The “All” and the “Many”

At stake are correct understandings of salvation, divine revelation, and liturgy

Pope Benedict XVI carries the Eucharist during Holy Thursday chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican April 5. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Benedict XVI carries the Eucharist during Holy Thursday chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican April 5. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)“The many bear responsibility for the all. The community of the many must be the lamp on the lampstand, a city on the hilltop, yeast for all. There 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 to responsibility for the whole.
Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to Archbishop of Freiburg, April 14, 2012.


Evidently, a number of German bishops maintain that the liturgical translation of the second consecration prayer should still read that this sacrifice is to be offered “for all,” and not for “many.” The German pope is dealing with stubborn German bishops. He promised those bishops he would write a short letter explaining why “for many” is to be used and not “for all.” Benedict XVI notes that they did very little, if anything, to explain the proper reasoning for the “for many” translation.

His letter, sent this past month, sets forth the reasons why “for many” is the proper wording. Basically, it is because those are the words Christ used as reported in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The pope again affirms that what Christ said is normative. The bishops’ office is to pass down not their opinions or interpretation but what was given to them all from the beginning.

In dealing with the reasons for this issue, Benedict recalls that, after the Second Vatican Council, some exegetes wanted to use the term “for all” because they thought it referred to Isaiah 53 concerning the Suffering Servant who was to suffer for all. It turns out this exegesis of the text has now been dropped by all scholars. However, a pastoral problem remains. People were led to understand that the words “for all” meant Christ died for everyone, so when the phrase “for many” is used, it seems the scope of salvation was narrowed from all to a few. This dubious understanding caused confusion for many Catholics.

The task to which the pope addressed himself was to explain clearly why the words now in all the canons, “for many,” were the proper ones. In doing so, he emphasized that Christ was indeed sent to save all men. That mission is clear. So why not say so? Here is where something remarkable about this pope comes in. He is so erudite and alert that he foresees problems, real problems, where most of us do not. The use of the term “for all” can easily come to undermine the way in which God, through Jesus Christ, intended to redeem us—that is, all men. If Christ simply came “for all,” it would be easy to make cases for salvation from sources that were not really related to salvation history beginning with Jewish revelation. In fact, this avenue has been a problem as the Holy Father (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) demonstrated in Dominus Iesus, the August 2000 declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church”.

So what about the use of “for many?” The first thing the pope emphasizes is that, at the Last Supper, Christ was talking to the Apostles about His own body and blood to be shed. If Christ had intended to use the word “all,” He would have. He must have had something else in mind. What was that? The pope approaches an answer by noticing that Luke and Paul, in their account of this action at the Last Supper, use the words “for you.” Thus, in the present Liturgy, the words say that Christ’s blood will be shed “for you and for many.” This makes Christ’s attention to be directly on the Apostles before Him. The universal mission of salvation is not some abstraction, nor is it apart from the plan of revelation set down for us in Scripture.

Rather, this plan is to be carried out in the manner the Father has decreed in sending Christ into the world to redeem us through the Cross. Perhaps some other way to accomplish this end was conceivable. But God directed this one way, which passed through the Apostles who were told to “Do this in memory of Me” and were later sent to teach the nations. The universality is there, but not apart from the centrality of the Mass as the proper way to worship the Father. If this grounding in the text is not maintained, it will be difficult to explain why the word “all” is not a better word. “Not even the most sensitive translation can take away the need for explanation.” Thus, “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.” We do not make up or interpret the text, then look at its words.


The faithful need to know reasons. Bishops (even German bishops) need to explain why such issues require clear episcopal explanations for the priests and faithful. They will understand if it is properly explained. Again, the issue is not whether Christ came to save all men. The issue is the way that Christ proposed to carry out this purpose. He did not proceed by abstractions, but by real persons, the “you and the many.” That is, the mission of the Church includes reaching each person in his individual, particular being. Revelation does not save abstractions or shadows. Before the Apostles left the upper room at the Last Supper, the plan of God was carried no further than them, the “you” to whom Christ addressed His words.

We might say that God’s plan was not a very good one if it depended on eleven relatively unknown fishermen in an obscure corner of the world. But that is just another way of saying we could have figured out a better way than God to accomplish what God had in mind. This view is touching, but highly dubious. So the Church insists the words of consecration be kept to the words Jesus used. This is what obliges the Church, whether some of her members like it or not. This insistence enables us to get at what is at stake in the “for all” translation.

“The Holy See has decided that in the new translation of the Missal, the words ‘pro multis,’ should be translated as they stand, and not presented in the form of an interpretation.” Neither Matthew nor Mark said “for the many,” but “for many.” The pope again adds he is aware of how the words can confuse. “I am aware that it poses an enormous challenge to those with the task of explaining the word of God in the Church, since to the ordinary church-goer it will almost inevitably seem like a rupture at the heart of the sacred. They will ask, did Christ not die for all? Has the Church changed her teaching? Can she do so? May she do so?” Maybe people are trying to undermine Vatican II with this insistence on “for many”?

Benedict continues: “‘For you’ covers the past and the future; it means me, personally; we, who are assembled here, are known and loved by Jesus for ourselves. So this ‘for you’ is not a narrowing down, but a making concrete, and it applies to every Eucharistic community, concretely uniting it to the love of Jesus.” Nothing that is saved is an abstraction. Salvation is through Christ but through men. This is the meaning of the Incarnation. 

Did the Lord die for all or just for the “many”? Clearly, for all. But the words are taken from the Gospel. “She (the Church) says words out of deference to Jesus’ own words, in order to remain faithful to him.” Yet, as people who recognize that revelation is directed also to our minds, we have to ask why Jesus said these words and not the ones that we might prefer? It is here that we refer back again to the Suffering Servant text from Isaiah 53. Christ reveals Himself in the line of the prophets and the fulfillment of their words. Jesus Himself is faithful to the words of Scripture.

If we speak, on the ontological plane, of why Jesus came, Benedict explains that the relation of many and all becomes clear. The many are to be sent to everyone concretely, to each person with a name, everyone who existed in the world. The many to whom Christ spoke are sent but not with their own ideas of how it should be done. They are to follow the example of Christ in establishing of the Eucharist in the first place. All men and women in all times are included in Christ, but not as abstractions or universals, but as individuals who must listen and accept what is handed down to them.

How does the Lord “reach” others? This is a “mystery,” but we are directly called to his table. The words that the sacrifice are “for you” are heard there, no place else. Christ suffered “for me.” Thus, the “many bear responsibility for all.” This community is the light, the hill, the yeast; it is the Church. Each individual has a vocation to the many as concrete persons. Finally, it seems that we are not “many,” but “few.” We seem, however, to be becoming smaller, not growing. The pope here cites the book of Revelation, of the “great multitude that no man can number.” 


So, why do we use “for many?” The Holy Father puts it this way: “We are many and we stand for all. So the words ‘many’ and ‘all’ go together and are intertwined with responsibility and promise.” In insisting on the accuracy of the translation, in disallowing an interpretation, it turns out that the pope is defending the very purpose and scope of revelation. We are all impatient with the Lord’s slowness with us. We want to save “all” by bypassing ourselves and by overlooking the way Christ provides for our sanctification through the sacrifice of the Mass.

Again, God does not save “all” apart from the concrete way Christ dealt with the Apostles and all of us. He addressed His words “for you and for many” because the all were not to be reached apart from “the you and the many.” What ultimate is saved is not an abstraction, an “all,” but each individual person in his concreteness. The “all” that Christ died for is the one that includes us in our concreteness, in our existence. This is what is at stake in the words “for you and for many.”

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).