In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, we profess our belief each Sunday in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” The word “catholic” in Greek means “universal”. Our initial impression, then, would be that the “Catholicism” is for everyone. There are some modern factors that cloud that impression, however. One confusing factor is the relativism that is so prevalent in our culture. One who ascribes to relativism believes there is no absolute and thus no universal (i.e. catholic) truth or morality and thus no universal religion. This might be expressed as, “Whatever you think is good and true–that is good and true for you. Whatever I think is good and true–that is good and true for me.” Another confusing factor has recently appeared in the heart of Catholic worship, in the Eucharist. For forty years the words of consecration, the very heart of the Eucharistic prayer, were translated into English as, “this is the cup of my Blood, which will be shed for you and for all…”. Now at Mass we hear, “this is the chalice of my Blood, which will be poured out for you and for many…”. Should we take from this change in the Eucharistic Prayer that the relativists are right, that Catholicism is not truly universal, but only good and true for some?
Pope Benedict's teaching on “pro multis”
Fortunately, Pope Benedict teaches us beautifully on this point. We will consider his explanation given in a letter to German-speaking bishops on April 14, 2012. The entire letter is beautiful, clear and worth reading. I would like to draw out a few points here that can help us in our understanding and living the Catholic faith.
Revelation always requires an interpeter
The first point is that the literal translation of the Latin pro multis is “for many”. Why then was it translated for so many years as “for all”? Pope Benedict explains that a style of translation was embraced after the Second Vatican Council that catered to a concern for the common person's understanding. The text, in Latin, had been remote from people's understanding, but if only presented in a direct translation, the implementors of the new liturgy feared the text would remain remote. Thus, to aid in the understanding of the liturgical prayer in modern languages, the translators incorporated interpretation into the translation. So, as an example, while it was not a problem that the words of consecration were pronounced in Latin as pro multis, there was a fear that if the words were translated directly into English as “for many” there would be a misunderstanding about the Church's theology. Instead of entrusting the task of interpretation to the Church's ministers (bishops, priests, catechists, parents), the decision was made to incorporate the interpretation into the translation.
This is the first key point Pope Benedict helps us understand: the need for interpretation is always a part of revelation. That is why God ordained teachers (Peter and the Apostles and now their successors, the Pope and bishops) and guaranteed that they would provide an authentic interpretation (not even the gates of hell will prevail against the rock of Peter). Pope Benedict expresses it in this way,
Not even the most sensitive translation can take away the need for explanation: it is part of the structure of revelation that the word of God is read within the exegetical community of the Church – faithfulness and drawing out the contemporary relevance go together. The word must be presented as it is, with its own shape, however strange it may appear to us; the interpretation must be measured by the criterion of faithfulness to the word itself, while at the same time rendering it accessible to today's listeners.
A corollary to this point is that we must keep growing in faith. This shows the need for ongoing formation. When there are things we do not understand, it is our responsibility to seek an authentic interpretation by looking to the Church's teaching. We can start with the Catechism and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. We can ask our parish priests who can explain things for us in terms of the teaching of the Magisterium (the Pope and the bishops). We can look for explanations in the writings of the Popes which can easily be found on the Vatican website. It is the Church's responsibility to provide an interpretation and the individual Christian's responsibility to seek it out and make the effort to understand it. This is part of the structure of revelation.
“For many” still means “for all”
Pope Benedict goes on in his letter to the German bishops to help us understand whether the change to “for many” indicates that Jesus did not die for all. He writes,
Did the Lord not die for all? The fact that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the man for all men, the new Adam, is one of the fundamental convictions of our faith. Let me recall just three Scriptural texts on the subject: God 'did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all', as Paul says in the Letter to the Romans (8:32). 'One has died for all,' as he says in the Second Letter to the Corinthians concerning Jesus' death (5:14). Jesus 'gave himself as a ransom for all,' as we read in the First Letter to Timothy (2:6).
Certainly Jesus Christ died for all. Cardinal Francis Arinze gives a further explanation on this point in his letter dated October 17, 2006, sent to the US Bishops,
The expression 'for many,' while remaining open to the inclusion of each human person, is reflective also of the fact that this salvation is not brought about in some mechanistic way, without one’s own willing or participation; rather, the believer is invited to accept in faith the gift that is being offered and to receive the supernatural life that is given to those who participate in this mystery, living it out in their lives as well so as to be numbered among the 'many' to whom the text refers.
Here Cardinal Arinze makes it clear that Jesus died for all, but it is up to us to accept the gift of salvation.
Pope Benedict teaches us more of the beautiful meaning behind the phrase of Jesus, “for many”. It should be noted, first, that the account of Jesus's words at the Last Supper are different in Matthew and Mark's accounts in contrast with Luke and Paul. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus says, “for many” while in Luke and Paul He says, “for you.” The Roman Mass combined these words into “for you and for many.” When we read “for you” we do not understand that the Precious Blood of Jesus is shed only for the Apostles who were present at the Last Supper. Rather we see the personal way Jesus applies His Precious Blood to them. Likewise, the saving power of His Precious Blood is still applied to each one present at the Eucharistic Liturgy, who can hear those words personally addressed them. We can each stand at the foot of the Cross and rightly hear Jesus tell us that He is pouring out His Blood for me.
Pope Benedict then turns the love of Jesus spoken to each one personally at the Mass into a challenge. Jesus says, “I pour out my Blood for you and for many but it is your responsibility to ensure that it reaches all.” Pope Benedict expresses the challenge in this way,
How the Lord in his own way reaches the others – 'all' – ultimately remains his mystery. But without doubt it is a responsibility to be directly called to his table, so that I hear the words 'for you' – he suffered for me. The many bear responsibility for all. The community of the many must be the lamp on the lamp-stand, a city on the hilltop, yeast for all. This is a vocation that affects each one of us individually, quite personally. The many, that is to say, we ourselves, must be conscious of our mission of responsibility towards the whole.
We are not few but many!
Finally Pope Benedict uses the “for many” to encourage us. Sometimes we do not feel like “many” we only feel like “some” or “few”. Especially as our church communities dwindle in size, we must take up the responsibility to extend Jesus's life-giving death to others, but we must also remember that we are part of “many.” Indeed, St John reports in the book of Revelation that he saw, “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb…” (Rev 7:9) We must remember that even when only a few are present at Mass, we are always in the presence of many, even a multitude of saints who have gone before and are united with us in the Church.
Indeed, Catholicism is not merely for a few, for some or for many–it is for all, a universal religion that has the power to transform and elevate all that is authentically human and unite it with the divine.