The publication of the April letter from Pope Benedict XVI to the bishops of Germany has re-ignited a surprising controversy, namely that concerning the change of “for all” in the consecration narrative for the chalice at Mass back to “for many”. A translation of this letter can be found at the end of Sandro Magister’s report, though it requires careful reading as it is written for theologically-trained bishops. Kate at Australia Incognita has some good commentary on the issue. Here it has not so far been addressed, but exasperation at seeing an online petition seeking to restore “for many” has removed all hesitation. [Rather than provide a direct link to the petition, which requests three changes in total to the Missal, if you feel so moved to sign it or see it you can go to change.org and find it there. To be fair, the petition is couched in a respectful tone, and is not aggressive. But apart from its misguidedness, its ‘let’s be nice and hug-a-tree’ attitude is aggravating, because it implies that doctrines and their expression are matters of feeling and not of truth.]
In fact, the whole controversy is most surprising really. Until the post-conciliar reform to the Mass, the words for consecrating the chalice at Mass had always contained pro multis, “for many”. Never had the words pro omnibus, “for all”, been used. And when the reformed, or Novus Ordo, Mass was promulgated in the wake of the Council its official Latin text still had pro multis. The problem was that the translators, and not just the English ones, decided to change the literal, and only reasonable, meaning of these words when translating into English. Why? Most likely it was done to reflect a theological interpretation of the words, one which made the Church seem more “inclusive” (and inclusiveness is precisely the stated motive behind the online petition just mentioned).
Quite how that original post-conciliar translation was ever approved by Rome is still a question that I cannot answer satisfactorily. It was such an amazing break with a previously unbroken tradition, a tradition that spanned both east and west. Moreover, tinkering with the words of consecration, the crucial part of the Mass, is not something to be done lightly or without good cause.
To a large extent, and Kate at Australia Incognita (see above) touches on this point, the change was based on theories as to what would have been the equivalent Aramaic expression. Granting the argument that since Jesus would have spoken in Aramaic day-to-day, the Aramaic naunce thus should be the over-riding interpretive tool. This is problematic in more ways than one. For a start, it is not certain that Jesus would have said these particular words at the Last Supper in Aramaic. In the Passover meal, the crucial parts were said in Hebrew; it remains equally possible, perhaps probable, that Jesus said the words over the bread and chalice in Hebrew given its importance in his eyes. However, more fundamentally, an argument based on what we do not have [ie, a record of Jesus speaking these words in Aramaic] is the weakest argument of all, barely rising above guesswork and wishful thinking. For the fact is that the only record we have of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, in the gospels, is in Greek (e.g., Matthew 26:28, and Mark 14:24). The Greek of the gospels is clear enough: πολλων, ie “many”. The unbroken tradition in the Latin liturgy has been to translate the Greek exactly, πολλων becoming multis, not omnibus.
Surely (the argument goes) Jesus died for all, and so this is what Jesus really meant at the Last Supper; therefore, this meaning should be reflected in the words of the consecration. The French have employed a compromise, la multitude, “the many” which retains the literal translation of πολλων but introduces the definite article, urging us to infer that this is a euphemism for “all”. When translating from Latin this is justifiable since Latin has no articles; they are assumed according to context. However the Latin is itself a translation of the Greek gospels; there is a definite article in the Greek language but it is not present in the Greek gospel texts.
So often there is more than one level of meaning in what Jesus says and does. It holds true here. For Jesus is not just instituting the memorial of his sacrifice on the Cross at the Last Supper; he is also elaborating his identity. His Jewish disciples would have clearly heard in his use of “many” an echo of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, who was to make “many to be accounted righteous”, and who “bore the sins of many” [Isaiah 53:11-12]. This echo is lost to us when “many” is replaced by “all”.
Both the French and the English use of “for all” seems just a little patronising. It seems we need to be spoon-fed the ‘correct’ meaning, and to that end the text was changed to reflect the ‘correct’ meaning. But this interpretation of the text ends up doing away with the text altogether, and substituting another in its place. This is not honest. Furthermore, far from enriching our understanding, the use of “for all” has impoverished it. Interpretation is best left to catechesis and instruction: if something has a meaning not fully obvious then rather than eliminating it, it should be explained. Babies and bath water come to mind.
A lamentable result of the change to “for all” was to extinguish a fertile ambiguity and creative tension, which contained an implicit challenge to believers. Yes, Christ died for all humanity; salvation is a gift offered to all people. That is the clear teaching of the Church. However, to give a gift to all does not mean that all will receive it fruitfully. A gift is given, but it must also be received and accepted if it is to be of any use. You may give people money, but if one of them does not spend it or invest it then it has no effect for that person. The gift was certainly bestowed, but it bore no fruit: it was given in vain.
In Christ’s words in other places this ambiguity is fostered. While he has come for all people, he recognises that not all will accept him. He will be salvific and fruitful only for those who accept him and follow him. So we find that Jesus, in the high priestly prayer of his final days, prays not for all people, but only for those who have accepted him:
I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. John 17:9
Does this mean that Christ did not die for all people? No. It means that his death will only have effect for those who believe in him, with all that belief entails. Again, in St Matthew’s gospel, Jesus states that, as the Son of Man, he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” [Matthew 20:28]; and in the Letter to the Hebrews talks of Christ being “offered once to bear the sins of many” [Hebrews 9:28], both references again to the Suffering Servant. It seems evident that Jesus’ clear self-identification with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah was strong enough to lodge in the memory of the infant Church.
So let us be clear: the reference in these texts is not to those whom it is intended that Jesus die for, but to those for whom his death will have an effect. The one thing that Jesus cannot do is save those who reject the gift of salvation that comes in and through him. Salvation, and all grace, is precisely a gift, not an obligation. We are not puppets in the hands of God, but free agents who can choose to accept God or reject him. This freedom reflects the radical and sovereign freedom of God, in whose image we are made. There can be no love if there is no freedom. Without freedom, we have can certainly have duty, but not love.
So this deliberate and divine ambiguity is a challenge to believers to express their love in missionary enterprise enjoined on us in our Lord’s great commission, to “go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). In other words, at the very heart of the Church’s memorial of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is a divine impulse to include as many as possible among the “many”. The very tension we feel when we acknowledge the Christ died died for all and hear his indication that not necessarily all will benefit from the pouring out of his blood should move us not to eliminate the source of the tension and discomfort, but to answer its implicit call. If we feel uncomfortable at the thought that not all might benefit from the shedding of Christ’s blood, we need to ask ourselves what we have done to address this awful possibility? This is the truest inclusiveness, not that we merely assert without due warrant that all will benefit from the shedding of Christ’s blood, but that we work to make it a reality rather than a vain assertion.
Actually, we might ask ourselves another question: do we blithely assume that we ourselves are among the many? Do we hear the challenge to ourselves at each Eucharistic Sacrifice? Christ enacted for us the greatest form of love, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). In the very next verse Christ identifies these friends for whom he has died: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). So, have we always done what he has commanded us? Have we… really?
Ultimately, I suspect that lying beneath all the outrage at the correction of this crucial text found in the new Missal, is not just a hollow and sentimental desire for inclusiveness. It seems rather to give voice to the unacknowledged heresy that is so prevalent among modern Catholics: universal salvation. So much of the opposition to the correct translation of pro multis seems to reflect unease its opponents feel in the face of the reminder it voices of the inconvenient truth that hell exists and it is a real possibility for all humanity. Shutting our eyes and ears and shouting “all will be saved” repeatedly will not do away with this inconvenient truth. In fact, such an attitude is a subtle form of exclusiveness. Inasmuch as we refuse to acknowledge that salvation comes only to those who accept the gift of it, and so failing to play our part in the Church’s divine mission of including as much of the world as possible among the ‘many’ of the Body of Christ, by accepting Christ’s salvation, to that degree we exclude the world from the communion in the Body of salvation. If so, do we perhaps eat and drink judgement upon ourselves as we partake of the Eucharistic Body and Blood? (1 Corinthinans 11:29)
In the Pope’s letter, he makes the same conclusion. Affirming the identification of the “many” with the Church, Christ’s Body, Pope Benedict then tells the German bishops that,
The many have responsibility for all. The community of the many must be light on the lampstand, city on the hill, leaven for all. This is a vocation that concerns each one in an entirely personal way. The many, who we are, must have the responsibility for the whole, in the awareness of their mission.