Letter to the German Bishops’ Conference

Your Excellency!
Venerable, dear Lord Archbishop!

During your visit of 15 March 2012 you let me know that, regarding the translation of the words “pro multis” in the canon of the Mass, there is still no consensus among the bishops of the German language area. There now seems to be the danger that, with the soon to be expected publication of the new release of ‘Gotteslob’, some parts of the German language area will keep the translation “for all”, even though the German Bishops’ Conference had agreed to use “for many”, as was desired by the Holy See. I promised you I would express myself in writing about this serious issue to prevent a split in our most inner prayer room. The letter, which I send through you to the members of the German Bishops’ Conference, will also be sent to the other bishops of the German language area.

Let me first say a few words about the origin of the problem. In the 1960s, when the Roman Missal was translated into German under the responsibility of the bishops, there was an exegetical consensus that the words “the many” and “many” in Is. 53, 11 and further was a Hebrew expression to indicate the community, the “all”. The word “many” in the accounts of Matthew and Mark was accordingly considered a Semitism to be translated as “all”. This is also related directly to the Latin text that was to be translated, that the “pro multis” in the Gospel accounts refer back to Is. 53, and must therefore by translated as “for all”. This exegetical consensus has know shattered; it no longer exists. In the German translation of Sacred Scripture the account of the Last Supper states: “This is my Blood, the Blood of the Covenant,  which is shed for many” (Mark 14:24, cf. Matt. 26:28). This indicates something very important: The rendering of “pro multis” with “for all” was not a pure translation, but an interpretation, which was and remains very reasonable, but is already more than translation and interpretation.

This mingling of translation and interpretation belongs in hindsight to the principles which, immediately after the Council, directed the translation of the liturgical books into the vernacular. It was understood how far the Bible and the liturgical texts were removed from the language and thought of modern man, that even when translated they would remain largely incomprehensible to the participants of the divine service. It was a new endeavour that the sacred texts were, in translation, disclosed to the participants of the service, yet still remained removed from their world, yes, would now even be more visible in their removal. One not only felt justified but even required to mix interpretation into the translation and so shorten the way to the people, whose hearts and minds would be reached through these words.

To a certain degree, the principle of a substantive but not necessarily justified literal translation of the source texts remain. As I [pray the liturgical prayers time and again in various languages, I notice that it is often hard to find a common ground between the various translation, and that the underlying common text often only remains visible from afar. Added to that are the undermining banalisations which constitute the real losses. In this way it has, over the course of the years, become more clear to me that the principle of the non-literal but structural equivalence as a translation guideline has its limits. Following such insights, the translation instruction Liturgian authenticam, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 28 March 2001, has once more placed the literal translation in the foreground, but of course without dictating a singular vocabulary. The important insight which lies at the basis of this instruction is already expressed in the distinction between translation and interpretation, outlined above. This is necessary for both the Word of Scripture as the liturgical texts. One the one hand, the sacred Word should, if possible, be presented as itself, even with the strangeness and questions it contains in itself; on the other hand the Church has been given the task of interpreting, by which – within the limits of our respective understanding – the News which the Lord has intended comes to us. An empathic translation can also not replace the interpretation: it is part of the structure of Revelation that the Word of God is read in the interpreting community of the Church, that faithfulness and realisation are combined.The Word must exist as itself, in its own shape which is perhaps strange to is; the interpretation must be measured to the faithfulness to the Word itself, but at the same time be made accessible to the modern ear.

In this context the Holy See has decided that in the new translation of the Missal the words “pro multis” must be translated as such and not at the same time interpreted. The simple translation “for many” must come in the place of the interpretative ” for all”. I would like to point out that in both Matthew and in Mark there is no article, so not “for the many”, but “for many”. As the decision of the fundamental ordering of translation and interpretation is, as I hope, understood from this, I am yet aware that this represents a tremendous challenge for all who have the task of interpreting the Word of God in the Church. Since for the regular visitors of the church this will almost inevitably seem to be rupture at the heart of the holiest. They will ask: did Christ not die for all? Has the Church changed her teaching? Can and is she is allowed to do so? Is this a reaction against the heritage of the Council? We all know, through the experience of the last fifty years, how deeply the changes in the liturgical forms and texts affects the people; how much must a change in the text of such a central point affect the people? While this is the case, it has long been held that the translation of “many” was to be preceded by a thorough catechesis on the difference between translation and interpretation, a catechesis in which the bishops must inform their priests, through which they must make themselves clear to their faithful, what it is about. This catechesis is a basic requirement before the new translation comes into force. As far as I know, such a catechesis has, until now, not been given in the German language area. The intention of my letter, dear brothers, is to most urgently ask for such a catechesis to be established, to then discuss it with the priests and immediately make it available to the faithful.

Such a catechesis must first briefly explain why after the Council the word “many”was translated in the Missal with “all”: to clearly express the universality of the salvation desired by and coming from Jesus. This leads to the question: If Jesus died for all, why do the words of the Last Supper then say “for many”? And why do we then keep these institutional words of Jesus? Added to this must be that Jesus, according to Matthew and Mark, said “for many”, but according to Luke and St. Paul “for you”. This apparently narrows the circle even more. But from here one can also reach the solution. The disciples know that the mission of Jesus transcends them and their inner circle; that He came to gather together all the scattered children of God (cf. Joh. 11:52). This “for you” makes the mission of Jesus very concrete for those present. They are not some anonymous element of some vast totality, but everyone knows that the Lord died particularly for me, for us. “For you” reaches into the past and into the future; I have been named very personally; we, who gather here, are known as such by Jesus. In this way, “for you” is not a constriction, but a specification which is valid for every community that celebrates the Eucharist, unites itself concretely to the love of Christ. In the words of consecration, the Roman Canon has united the two Biblical reading and reads: “for you and for many”. At the reform of the liturgy, this formulation was then taken over for all prayers.

But once again: Why “for many”? Did the Lord then not die for all? The fact that Jesus Christ, as incarnated Son of God, is the Man for all Men, the new Adam, belongs to the basic certainties of our faith. I would like to remind you of but three passages in Scripture: God gave His Son “up for the sake of all of us,” Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans (Rom. 8:32). “One man died for all,” he says in the Second Letter to the Corinthians about the death of Jesus (2 Cor. 5:14). Jesus has “offered himself as a ransom for all”, it says in the First Letter to Timothy (1  Tim 2:6). But then it is right to ask ourselves once again: When this is all so clear, why then does the Eucharistic Prayer say “for many”? Well, the Church took this formulation from the institution narrative from the New Testament. She does so out of respect for the Word of Jesus, to remain true to Him, also in the Word. The respect for the Word of Jesus is the  reason for the formulation of the prayer. But then we ask: why did Jesus say this Himself? The true reason for that is that Jesus, in this way, revealed Himself as the servant of God from Is 53, identified Himself as the form that the word of the prophet was expecting. Respect of the Church for Jesus’ Word, faithful to Jesus Word from Scripture, is this double faithfulness the solid basis for the formulation “for many”. In this chain of reverent loyalty we join the literal translation of the Word of Scripture.

As we have said before, that the “for you” in the Lucan-Pauline tradition does not constrict, but rather specifies, so we can now say that the dialectic of “many” – “all” has its own significance. “All” exists on the ontological level – the being and action of Jesus includes all of mankind, past, present and future. But factually, in the concrete community of those who celebrate the Eucharist, it involves only “many”. In this way one can see an threefold significance in the ordering of “many” and “all”. Firstly, it should mean for us, who may sit at His table, surprise, joy and gratitude, that he has called me, that I am with Him and can know Him. “Thanks to the Lord, who has called me out of mercy into His Church…” Then, secondly, this is also a responsibility.How the Lord reaches the other – “all” – in His own way remains a mystery. But without a doubt it is a responsibility to be called to Him and His table, so that I may hear: For you, for me has He suffered. The many carry a responsibility for all. The community of the many must be the light on the candles, the city on the hill, leaven for all. This is a calling that applies to everyone personally. The many, who we are, must consciously experience their mission in responsibility for the whole. Finally, a third aspect may be added.  In modern society we have the feeling that we are far from “many”, but very few – a small number that is continuously decreasing. But no – we are “many”: “After that I saw that there was a huge number, impossible for anyone to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language,” the Revelation of John tells us (Rev. 7:9). We are many and we stand for all. In this way both words, “many” and “all”, belong together and relate to each other in responsibility and promise.

Your Excellency, beloved brother bishops! With all the above I wanted to indicate the basic content of catechesis, which should prepare, as soon as possible, priests and laity for the new translation. I hope that all this may serve towards a more profound celebration of the Eucharist and becomes part of the great task that lies before in he “Year of Faith”. I would hope that the catechesis will soon be presented, to become part of the liturgical renewal for which the Council has worked from its very first session.

With Easter blessing, I remain in the Lord,

Benedictus PP XVI.

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