Msgr. M. Francis Mannion: Disunity in Gospels

Question: How did the process of the writing of the four Gospels begin? Why are there differences between them? I read somewhere that there are all kinds of contradictions between the Gospels. 

— Name and address withheld

Answer: The Catechism of the Catholic Church (see No. 126), quoting from the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) of the Second Vatican Council, neatly sets out the process by which the Gospels were formed. It distinguishes between three stages. The first stage involves the actual historic events of Jesus’ life and ministry. The Church holds that the four Gospels “whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up.”

The second stage is that of oral tradition. Between the actual events of Jesus’ life and the writing of the Gospels there was an interval described as that of oral tradition. The deeds and words of Jesus were passed on by word of mouth from preacher to preacher. “For, after the ascension of the Lord, the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done, but with the fuller understanding which they, instructed by the glorious events of Christ and enlightened by the Spirit of truth, now enjoyed.” 

The third stage was the actual writing of the Gospels themselves. “The Sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or in written form; others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, while sustaining the forms or preaching, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus.” 

Scripture scholars point out that while the four Gospels can be easily harmonized, there are differences between them for the reason that the Gospels are not newspaper accounts but interpretations of the life and ministry of Jesus, and that each Evangelist wrote for a different audience and wanted to emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ significance. 

Shoulder wound of Jesus 

Question: Recently I came across a Prayer to the Shoulder Wound of Jesus. I never heard of it before and wonder if prayers of this kind are authentic. 

— Gloria B., Tucson, Ariz.

Answer: The prayer is too long to print; but its essential part is the following: “I praise and glorify thee and give thanks for this painful and most sacred wound, beseeching thee by that exceeding pain and by the crushing burden of thy heavy cross, to be merciful to me, a sinner, to forgive me all my mortal and venial sins and to lead me onwards toward heaven along the way of thy cross.” 

This prayer is attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux and is said to derive from a vision of Jesus to St. Bernard in which Jesus identified the wound on his shoulder from carrying his cross as the most painful wound he had to endure. 

To be authentic, all devotional prayers have to be consistent with the solid liturgical and spiritual traditions of the Church. That said, the prayer you mention could be a great source of consolation to one who is suffering physical pain, and it could enable someone to relate his or her particular pains to the sufferings of Jesus. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.