Gospel of Matthew?
Q. Is it true that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Aramaic and not Greek? Why do scholars say they were all written in Greek? And were the Gospels actually written by the authors that are credited with them? I mean, did Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually write their Gospels?
Name withheld, by request, via email
A. Early Church Fathers testify that Matthew wrote his Gospel in either Hebrew or Aramaic. It was later translated into Greek. The other Gospels were written in Greek, because at that time Greek was the universal literary language in the Roman Empire. Each Gospel was written by the man whose name the Gospel bears.
Q. In the later 11th century, Wrastlaw, Duke of Bohemia, requested permission from Pope Gregory VII to use the vernacular in divine liturgy. The Pope denied the request. He gave as his reason that if holy Scripture “were perfectly clear to all, it might be vulgarized and subject to disrespect or be so misunderstood by people of limited intelligence as to lead them into error.” What did the Pope mean by saying this?
R.P. Fischer, via email
A. I think the pope here clearly foresaw what happened in later centuries. Only when the Scriptures were available in the vernacular did people in general begin to make their own interpretations of key passages. This inevitably led to the emergence of all kinds of unique, heretical opinions about the meaning of Scripture. At the so-called Reformation this process greatly accelerated. It continues today as new denominations continually emerge.
Is Abortion Condemned?
Q. Can you tell me where in Scripture we can find the condemnation of abortion?
Fran, Nashville, Ky.
A: The Fifth Commandment is “You shall not kill.” The word “kill” refers primarily to murder, to the taking of an innocent life. That precisely is what abortion is, murder of an innocent person. Scripture does not speak specifically of abortion, but its teaching on the sanctity of human life bears directly on the issue of abortion.
The Didache (a document containing the teaching of the Twelve Apostles), dating to the first century, stated clearly: “You shall not procure an abortion. You shall not destroy a newborn.” Numbers of Church Fathers, saints and theologians from that time reinforced that declaration.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the Fifth Commandment in paragraphs 2258-2317, including a section on abortion (Nos. 2270-2275). The Catechism reminds us that from the very beginning the Church has condemned abortion as a serious evil. The Church’s fullest statement on the sanctity of life and offenses against that sanctity is from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in Donum Vitae, published in 1987.
Q. One of my friends is a devout Protestant. In our discussions of faith I have often urged her to learn more about the Catholic Church. She always tells me she already knows and loves the Lord Jesus Christ, so the Church could not further benefit her. How should I respond to her and make effective witness for the Church?
Name withheld by request
A. Let your friend know you’re thankful for her relationship with Jesus Christ. If — or, let’s say, since — it’s a true love, she will want to develop that commitment to the deepest level possible. Growth in Christ can only take place in this life. The level of spiritual maturity to which by God’s grace we have attained at the moment of death is the level at which, properly purged, we shall spend eternity. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10). (So much for sola fide!)
The Council of Florence (1431-1445) taught that “in heaven the redeemed will clearly behold the triune God as he is, yet one person more perfectly than another according to the difference of their merits.” The Greek version of the conciliar teaching ends with “according to the worth of their lives.” In other words, growth in Christ must take place before death, or never.
Our divine Savior established one true Church. The Second Vatican Council taught that it is through “Christ’s Catholic Church” that one “can benefit fully from the means of salvation” (Unitatis Redintegratio, Decree on Ecumenism, No. 3).
Does your friend have full access to the means of salvation? She does have the grace of baptism, but there’s so much more. Does she have access to Christ’s sacraments of confirmation, of marriage, of healing or of penance? Is her life being formed by the full teaching of Christ as He speaks through His Church? Above all, does she receive Jesus Christ himself — body and blood, soul and divinity — into her own body in the Eucharist? Her faith may be very deep. But it would be immeasurably deeper — she would have available all Christ can give us in this life — if she were incorporated into His Church. Keep praying for her to come to her true home in Christ.
Oath Versus Vow?
Q. What is the difference between an oath and a vow? What does a nun or monk take?
Ann, New York, N.Y.
A. An oath is a declaration of truth. In making an oath the person appeals to God to witness to the truth of a particular affirmation he is making. An oath can also be invoked in guarantee of a promise a person makes.
A vow, on the other hand, is a solemn pledge or promise to God to commit oneself to an act, a service or a condition of life. Monks and nuns make the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In the marriage liturgy, husbands and wives make vows of lifelong fidelity to one another.
Non-Catholic Bible Study
Q. I have some Catholic friends who have been going to a non-Catholic Bible study. Is there a problem with Catholics taking part in those? What if they can’t find a Catholic one in their parish?
Name withheld by request
A. In one regard, the Bible is like any other book: It has to be interpreted. What do these sacred writings mean for my life? How one interprets the Bible (or any other writing) is determined by one’s presuppositions, one’s background. Non-Catholics necessarily bring non-Catholic (and often anti-Catholic) interpretations to their reading of Scripture. Your friends are bound to encounter error in discussions of Scripture with non-Catholics, and perhaps even be led astray thereby.
Your friends should ask their pastor to help them start a group for studying Scripture. An excellent source of materials for group study of the Bible is Dr. Scott Hahn’s St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies. One can find the Center’s extensive listings on their website. There are also many other Bible resources for Catholics, and perhaps you could ask your pastor or another trusted Catholic for advice.
The Church as “She”?
Q. Why is the Church described as “she”? Is it appropriate to use that pronoun?
Raymond, Cleveland, Ohio
A. The marriage covenant is the most intimate adult human relationship. In Old Testament revelation, God used the marriage covenant as an analogy for His infinite love for Hs people.
For example, “And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride / so shall your God rejoice in you” (Is 62:5b); “I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you … and you became mine” (Ez 16:8b); “For your husband is your Maker; / the Lord of hosts is his name” (Is 54:5).
The New Testament speaks of the Church as the bride of Christ. “For I am jealous of you with the jealousy of God, since I betrothed you to one husband to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor 11:2). In addition, St. John reported, “I saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem [the Church], coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rv 21:2), and, “One of the seven angels … said to me, ‘Come here. I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb’” (Rv 21:9). This is why personal pronouns referring to the Church must be in the feminine gender. The Catholic Church is the Bride of Christ.
Praying the Rosary?
Q. I am 30 years of age and have been a Catholic all my life. I have grown up praying the Rosary and praying to Mary. Lately, I have had doubts about this. I have prayed about it and also searched the Bible to find out if God gave us permission to pray to Mary and say the Rosary. Can you tell me where in the Bible God does approve this? I love my God, and I love Jesus very much. I don’t want to do anything to displease them.
A. We must always distinguish between praying to God and “praying” to our Blessed Mother and the saints. Only God answers prayers. When we speak of “praying” to our Blessed Mother or other saints, we are asking for their intercession, not for answers to our prayers.
Now, for biblical warrant for invoking saints and praying the Rosary, recall that in her New Testament the Catholic Church recorded key elements of her Gospel, but not everything. St. John ends his Gospel by telling us “there are also many other things which Jesus did” (21:25). Sacred Scripture has to be interpreted in the light of sacred tradition (see Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, No. 7). Out of her tradition the Church teaches us the importance of invoking the saints and therefore the praying of the Rosary.
Q. Is there a precise formula for the granting of absolution? And if it is not used, is the absolution during confession valid? Do you have to go back to confession if it was not used? I am very sorry for my sins.
Name withheld by request, via email
A. There is a precise formula for granting absolution. The Sacrament of Penance’s prayer is as follows: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
If no form, or some alternative form, of absolution, is used, we do not receive forgiveness in the sacrament.
Q. All my life I have heard it said that God never commands the impossible. How must we interpret Our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48)?
Name withheld by request
A. Taken literally, these words do seem to command the impossible. Try to become perfect and you will quickly see you cannot do it. The more you try, the more you turn inward, focusing on your every act, thought, word. Your effort only makes you more and more self-centered and miserable, and less and less “perfect.”
The Greek word translated as “perfect” is teleios (teleioi in the plural). It means, “brought to completion; fully accomplished, fully developed; fully realized.” The word “therefore” in Matthew 5:48 is significant. It marks that verse as a summary of that chapter and, indeed, as a summary of the entire sermon.
The Second Vatican Council summed up Jesus’ command in these words: “The followers of Christ . . . [have] become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then, too, by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received” (Lumen Gentium, No. 40).
Q. After the Resurrection, why did Jesus tell Mary Magdalene not to touch him, and then told her she could? What am I missing?
Joanne, via email
A. Here is the complete account of Mary Magdalene’s encounters with our risen Lord. According to Matthew 28, when Jesus met Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (v. 1), “they approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me’” (vv. 9-10). Mark 16:9 tells us only that Mary Magdalene was the first person Jesus appeared to after His resurrection. In Luke’s narrative, two angels proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection to “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James” (24:10).
St. John’s Gospel does report that the risen Lord said to Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (20:17, RSV). The Jerusalem Bible has, “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” The Greek verb is aptou, which means, “touch,” “bring in contact,” even “meddle.” The Jerusalem Bible’s use of “cling” is somewhat of a paraphrase, but seems to me to be a better indication of Our Lord’s meaning.
Q. Somewhere I read that the Greek word homoousios has been the subject of more controversy than any other word in the Church’s history. Please explain.
Name withheld by request
A. We may say also that a single Greek letter (i, iota) has lain at the heart of that controversy. The word homoousios means, “of one substance.” The Church uses the term to designate the reality of the Incarnation: Jesus Christ is fully divine, fully human, in one person. Early fourth-century heretics (notably, Arius) insisted the term used should be homoiousios. The addition of that single letter i gives a new word which means, “of like being with the Father,” or “of a similar being as the Father.” This denies the reality of the Incarnation. It makes of Jesus Christ some lesser being, not fully divine. It also makes of the Holy Spirit a semi-divine being.
You can see, therefore, that the reality of the Christian revelation was at stake when the Church struggled and succeeded in rejecting the word homoiousios.
The Mystery of Faith
Q. In each of the Eucharistic prayers, when the celebrant announces, “The mystery of faith,” one of the responses is, “When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again.” I am bothered by proclaiming Christ’s death. I believe that Christ is with us as He himself told us: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). A better saying (I say it each time at Mass) would be, “When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your love, O Lord, and await your coming again.” Using the present saying implies that Christ is dead and no longer here on earth. I think it is time for a change again, even though we recently went through some changes in our liturgy.
Anthony Fiacco, Eidicott, N.Y.
A. Thank you for sharing your concern. Consider this. We commonly refer to the Eucharist as “the Holy Sacrifice.” To speak only of Our Lord’s love for us is itself indefinite.
How has Our Lord demonstrated His love for us? By suffering and dying on our behalf for the forgiveness of our sins. Thanks be to God, as we say in the Creed, “he rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
The liturgy certainly and joyfully proclaims the living Christ. Each of the four Eucharistic prayers celebrates His resurrection, and His presence among us.
Q. When did the practice of having a Mass offered for an intention begin, and why?
Gertie, via email
A. From the days of the early Church it has been common practice to offer Mass for the dead, as well as for others. Archaeologists have discovered epitaphs on tombs in the Roman catacombs, asking for prayers for the departed one. Numerous early Church Fathers witness to this practice. Recall from St. Augustine’s “Confessions” St. Monica’s one dying request, “that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” Countless Christians have made this same request of their survivors.
In his encyclical Mirae caritatis (1902), Pope Leo XIII situated the offering of Mass for others in the true context of our concern for others, the Communion of Saints. “For faith teaches us, that although the venerable Sacrifice may be lawfully offered to God alone, yet it may be celebrated in honor of the saints reigning in heaven with God who has crowned them in order that we may gain for ourselves their patronage. And it may also be offered — in accordance with an apostolic tradition — for the purpose of expiating the sins of those of the brethren who, having died in the Lord, have not yet fully paid the penalty of their transgressions” (No. 12).
Listing the Ten Commandments
Q. Why are there different ways of listing the Ten Commandments? Which is the proper Catholic one?
T.J., via email
A. Since the beginning of the Protestant movement in late medieval times, Protestants have held to a listing of the Ten Commandments different from that which the Catholic Church has held since the beginning. Protestants list as the Second Commandment the forbidding of worship of graven images, whereas Catholicism combines this with the first. A Protestant professor I had told us seminarians that since Catholics do worship graven images, they try to cover it up by hiding the Second Commandment in the first.
Even worse, he said, to keep the number of commandments at 10, the Catholic Church splits up the last commandment, distinguishing between coveting our neighbor’s property and coveting his wife.
Remember, now, the Catholic version is the original. Worshiping false gods and worshiping graven images is the same sin. That’s why the Church lists them together. On the other hand, coveting property and coveting another’s wife are distinctly different sins. That’s why the Church separates them. Incidentally, I studied theology in four different Protestant seminaries. I continue to be amazed by the fact that many distinguished Protestant professors under whom I studied knew so little, and taught such gross error, about the Catholic Church.
Many Hearts May Be Revealed?
Q. When the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph brought the Infant Jesus to the Temple, Simeon told Our Lady, “(and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:35). This last part of Simeon’s prophecy has puzzled me for many years. What does it mean?
Name withheld by request
A. Simeon’s words to our Blessed Mother clearly anticipate her intimate involvement in her divine Son’s redemptive mission. Freed from original sin by her immaculate conception, she could and did identify with her Son’s suffering to a depth impossible for any other person. The closing words of Simeon’s prophecy, “so that thoughts of many hearts may be revealed,” further explain his earlier words, “‘this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted” (v. 34). The good or the evil of lives will be revealed by whether they accept or reject Jesus Christ. He certainly was “contradicted,” even to being put to a most painful, most ignominious death.
What was the Tree of Life
Q. In Genesis, what exactly was the tree of life? What became of it after the Fall?
Denise, via email
A. Genesis 2:9 introduces us to the tree of life: “Out of the ground the Lord God made grow every tree that was delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life also in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” According to Genesis 2:16-17, God told Adam, “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden [evidently including the tree of life] except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die” — that is, become subject to death.
Why did God make Adam and Eve subject to this danger? For Adam and Eve’s wills to be free, there had to be the possibility of misusing them. Otherwise, our first parents would have been mere automatons.
The tempter, the father of lies, persuaded Eve (and through her, Adam) that eating the forbidden fruit would confer divine status on them. Indeed, the tempter spoke the truth, but with an entirely different, ominous meaning. By this act of disobedience, she and Adam certainly would know good and evil. But how? By themselves, actually becoming evil, disobedient to God.
Note that the fruit of the tree of life, which was believed to confer eternal life, was not forbidden to Adam and Eve not prior to their fall, but after their fall. Only then — and for Adam and Eve’s ultimate benefit — did God forbid them to eat the fruit of the tree of life (see Gn 3:22-24). In their condition of disobedience they would eternally have been cut off from God. It was an act of mercy for God to prevent them from plunging themselves into damnation. God had in mind the new Adam through which he would restore to the human race the possibility of eternal life lost in the fall of Adam and Eve.
What became of the tree of life after the fall? God drove out our first parents, “stationing the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword east of the garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gn 3:24). Again, God took precaution against fallen humanity being eternally separated from Him. We know now the new Adam reopened the way to eternal life.
Theotokos versus Christotokos?
Q. I read that there was a big argument in the early Church about the title Theotokos versus Christotokos. What was the fight about, and what is the difference between them?
Carl, Grand Rapids, Mich.
A. The “fight” involved the very nature of the Christian religion. In the early centuries, the Church began referring to the Blessed Virgin as “mother of God” (theotokos). The term was intended to emphasize the divinity of her Son, not to exalt her status. A fifth-century patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, rejected the term theotokos. He contended the Virgin is mother only of the Christ (Christotokos).
The word Christotokos undercuts the reality of the Incarnation. Accordng to Nestorius, Our Lord had taken on a human personality. He (Nestorius) thereby denied the substantial union between Our Lord’s divine nature and His human nature. Acting on orders from Pope Celestine, Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, led the battle against this heresy. The Council of Ephesus in 431 concurred in the Pope’s judgment, condemning use of the word Christotokos and confirming the title Theotokos as a safeguard of the reality of the Incarnation. Again, the emphasis necessarily falls on “of God” rather than on “mother.”
Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D., serves as chaplain for several national Catholic apostolates, an adjunct professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and an assistant pastor at St. Peter’s Church in the same city.