arinze is correct that “the Roman Rite in Latin has always said pro multis [for many] and never pro omnibus [for all] in the consecration of the chalice.” Still, it should not be out of bounds for theologians and Scripture scholars to look at the long history of the Latin phrase pro multis in the Roman Rite and to compare it with similar formulations in other longstanding liturgical traditions.

According to Albert Gerhards, writing in Gestorben für wen?, some of the most ancient liturgical sources, the texts of the apostolic tradition, do not use the phrase “for many.” He notes that while it does appear in the texts of the Syrian tradition, it was not used in the “old” Egyptian tradition. There, the phrase “for you” in the plural was used. He argues further that the Byzantine and Roman liturgies combined two different texts to create the current form—namely, “for you [plural] and for many.” The clear implication is that in the early apostolic tradition, there were multiple versions of the Eucharistic consecration, and that the Latin of the Roman Rite is not the oldest form.

The words of consecration in the Roman Rite clearly rely on the scriptural words of institution at the Lord’s Supper. Yet that does not allow us to conclude that the two parts of the consecration (over the bread and over the chalice) are an exact translation of the words of Jesus. This leads to a further question about the original Greek texts and the way they were translated into Latin and other languages.

It is important to keep in mind that the language of the New Testament was primarily Koine Greek. Promoted by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC for common use among the provinces of his empire, it was still in use during the time of Jesus. Whether he used this Greek in his ministry is not the issue here. What is important is that almost all the earliest extant manuscripts of the New Testament were written in Koine Greek. This indicates that Latin was not the earliest vernacular language used by the early Christians. From Acts (2:1–4; 10:44–46) and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (14:17–19; 12:10, 28–30), we know there was a demand for vernacular languages and the gift of tongues in the church’s earliest efforts at evangelization. Furthermore, we know that the early Christians did not celebrate the Eucharist in huge basilicas but in small house churches (see Acts 12:12; 16:32; Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; etc.). The biblical evidence indicates that vernacular languages other than Latin were part of the church’s earliest tradition.

Of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, only four contain the words of institution. The pertinent texts relating to consecration of the chalice include Mark 14:24, Matthew 26:28, Luke 22:20, and 1 Corinthians 11:25. Among the four texts, only two, Mark and Matthew, employ the Greek word “many,” and the prepositions used in the two texts differ. In Mark it is hyper pollōn: “on behalf of/for the sake of/for many.” In Matthew it is peri pollōn, “concerning/regarding many.” The two prepositions suggest different intentions and insights. Neither the Latin pro multis nor the English “for many” can be considered exact translations of the earliest Greek texts. Furthermore, neither Luke nor 1 Corinthians uses the term “many.” Finally, in none of the four texts do we find an exact equivalent for the English phrase “for all.”

A note about the chronological order of these four texts: The composition of 1 Corinthians is commonly dated earlier than Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Although neither Paul nor Luke employed the word “many,” the respective texts clearly imply it. For instance, Paul says he received from the Lord and from tradition the celebration of the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23). In the following verses, he writes, “This is my body that is for [or ‘on behalf of’] you [hyper hymōn].” On the other hand, Luke (22:19) expresses this even more clearly: “This is my body, which is given up for you [hyper hymōn].” In all the institution texts, the “you” is plural. But neither Paul nor Luke has the phrase “Take this, all of you, and eat it,” the phrase used at the consecration of the bread in the Roman Missal. In fact, this particular formula is closer in context to Mark 14:22 and Matthew 26:26.

What conclusions might we draw from comparing the four New Testament texts and the words of consecration in the Roman Missal? With regard to the latter, there is no exact equivalent—whether of “for many” or “for all”—in any of the New Testament texts. The phrases of consecration found in the Roman Missal are an amalgam—a combination and integration—of related motifs in the institution at the Lord’s Supper. As Gerhards correctly notes, “No Eucharistic Prayer before the Reformation cites exactly any one of the four biblical texts.” That is to say, none of the Eucharistic Prayers in the early apostolic tradition used the literal translation of any of the four aforementioned texts. Of course, one can argue that the evangelists and Paul were not writing liturgical texts. Rather, they were transmitting the church’s memory of the Lord’s Supper. The very variety of New Testament texts leads to a further question about how the phrase “for all” came to be included in so many translations of Paul VI’s Roman Missal.

It is presupposed in biblical studies that a translation of any text must be considered with reference both to the text itself and to the context. That is, one should not read a verse or passage in the Bible in isolation. As Cardinal Arinze rightly says, “It would have been entirely possible in the Gospel texts to have said ‘for all’ (see, for example, Luke 12:41); instead, the formula given in the institution narrative is ‘for many,’ and the words have been faithfully translated thus in most modern biblical versions.” The main argument in the cardinal’s letter, it would seem, has to do with faithfulness and loyalty to the Latin of the Roman Missal. As indicated, however, no text from the early apostolic tradition, in Latin or any other language, was a literal translation of the Greek New Testament texts. Nor do the New Testament texts regarding the words of institution at the Lord’s Supper all use the same words. Finally, the early Christians used their own vernacular languages for evangelization and worship. As a result, there were different texts in the Egyptian, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Byzantine, and Roman traditions for the Eucharistic Prayers and consecration.

The New Testament is not hesitant to proclaim that God’s salvific plan is once and for all, that it is not only for those who willingly participate in the Eucharist but for all men and women of all time. This is clearly reflected in the Christian theology of God’s creation and creative works. Paul himself was quite vigorous in expressing this: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one [Christ] has died for all [hyper pantōn]” (2 Cor 5:14; see Rom 5:12, 15). The Johannine Jesus, the Good Shepherd, prays not only for his own sheep, but for those who do not belong to him (John 10:16; see 3:17). The first letter to Timothy speaks of God’s desire to save all men and women (pantas anthrōpous) through the death of his son, Jesus—“God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:4–7; see. Heb 2:9). As Thomas Söding observes in Gestorben für wen?, “This mystery of faith is celebrated in the Eucharist.” In no other place in the New Testament does this Christian theology speak more clearly than in 1 John (2:2; 4:10): “He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for our sins only but also for the sins of the whole world.” In the context of a liturgical celebration, then, should we not pray to include all God’s peoples?

No matter how hard one attempts to interpret the theological inclusiveness of the term pro multis in the Roman Missal, most hearers are likely to understand it in a restrictive sense. While Cardinal Arinze’s letter indicates that the bishops “are therefore requested to undertake the necessary catechesis of the faithful” concerning the universality of salvation, this task will prove more difficult with the new directive. In the context of ecumenical gatherings, pro multis is likely to sound exclusivist and marginalizing. Think of an interfaith family in which one of the spouses is neither Catholic nor Christian: What would he or she feel when hearing the new translation? Lumen gentium boldly states: “Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men [and women] life and breath and all things, and as Savior wills that all men [and women] be saved.” God surely works in mysterious ways.


Read more: Letters, January 16, January 30, February 13, & February 27, 2009

Related: It Doesn't Sing: The Trouble with the New Roman Missal, by Rita Ferrone

Rev. Toan Joseph Do, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, is a doctoral candidate at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. He is doing research at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster.
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