It’s all Greek to us

Question: Jesus’ relatives are identified as brothers and sisters due to language variables. In Luke 1:36, the word “relative” is used in regard to Elizabeth. Did the original word in the Greek use “sister” for Elizabeth? But if there was a word for relatives, why did the Gospels use brother and sister and not relatives when speaking of Jesus’ “brothers and sisters”?

Leonard Loftus, Geneseo, Illinois

Answer: The Greek word used in Luke 1:36 is “suggenes” and does mean “relative” or “kinsman.” It is from the Greek roots “syn” (with) and “genos”  (seed or offspring). Thus the word refers here to Elizabeth as being related to Mary in some physical but unspecified way. The Greek word for sisters (adelphai) is not used in Luke 1:36.

Why certain words are used or not is a complex question. Our modern ears tend to crave a kind of specificity in written texts that they do not always give. Even today, we are often flexible in our use of terms like relative, brothers and sisters, etc., when speaking. For example, when it comes to the word “brother” in its most technical sense, there are only two men on this planet who are my brothers, in that we physically share the exact same father and mother. However, on any given Sunday, I stand before hundreds of people and call them “my brothers and sisters.”

In Jesus’ day things were similar; people use terms in both the strict sense and the wider sense, freely interchanging terms like brother, cousin, relative, etc. Many Protestants today seeing references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters simply presume these terms were meant in a very strict sense and that such references therefore disprove that Mary was ever-virgin.

But in this matter, the Church would argue that they have fallen into a linguistic fallacy by insisting that the terms can only be interpreted in the strict sense. The early Church was not unaware of these references, nor troubled by them as she handed on the sacred Tradition of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Rather, the terms brothers and sisters were understood by the Church more broadly to mean cousins, and this is the ancient sense of those texts.

Laicized priests?

Question: Please explain the difference of a priest who is suspended and one who is defrocked.

Barry Quinn, Philadelphia

Answer: The term “defrocked” is not a term used in the Church’s Canon Law; even its secular use varies. Church law speaks of priests who might be suspended and those who are laicized.

A priest who is suspended has his faculties to publicly preach and celebrate the sacraments removed. In certain cases he may be permitted to say Mass privately and may still retain some obligations to say the Divine Office. He still lives celibately. If the troubles that led to his suspension can be resolved, he can be restored to public ministry.

A priest who is laicized, however, is legally regarded as a layman. He cannot say Mass at all, even privately; he is no longer obliged say the Divine Office; and he may get married. Some priests are punitively laicized because they committed serious sins as a priest. Other priests are laicized at their own request because they sadly are no longer willing to live the life to which they were ordained.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.