It seems that the most controversial change in the minds of many people (Catholic or not) is that of the word “all” to the word “many.” The old translation stated that Christ’s Blood was shed “for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.” This is an accurate theological statement: Christ is “the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) But it was not so accurate a translation of the Latin. So now, when the priest says “for you and for many,” some might wonder if the Church is denying that Christ died for everyone. If we know that Christ died for all, how can we say that He poured out His Blood only for many? To address this issue properly, we need to examine the Latin and Scripture more closely.
First, the Latin word in the prayer is multis, which means “many” and not “all.” (The word omnibus means “all,” but that word has never been used for the Consecration of the wine in the Roman Rite.) Second, you will find that Jesus used the word “many” and not the word “all” in the Gospel: “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:28) There is not one major English translation of the Bible that uses the word “all” in this verse. The priest is simply saying what Jesus said.
Why did Jesus use the word “many” on this occasion? To answer that, we need to consider Who Jesus is, and how He made His identity known to the people around Him. All four evangelists connect John the Baptist with the voice crying out in Isaiah 40:3, and Isaiah 40 marks the beginning of the “book of consolation,” those prophecies in Isaiah that deal with the relief and consolation that God would send Israel in their time of persecution and exile. A primary agent of this consolation is the “Suffering Servant,” of whom Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is a clear prophecy. At the end of this prophecy, God speaks of His servant in these words:By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities. … He poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isa. 53:11-12)Jesus was surely thinking of this prophecy, and how He was fulfilling it, when He spoke to His Apostles about the pouring out of His blood “for many.” So while Jesus died for all, on this particular occasion He used the word “many.” The reason can perhaps be explained by St. Paul in a passage where he uses the expression “for all.”For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Cor. 5:14-15)While Christ died for all, salvation is not brought about without our individual willing participation. By dying for all of us, Christ has presented us with the potential to live no longer for ourselves but for Him, but this is not automatically guaranteed for everyone. We can truthfully say (as the old translation did) that the Blood of Christ was shed for all, so that sins may be forgiven. But not all will have their sins forgiven, and so we can also say truthfully (as the new translation does) that His Blood was poured out for many for the forgiveness of (their) sins. It is with this in mind that the Church uses “for many” and not “for all.” In fact, the Roman Catechism from the sixteenth century explained the use of pro multis instead of pro omnibus in just that way:Looking to the efficacy of the passion, we believe that the Redeemer shed his blood for the salvation of all men; but looking to the advantages, which mankind derive from its efficacy, we find, at once, that they are not extended to the whole, but to a large proportion of the human race. … With great propriety therefore, were the words, for all, omitted, because here the fruit of the passion is alone spoken of, and to the elect only did his passion bring the fruit of salvation. (p. 155)