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“Pro Multis”

“Qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur.” —The words of the consecration of the wine in the Mass, meaning literally “(my blood) which is poured out for you and for many”

“But when He added pro multis He wanted that there be understood the rest of those chosen (electos) from the Jews or from the Gentiles. Rightly therefore did it happen that for all (pro universis) were not said, since at this point the discourse was only about the fruits of the Passion which bears the fruit of salvation only for the elect.” —Roman Catechism (the Catechism produced after the Council of Trent), 1566

“That consensus is shattered.” Pope Benedict XVI, letter to German bishops. April 14, 2012, referring to the consensus after the Second Vatican Council that the words “pro multis” could be better translated as “for all” instead of “for many”

A Decisive Letter

By now many of you will have heard that, just after Easter, Pope Benedict, though resting at Castel Gandolfo, picked up his pen to write a decisive letter to the German bishops’ conference.

In his letter, dated April 14 (copy below both in German and in English translation), Benedict insisted that the German-speaking bishops translate the Latin words “pro multis” (literally: “for many”) used at the moment of the consecration of the wine during Mass (in both the old and new liturgy) literally as “for many” (“für viele“) and not “for all” (“für alle“), as they had been doing.

This action — both the way the Pope acted and the argumentation he used — has theological, philosophical, liturgical, ecclesial and moral implications; one could write a dissertation about it, and I am sure some will, someday.

But, essentially, for our purposes here and now, it means three things:

(1) that Pope Benedict, though now 85, and obviously more tired than he was a few years ago, is still able to take decisive action, and this suggests we may expect more decisive actions from him in future, despite his age;

(2) that Benedict continues to employ dialogue, reason, and persuasion as his preferred tools in contested matters; rather than simply saying “translate it this way, and that’s final,” he spends considerable time and effort to engage his interlocutors (the German bishops) and explain to them why the words should be translated in the way he wishes; and

(3) that Benedict continues, through a process of slow steps — too slow for many traditionalists, too fast for most progressives — to restore traditional Catholic teaching, in keeping with his prime task as Pope of defending the depositum fidei (“deposit of the faith”) against temptations to innovate — powerful temptations, which have in the post-conciliar period swayed many to give up what was handed down in order to keep in step with a presumed “spirit of the times” which has often turned out to be a spirit of confusion and of rejection of key Catholic doctrines, despite protestations to the contrary.

In short, Benedict is still decisive, he still has a powerful, reasoning mind, and seems today, in fact, more intent than ever to defend the deposit of the faith.

But I would stress one point in this regard: those who fear “the conservative Pope,” fearing that burdens too heavy to bear will once again be placed upon the shoulders of the faithful, should know that Benedict, pyschologically and pastorally, has never been, and is not now, a cruel person, a rigorist who would demand that people obey his commands, or even Church rules, without understanding them, their goal and value, and therefore without assenting to them in conscience; rather, as a professor and as a pastor, he values reason, and the assent of reason, as a complement to willing assent to Church teaching. This is the essence of his pastoral method.

He privileges the person, and that aspect of the person which is most precious, the conscience, and continues to attempt to form that conscience, even in our age of considerable confusion, and ignorance.

And the goal of this effort is not to make people submit to a distant, incomprehensible “diktat,” but to defend and restore a form of Christian worship, and of Christian life, which brings to men and women the graces of clarity, truth, reason, and, ultimately, blessedness, which is the true name of happiness.

So when Benedict acts to restore an element of Catholic tradition, he is not acting to curtail human joy, but to protect true human joy, though not many seem to understand this, and so criticize him sharply.

That said, the main point has been made.

It remains to be said that Benedict was so anxious to persuade the German bishops of the rightness of this translation, that he took the time to explain the whole post-conciliar period, in miniature, rather than simply quoting the Roman Catechism, which dealt with this matter in a quite clear way 450 years ago.

This is what the Roman Catechism, promulgated after the Council of Trent says about the words “pro multis“:

“But the words which are added for you and for many (pro vobis et pro multis), were taken some of them from Matthew (26: 28) and some from Luke (22: 20) which however Holy Church, instructed by the Spirit of God, joined together. They serve to make clear the fruit and the benefit of the Passion. For if we examine its value (virtutem), it will have to be admitted that Blood was poured out by the Savior for the salvation of all (pro omnium salute sanguinem a Salvatore effusum esse); but if we ponder the fruit which men (homines) will obtain from it, we easily understand that its benefit comes not to all, but only to many (non ad omnes, sed ad multos tantum eam utilitatem pervenisse). Therefore when He said pro vobis, He meant either those who were present, or those chosen (delectos) from the people of the Jews such as the disciples were, Judas excepted, with whom He was then speaking. But when He added pro multis He wanted that there be understood the rest of those chosen (electos) from the Jews or from the gentiles. Rightly therefore did it happen that for all (pro universis) were not said, since at this point the discourse was only about the fruits of the Passion which bears the fruit of salvation only for the elect (delectis). And this is what the words of the Apostle aim at: Christ was offered up once in order to remove the sins of many (ad multorum exhaurienda peccata Heb 9:28); and what according to John the Lord says: I pray for them; I do not pray for the world, but for those whom you gave to Me, for they are Yours (John 17:9). Many other mysteries (plurima mysteria) lie hidden in the words of this consecration, which pastors, God helping, will easily come to comprehend for themselves by constant meditation upon divine things and by diligent study. (translated from the Roman Catechism, Part II, ch. 4 (264.7-265.14), taken from the original Latin in Catechismus Romanus seu Catechsimus ex decreto Concilii Tridentini ad parochos …. Editio critica. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1989, p. 250. Cf. The Catechism of the Council of Trent. Trans. John A. McHugh & Charles J. Callan. Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.: New York, 1934, pp. 227-28.)

Here is some background to this story:

On October 17, 2006 — so, more than 5 years ago — the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments sent a circular (No. 467/05/L) to Presidents of Episcopal Conferences on the question of the translation of “pro multis.” It noted that a 1974 declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had pointed out that “for all” is not a literal translation of “pro multis“, nor of the words “???? ??????” in Matthew 26:28 or “???? ??????” in Mark 14:24. “For all,” it said, is not so much a translation as “an explanation of the sort that belongs properly to catechesis.” It then directed the Episcopal Conferences to make an effort, in line with the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam, to translate the words pro multis “more faithfully.”

So the Pope was dealing with an issue that the Vatican had asked the German bishops to address more than five years ago.

In English-speaking countries, the revised translation was ordered to be used from 2011 on, and this has taken place.

Some German-speaking episcopal conferences have been more reluctant to make the change. Now, in his April 14, 2012, personal letter to the German bishops, Pope Benedict XVI stresses the importance of using the literal translation.


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  • noelfitz

    Dr Moynihan,

    thank you for this article.

    But I am simple minded, “multis” is a translation of ??????, POLLWN, which means “many” not “all”.

    He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many (??????, POLLWN). Mk 14:24.

    for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many (??????, POLLWN) for the forgiveness of sins.Mt 26:28.

    Here we see clearly that Jesus said “many” not “all”.

    But did Jesus die for all or for many? That is a different question.