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Vatican Corrects Controversial Translation

On October 17, 2006, a letter from Francis Cardinal Arinze signaled the end of a tragic part of recent liturgical history—something that has caused needless confusion, pain, and scandal. At long last, Rome is correcting a poor translation in the words of Consecration used at Mass.

The mistranslation does not affect the validity of the Consecration—a point that Cardinal Arinze stresses—but it is a mistranslation nonetheless, and it occurs in the formula for the Consecration of the precious blood.

The current English translation reads: “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. Do this in memory of me.”

The Latin original does not say that Christ’s blood will be shed “for you and for all” (in Latin, pro vobis et pro omnibus). What the text actually says is pro vobis et pro multis.

The phrase pro multis has been the subject of controversy for thirty years. It can be translated different ways—”for many,” “for the many,” and “for the multitude” are all acceptable English translations—but it does not translate to “for all.”

The reason for the mistranslation goes back to a decision the Holy See made following the Second Vatican Council.

English for Dummies?

The late 1960s were a turbulent time in society and in the Church. Vatican II mandated that the liturgy be revised and simplified, but the result was a much more ambitious revision.

The Council called for a greater liturgical use of the local vernacular languages (English, Italian, French, German, etc.). It did not call for a translation of the whole Mass, but that too came about.

To guide translators in their work, the Holy See issued a document known as Comme le Prevoit, which directed translators to avoid a literal translation of the Latin originals. Instead, they were to recast the meaning of whole passages in the local language, without a scrupulous attempt to bring across the individual Latin words. The resulting text, the document said, should be written in language suited “even [to] children and persons of small education” (15a). This was in keeping with a desire on the part of many translators to make sacred things accessible to as many people as possible. Although praiseworthy in itself, this desire, taken to extreme lengths, can lead to an oversimplification of sacred texts.

These directions gave translators not just a license but a mandate to produce translations that failed to reflect the precision and majesty of the Latin originals.

That’s why pro multis was rendered “for all.” The translators were afraid that if they rendered the phrase literally, then people might wonder whether Jesus shed his blood for all or only for some, contrary to Church teaching. Translators working in various languages decided to head off the question by telling us in the translation itself that Jesus shed his blood for all men.

Good Theology, Bad Translation

In so doing, the translators unwittingly ignited a controversy, part of which stems from the simple fact that the words of Consecration are mistranslated. That alone was bound to cause scandal on the part of the faithful. Some wondered, “If there is a mistranslation in the words of Consecration, then is the Consecration even valid?”

Catholic apologists pointed out that even though “for all” is not a literal translation of pro multis, that does not affect validity. The essential words for the Consecration of the Precious Blood are “This is . . . my blood,” as we see in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (26:28 and 14:24, respectively).

The statement that his blood was to be “poured out for many” is not essential, as its absence in Luke’s and Paul’s versions of the words of Consecration (Luke 22:20, 1 Cor. 11:25) suggests.

Some argued that the translation “for all” falsified the theology of this part of the Mass. The Roman Catechism that was released following the Council of Trent says that Jesus used the phrase “for many” in Matthew and Mark because he wished to signify that only “many” would actually receive the fruit of his redemption and be saved. If this is what he meant, then to change the words “for many” to “for all” could imply that all men will be saved.

To claim that people listening to the Mass would be misled on this point is something of a stretch. Properly catechized people will naturally interpret the statement that Christ’s blood will be shed “for all” to mean that he died for all men, without the implication that all men will be saved. Church teaching is clear that mortal sin exists and that hell is a real possibility. If someone harbors the idea that all men are saved, then he likely picked the idea up elsewhere, not from the translation of these two words in the Mass.

Others have suggested that Jesus had something else in mind when he said that he was to shed his blood “for many.” In Scripture the term “many” is often used to mean “all,” as when Paul states that “many” died on account of Adam’s sin (Rom. 5:15), just after he has finished speaking about how death spread to “all” men (Rom. 5:12) due to sin.

Still others have contended that Christ merely meant that he would die for all and that he was not commenting on how many would be saved as a result. Cardinal Arinze’s letter seems to suggest this interpretation, saying that “the formula ‘for all’ would undoubtedly correspond to a correct interpretation of the Lord’s intention expressed in the text.”

An examination of the evidence shows that the translation “for all” does not invalidate the Consecration. Nonetheless, those whose communion with the Church is shaky—or nonexistent—have proceeded to cast doubt on the validity of the Consecration or used the translation to generate needless fear and anxiety on the part of the faithful. Some have even been led into schismatic movements through their efforts.

The tragedy of the situation is that the whole controversy was unnecessary. If the phrase had been literally translated from the beginning, then the confusion would not have arisen.

Reform of the Reform

Comme le Prevoit noted that “after sufficient experiment and passage of time, all translations will need review” (1). After a quarter century of living with inadequate translations of the liturgy, the Holy See decided that the principles articulated in Comme le Prevoit were part of the problem.

In 2001 the Holy See released the document Liturgiam Authenticam which mandated that translations be done “in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases” (20).

The Holy See also released a new revision of the Roman Missal, which requires a new translation of the texts used at Mass.

That process is now underway, and in July of 2005 the Holy See wrote to the heads of bishops’ conferences asking for their views on how the phrase pro multis should be translated in the words of Consecration.

The results of this consultation were submitted to Pope Benedict XVI, who determined that the phrase should henceforth be translated literally and that translations like “for all” should be avoided.

Consequently, Cardinal Arinze, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote back to the heads of the bishops’ conferences, informing them of the decision and giving them a year or two to inform their people of the coming change.

What specific formula will be approved for English is not yet certain. It may well be “for many,” though “for the many” or “for the multitude” is also possible. Whatever translation is picked will be a far more literal translation than we have had for the last thirty years—one that will accurately reflect what is in the Latin original and that will remove the needless controversy and scandal that the current translation has generated.


Eucharistic Words at the Last Supper (RSV)

  • “Take, eat; this is my body . . . Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:26-28)
  • “Take; this is my body . . . This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” (Mark 14:22, 24)
  • “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me . . . This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)
  • “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:24-25)

Cardinal Arinze’s Letter

The following is the text of the letter from Cardinal Arinze to the bishops’ conferences on the proper translation of “pro multis.”

Congregatio de Cultu Divino et Disciplina Sacramentorum

Prot. N. 467/05/L Rome, 17 October 2006 Your Eminence / Your Excellency, In July 2005 this Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, by agreement with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to all Presidents of Conferences of Bishops to ask their considered opinion regarding the translation into the various vernaculars of the expression pro multis in the formula for the Consecration of the Precious Blood during the celebration of Holy Mass (ref. Prot. N. 467/05/L of 9 July 2005). The replies received from the Bishops’ Conferences were studied by the two Congregations and a report was made to the Holy Father. At his direction, this Congregation now writes to Your Eminence / Your Excellency in the following terms:

1. A text corresponding to the words pro multis, handed down by the Church, constitutes the formula that has been in use in the Roman Rite in Latin from the earliest centuries. In the past 30 years or so, some approved vernacular texts have carried the interpretive translation “for all,” “per tutti,” or equivalents.

2. There is no doubt whatsoever regarding the validity of Masses celebrated with the use of a duly approved formula containing a formula equivalent to “for all,” as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has already declared (cf. Sacra Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei, Declaratio de sensu tribuendo adprobationi versionum formularum sacramentalium, 25 Ianuarii 1974, AAS 66 [1974], 661). Indeed, the formula “for all” would undoubtedly correspond to a correct interpretation of the Lord’s intention expressed in the text. It is a dogma of faith that Christ died on the Cross for all men and women (cf. John 11:52; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Titus 2:11; 1 John 2:2).

3. There are, however, many arguments in favour of a more precise rendering of the traditional formula pro multis:

a. The Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24) make specific reference to “many” (psllwn = pollôn) for whom the Lord is offering the Sacrifice, and this wording has been emphasized by some biblical scholars in connection with the words of the prophet Isaiah (53:11-12). It would have been entirely possible in the Gospel texts to have said “for all” (for example, cf. 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.

b. The Roman Rite in Latin has always said pro multis and never pro omnibus in the Consecration of the chalice.

c. The anaphoras of the various Oriental Rites, whether in Greek, Syriac, Armenian, the Slavic languages, etc., contain the verbal equivalent of the Latin pro multis in their respective languages.

d. “For many” is a faithful translation of pro multis, whereas “for all” is rather an explanation of the sort that belongs properly to catechesis.

e. 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 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.

f. In line with the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam, effort should be made to be more faithful to the Latin texts in the typical editions.

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 for 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 (e.g, “for many,” “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.

With the expression of my high esteem and respect, I remain, Your Eminence/Your Excellency,
Devotedly Yours in Christ,
Francis Card. Arinze, Prefect

For Further Reading

  • The Pope, the Council, and the Mass, revised edition, by James Likoudis and Kenneth Whitehead (Emmaus Road, 2006)
  • Liturgical Question Box by Msgr. Peter J. Elliot (Ignatius, 1998)
  • Mass Confusion: the Do’s and Don’ts of Catholic Worship by James Akin (Catholic Answers, 1999)
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