Meaning of 'gospel'

Question: In Mark 1:15, Jesus is calling for all to “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Clearly, the Gospels were not yet written when Jesus was saying this. What exactly was he talking about?

Paul VanHoudt, Erie, Colorado

Answer: Your question is rooted in the tendency we have to equate the word “gospel” with a written text — more specifically, four written texts in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. However, the “Gospel” should be more broadly understood as the saving and transformative message of Jesus Christ. Well before it was a written text, it was a proclamation of the apostles and the early Church. To “believe in the gospel,” therefore, is to hear the saving proclamation of Jesus Christ through his appointed witnesses, the apostles.

These teachings of the apostles were eventually set forth in writing in various stages. Matthew and John’s proclamation of the gospel are in Gospels bearing their names. Mark is likely recording Peter’s proclamation, and Luke sets forth the proclamation of numerous but unnamed eyewitnesses. The epistles of Sts. Peter, Paul, John, James and Jude, though called “letters,” are understood to be part of the gospel proclamation, since Jesus said to his apostles, “Whoever listens to you, listens to me” (Lk 10:16). St. Paul also refers to “my gospel” (see Rom 16:25; 2 Tim 2:8).

To further understand, a little background might help. The Greek word for “gospel” is evangelion and also is translated as “good news.” However, this might be misconstrued merely to mean “cheerful news.” The word was taken by the early Gospel writers from a word that ancient emperors used to describe their pronouncements. When the emperor spoke, your life was going to change. For example, if he sent out a word that taxes were increasing, this was not particularly cheerful news, but it did mean that your life was going to change. A word from the emperor was not just informative, it was transformative.

This saving and transformative Gospel, proclaimed by the Church and later set forth in writing and sacred Tradition, is what is meant by the Gospel.

Old Testaments saints?

Question: Are any people in the Old Testament, other than the archangels, elevated to sainthood? Or was sainthood conferred on those worthy only after the birth of Jesus?

Fran Tessier, Philadelphia

Answer: At is root, the word saint means “holy,” deriving from the Latin sanctus. Thus “St. Mark” means, more literally, “holy Mark.” As a general rule in Catholicism, we use the title “saint” in the strict sense to refer only to canonized men and women whose names are on the official list of saints.

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But there are exceptions. For example, as you note, the archangels (Sts. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael) have the title “saint.” They are not human persons; they are angelic persons. In the Roman Church we usually do not ascribe the title “saint” to Old Testament figures, but Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox more commonly do, such as St. David, St. Moses and so forth. The customs and the exact list vary throughout the East, so it is difficult to present and exact list or count.

As you note, there is a special and godly sanctity that can only come through Christ. However, in a wider and relative sense, we can speak of people as being holy. We often do this, even with the living, such as when we say, “She is a very holy person.”

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 blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.