Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration mass on 19 March 2013.

This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 7 December 2015 to 23 March 2016.

Angelus

Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

General Audiences

Homilies

Letters

Messages

Speeches

Papal Tweets

  • “… That families in need may receive the necessary support and that children may grow up in healthy and peaceful environments.” @Pontifex 12 March 2016
  • “Pray for me.” @Pontifex 13 March 2016
  • “The Sacrament of Reconciliation allows us to draw near to the Father with trust to have the certainty of his forgiveness.” @Pontifex 14 March 2016
  • “God is truly “rich in mercy” and extends it abundantly upon those who appeal to Him with a sincere heart.” @Pontifex 15 March 2016
  • “As we exit the confessional, we will feel his strength which gives new life and restores ardor to the faith. After confession we are reborn.” @Pontifex 16 March 2016
  • “No one can be excluded from the mercy of God. The Church is the house where everyone is welcomed and no one is rejected.” @Pontifex 17 March 2016
  • “The greater the sin, the greater the love that must be shown by the Church to those who repent.” @Pontifex 18 March 2016
  • “I am beginning a new journey, on Instagram, to walk with you along the path of mercy and the tenderness of God.” @Pontifex 19 March 2016
  • “Let us come to Him and let us not be afraid! Let us come to Him and say from the depths of our hearts: “Jesus, I trust in You!”” @Pontifex 20 March 2016
  • “Let us take our Christian calling seriously and commit to live as believers.” @Pontifex 21 March 2016
  • “I entrust to God’s mercy all those who lost their lives. #Brussels” @Pontifex 22 March 2016
  • “With how much love Jesus looks at us! With how much love He heals our sinful heart! Our sins never scare Him.” @Pontifex 23 March 2016

Papal Instagram

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holy thursdayEvery single Mass, we hear the words “on the night he was betrayed.”

That night was Holy Thursday, and it is one of the most important nights in all of history.

Here are 10 things you need to know.

 

1. What happened on the original Holy Thursday?

An amazing amount of stuff! This was one of the most pivotal days in the life of Jesus Christ.

Here are some of the things the gospels record for this day (including events that happened after midnight). Jesus:

  • Sent Peter and John to arrange for them to use the Upper Room to hold the Passover meal.
  • Washed the apostles’ feet.
  • Held the first Mass.
  • Instituted the priesthood.
  • Announced that Judas would betray him.
  • Gave the “new commandment” to love one another.
  • Indicated that Peter had a special pastoral role among the apostles.
  • Announced that Peter would deny him.
  • Prayed for the unity of his followers.
  • Held all the discourses recorded across five chapters of John (John 13-18).
  • Sang a hymn.
  • Went to the Mount of Olives.
  • Prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.
  • Was betrayed by Judas.
  • Stopped the disciples from continuing a violent resistance.
  • Healed the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant, after Peter cut it off with a sword.
  • Was taken before the high priests Annas and Caiaphas.
  • Was denied by Peter.
  • Was taken to Pilate.

It was a momentous day!

If you’d like to read the gospel accounts themselves, you can use these links:

 

2. Why is Holy Thursday sometimes called “Maundy Thursday”?

The word “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word mandatum, or “mandate.”

This word is used in the Latin text for John 13:34:

“Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos.”

Or, in English:

“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.”

Holy Thursday is thus sometimes called Maundy Thursday because it was on this day that Christ gave us the new commandment–the new mandate–to love one another as he loves us.

 

3. What happens on this day liturgically?

Several things:

  • The bishop celebrates a “Chrism Mass” with his priests (usually).
  • The Mass of the Lord’s Supper is held in the evening.
  • At the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the priest (often) performs the washing of feet.
  • The Tabernacle is empty and the Eucharist is put in a place of repose.
  • The altar is stripped.
  • The faithful are invited to spend time in Eucharistic adoration while the Sacrament is in repose.

 

4. What is the “Chrism Mass”?

According to the main document governing the celebrations connected with Easter, Paschales Solemnitatis:

35. The Chrism Mass which the bishop concelebrates with his presbyterium and at which the holy chrism is consecrated and the oils blessed, manifests the communion of the priests with their bishop in the same priesthood and ministry of Christ.

The priests who concelebrate with the bishop should come to this Mass from different parts of the diocese, thus showing in the consecration of the chrism to be his witnesses and cooperators, just as in their daily ministry they are his helpers and counselors.

The faithful are also to be encouraged to participate in this Mass, and to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Traditionally the Chrism Mass is celebrated on the Thursday of Holy Week. If, however, it should prove to be difficult for the clergy and people to gather with the bishop, this rite can be transferred to another day, but one always close to Easter.

The chrism and the oil of catechumens is to be used in the celebration of the sacraments of initiation on Easter night.

5. Why is the Mass of the Lord’s Supper significant?

According to Paschales Solemnitatis:

45. Careful attention should be given to the mysteries which are commemorated in this Mass: the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and Christ’s command of brotherly love; the homily should explain these points.

6. Is the Eucharist in the Tabernacle during this Mass?

No. According to Paschales Solemnitatis:

48. The Tabernacle should be completely empty before the celebration.

Hosts for the Communion of the faithful should be consecrated during that celebration.

A sufficient amount of bread should be consecrated to provide also for Communion on the following day.

7. What does the rite of foot washing signify, and is it to be done for men only?

According to Paschales Solemnitatis:

51. The washing of the feet of chosen men which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve. This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.

Although some have interpreted the rite as reflecting the institution of the institution of the priesthood or being unique to the apostles, this interpretation is not found in the Church’s official documents, such as Paschales Solemnitatis, which interpret it as a sign of service and charity.

The rite is optional. It does not have to be performed.

Although until 2016 the Church’s official texts used language that indicated only men (Latin, viri) could have their feet washed on Holy Thursday, the Holy See had permitted individual bishops to wash the feet of females and younger males (vir means “man,” not “male”) for some time.

Pope Francis himself had been doing so, and in 2016 he had the Congregation for Divine Worship revise the law to bring it into alignment with contemporary practice.

You can read the decree that did so here.

 

 

8. What happens at the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper?

According to Paschales Solemnitatis:

54. After the post-Communion prayer, the procession forms, with the crossbar at its head. The Blessed Sacrament, accompanied by lighted candles and incense, is carried through the church to the place of reservation, to the singing of the hymn “Pange lingua” or some other eucharistic song.

This rite of transfer of the Blessed Sacrament may not be carried out if the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion will not be celebrated in that same church on the following day.

55. The Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a closed tabernacle or pyx. Under no circumstances may it be exposed in a monstrance.

The place where the tabernacle or pyx is situated must not be made to resemble a tomb, and the expression “tomb” is to be avoided.

The chapel of repose is not prepared so as to represent the “Lord’s burial” but for the custody of the eucharistic bread that will be distributed in Communion on Good Friday.

9. Is there to be Eucharistic adoration at this time?

According to Paschales Solemnitatis:

56. After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper the faithful should be encouraged to spend a suitable period of time during the night in the church in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament which has been solemnly reserved.

Where appropriate, this prolonged eucharistic adoration may be accompanied by the reading of some part of the Gospel of St. John (chs. 13-17).

From midnight onwards, however, the adoration should be made without external solemnity, because the day of the Lord’s passion has begun.

10. What happens to the decoration of the Church at this time?

According to Paschales Solemnitatis:

57. After Mass the altar should be stripped.

It is fitting that any crosses in the church be covered with a red or purple veil, unless they have already been veiled on the Saturday before the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

Lamps should not be lit before the images of saints.

 

Looking for Something Good to Read?

May I suggest my commentary on the Gospel of Mark?

It goes through the whole text and provides fascinating information that you may have never heard before.

It also comes with a verse-by-verse study guide with questions that you or your study group can use.

And it comes with a lectionary-based study guide, so you can read along with Mark in the liturgy and ponder its meaning before or after Mass.

Right now, this commentary is available exclusively on Verbum Catholic software.

Verbum is an incredibly powerful study tool that I use every day, and I heartily recommend it to others.

I can also save you 10% when you get the commentary or one of the bundles of Verbum software. Just use the code JIMMY1 at checkout.

CLICK HERE TO GET JIMMY AKIN’S STUDIES ON MARK.

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What is Triduum, and why is it so important?

We are about to leave Lent and enter the liturgical season known as “Triduum.”

What is this season, and why is it does the Church say that it is “the culmination of the entire liturgical year”?

Here are 6 things you need to know.

1. What does “Triduum” mean?

It comes from Latin roots that mean, essentially, “the three days” or “period of three days” (tri- = three, -dies = days).

Today it refers to the liturgical season that follows Lent and precedes the Easter season.

According to the main document governing the celebrations connected with Easter, Paschales Solemnitatis:

38. . . . This time is called “the triduum of the crucified, buried and risen”; it is also called the “Easter Triduum” because during it is celebrated the Paschal Mystery, that is, the passing of the Lord from this world to his Father.

 

2. When does Triduum begin and end?

According to the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar:

19. The Easter triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, reaches its high point in the Easter Vigil, and closes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday.

This means that Triduum thus runs from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday.

It thus includes three full days, though since the season doesn’t begin at midnight, these three days are distributed as follows:

  1. The last part of Holy Thursday
  2. Good Friday
  3. Holy Saturday
  4. The first part of Easter Sunday

3. Why is Triduum important?

According to the General Norms:

18. Christ redeemed us all and gave perfect glory to God principally through his paschal mystery: dying he destroyed our death and rising he restored our life.

Therefore the Easter triduum of the passion and resurrection of Christ is the culmination of the entire liturgical year. Thus the solemnity of Easter has the same kind of preeminence in the liturgical year that Sunday has in the week.

4. How is fasting observed in this season?

According to Paschales Solemnitatis:

39. The Easter fast is sacred on the first two days of the Triduum, during which, according to ancient tradition, the Church fasts “because the Spouse has been taken away.”

Good Friday is a day of fasting and abstinence; it is also recommended that Holy Saturday be so observed, in order that the Church with uplifted and welcoming heart be ready to celebrate the joys of the Sunday of the resurrection.

Fasting and abstinence are thus required on Good Friday and fasting is recommended on Holy Saturday.

(Note: These days are reckoned as beginning at midnight. Good Friday begins at 12:01 a.m. Friday, not at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper the preceding evening.)

5. What is “Tenebrae“?

Tenebrae (Latin, “shadows,” “gloom,” “darkness”) is the name formerly given to a particular service of readings done at this time of year. According to Paschales Solemnitatis:

40. It is recommended that there be a communal celebration of the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It is fitting that the bishop should celebrate the Office in the cathedral, with as far as possible the participation of the clergy and people.

This Office, formerly called “Tenebrae,” held a special place in the devotion of the faithful as they meditated upon the passion, death and burial of the Lord, while awaiting the announcement of the resurrection.

6. How to learn more?

Keep watching this space.

I’m going to be doing a special “things you need to know” series over the next few days to explain the mysteries of Triduum in greater depth.

Here are the current posts in the series:

 

Looking for Something Good to Read?

May I suggest my commentary on the Gospel of Mark?

It goes through the whole text and provides fascinating information that you may have never heard before.

It also comes with a verse-by-verse study guide with questions that you or your study group can use.

And it comes with a lectionary-based study guide, so you can read along with Mark in the liturgy and ponder its meaning before or after Mass.

Right now, this commentary is available exclusively on Verbum Catholic software.

Verbum is an incredibly powerful study tool that I use every day, and I heartily recommend it to others.

I can also save you 10% when you get the commentary or one of the bundles of Verbum software. Just use the code JIMMY1 at checkout.

CLICK HERE TO GET JIMMY AKIN’S STUDIES ON MARK.

If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!


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phases-of-the-moon1This Sunday I winced when we got to the following line in the Gospel reading:

It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun (Luke 23:44-45).

“An eclipse of the sun”? Really? Surely the translators of the New American Bible, which we hear at Mass, didn’t render the passage that way!

But they did.

Sigh.

Here’s why I had the reaction I did . . .

 

How the Moon Works

Luna—or “the moon” (as anyone who’s ever lived there calls it)—orbits the earth every 29.5 days. It also rotates on its axis once every 29.5 days.

That’s not a bizarre coincidence. It’s due to a phenomenon known as tidal locking.

Just like the moon’s gravity raises tides on earth, the earth’s gravity also tugs on the moon—so much so that over time this tugging adjusted the moon’s rotation and orbit until they were in synch.

This isn’t unique to our moon. Bunches of moons in the solar system are tidally locked to the planets they orbit.

One consequence of tidal locking is that the moon keeps the same face turned toward the earth at all times. We didn’t know what was on the far side of the moon until we started sending probes and space ships to orbit it.

But, much of the time, we can’t even see all of the near side of the moon.

When the moon is on the same side of the earth as the sun, the sun’s rays fall on the far side of the moon, so the near side—the side that always faces us—is dark. We call that the new moon.

When the moon is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun, the sun’s rays fall on the near side of the moon, illuminating it fully. We call that the full moon.

When the moon is alongside the earth, the sun’s rays fall on half of the near side, so half of it is lit up. We call that a half moon.

This is the true explanation for the phases of the moon we see each month. It isn’t the earth’s shadow falling on the moon (that rarely happens). It’s because of which part of the near side the sun’s rays are falling on as the moon goes around us.

So what does this have to do with the Crucifixion?

 

How Eclipses Work

An eclipse occurs when one astronomical body moves between two others.

Earth experiences two types of eclipses: solar ones and lunar ones.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon moves directly between the earth and the sun, blocking (or partly blocking) our view of the sun.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the earth moves directly between the sun and the moon, causing the earth’s shadow to fall on the moon and turn some or all of it dark (or red! Cool!).

Lunar eclipses are the rare occasions when the earth’s shadow really does fall on the moon.

 

When Eclipses Occur

Now, based on what we said about how the phases of the moon work, let me ask you a question: When is it possible for eclipses to occur?

If you think about it, the answers should come pretty quickly.

If a solar eclipse occurs when the moon moves directly between the earth and the sun then the moon must be between the earth and the sun—at the phase that we call a new moon.

Solar eclipses can’t occur at any other time, because the moon is in the wrong part of the sky.

(Also: Solar eclipses don’t occur every full moon because being on the same side of the earth as the sun is not the same as being directly between the earth and the sun.)

Conversely, if lunar eclipses occur when the earth is directly between the sun and the moon then they must happen when the moon is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun—at the phase we call the full moon.

That’s the only time lunar eclipses can occur.

(And: Lunar eclipses don’t occur every full moon because there’s a difference between being on the opposite side of the earth from the sun and being directly opposite the sun from the earth.)

So, again, what does this have to do with the Crucifixion?

 

How the Jewish Calendar Worked

In Jesus’ day, Jews used what is known as a lunisolar calendar. That means that it took into account information about the moon (like what phase it was in) and information about the sun (like when the equinoxes and solstices occurred).

The relevant part for our purposes is the lunar part. Specifically: The Jewish months were tied to the phases of the moon.

Every month began with a new moon feast, as we read about in the Bible (e.g., Colossians 2:16).

At Jerusalem, they even had a court declare the beginning of the month with the sighting of the new moon.

The Mishnah—a collection of oral laws written down around A.D. 200—even has rules about who can serve as a witness to the sighting of the new moon and how to test them to see if they’re lying or mistaken.

Once the court determined that the new moon had been sighted, messengers were sent from Jerusalem to proclaim the beginning of a new month (even in English, the word “month” comes from the word “moon”) to nearby Jewish communities.

So the sighting of the new moon was essential to the beginning of a month and to any holydays that occurred during that month.

Like Passover.

 

Why Passover Is Important

Passover, the holiday that celebrated the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, is important for our purposes, because it is when Jesus was crucified.

All four of the Gospels link Jesus’ Crucifixion to Passover:

“You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified” (Matt. 26:2).

It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth, and kill him” (Mark 14:1).

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it” (Luke 24:7-8).

[Pilate said:] “But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover; will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:39).

So, chronologically speaking, we have really, really good evidence that Jesus was crucified at Passover.

In fact, it was in part because of Passover that Jesus was crucified then: He was in Jerusalem for the feast when the Jerusalem authorities decided to have him killed.

 

How Passover Worked

Passover took place on the 14th day of the month of Nisan. Leviticus explains:

In the first month [i.e., Nisan], on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening, is the Lord’s Passover (Lev. 23:5).

Nisan—like every month of the Jewish calendar—began with the sighting of the new moon.

So . . . what phase was the moon at when Passover occurred?

If the moon orbits the earth every 29.5 days then 14 days into that cycle would be at or very near the full moon.

Now the other shoe can drop: What kind of eclipse can occur at the full moon?

A lunar eclipse.

Not a solar eclipse.

 

That’s Why I Flinched

The reason I flinched at Mass was because the translators of the New American Bible rendered Luke 23:44-45 as:

It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun.

GAH! No! That’s the kind of eclipse that can’t occur at Passover!

Now, you might think that the NAB translators didn’t know this.

But that’s not plausible, because the fact this wouldn’t have been a solar eclipse is regularly commented upon in commentaries on Luke, and the translators certainly were familiar with and consulted such commentaries in the translation process.

They knew, but for some reason they just didn’t care.

 

An Unforced Error

If you check the Greek text that they translated “because of an eclipse of the sun,” you’ll see that it reads:

tou hēliou eklipontos

Tou hēliou means “of the sun” (“of” here plausibly being taken in the sense “because of”).

Eklipontos sounds very much like the word “eclipse,” doesn’t it?

Was Luke asserting that there was an eclipse?

It’s possible that Luke didn’t understand the timing of eclipses. This was not widely understood in the ancient world, though some people were aware of how eclipses worked.

In fact, more than 600 years earlier, the Greek philosopher Thales wowed his contemporaries by predicting an eclipse that occurred on May 28, 585 B.C.

Even if Luke didn’t know about the timing of eclipses, though, he wasn’t asserting that an eclipse in our sense was occurring.

Eklipontos is a participle of the verb ekleipō, which means “fail/leave off/cease.”

This is where we get the English word “eclipse.” A solar eclipse is when the sun’s light fails or ceases because the moon passes in front of it.

But to say that the sun’s light failed is not the same thing as saying that a solar eclipse occurred. (After all, the sun’s light fails every single evening.)

The translators of the NAB have thus committed an unforced error.

The Greek text does not require the translation they have given. It is perfectly acceptable—and preferable—to translate the passage like other translations do:

  • [there was] darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed (RSV).
  • and the sun’s light failed, so that darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour (NJB).
  • there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened (Douay-Rheims).
  • there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened (KJV).
  • and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining (NIV).

 

What Science Says

Science does not tell us what the darkness that covered the land during the Crucifixion was.

It could have been caused—through divine providence—by any number of agencies God choose.

Some scholars have proposed that God used a sirocco to stir up a dust storm. Others have proposed it was dense cloud cover.

It could have been something else—including something even more directly miraculous.

Yet if science suggests anything about the darkness, it suggests that it was not a solar eclipse.

But our scientific detective story isn’t over yet.

To quote Lt. Columbo, “Just one more thing . . .”

 

One More Thing

Remember I asked what kind of eclipse could occur during the full moon at Passover?

A lunar one, right?

So it’s natural to ask: Did one occur?

I’ve discussed elsewhere the fact that Jesus was most probably crucified on April 3, A.D. 33.

Guess what!

There was a partial lunar eclipse visible from Jerusalem when the moon rose that night.

We may even have a reference to this in the New Testament.

On the day of Pentecost, as Peter preaches, he quotes a prophecy from Joel 2:31, telling the assembled crowd:

the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood (Acts 2:20).

Peter indicates Joel’s prophecy was being fulfilled in their own day, and the fact that the sun had turned to darkness during the Crucifixion was known to Peter (and recorded by Luke, the author of Acts).

A lunar eclipse can make the moon appear reddish, and Peter may be alluding to the lunar eclipse that occurred a few weeks earlier, on April 3 of 33—the night that Jesus lay in the tomb.

Consider the symbolism: Jesus had just shed his blood, and now the moon in the sky seems to bleed.

No wonder Peter might see this as the fulfillment of prophecy!

So, next time you hear the NAB’s awful translation of Luke 23:44-45 read at Mass, take comfort in the fact that there may well have been an eclipse at the Crucifixion—just not a solar one.

 

Looking for Something Good to Read?

May I suggest my commentary on the Gospel of Mark?

It goes through the whole text and provides fascinating information that you may have never heard before.

It also comes with a verse-by-verse study guide with questions that you or your study group can use.

And it comes with a lectionary-based study guide, so you can read along with Mark in the liturgy and ponder its meaning before or after Mass.

Right now, this commentary is available exclusively on Verbum Catholic software.

Verbum is an incredibly powerful study tool that I use every day, and I heartily recommend it to others.

I can also save you 10% when you get the commentary or one of the bundles of Verbum software. Just use the code JIMMY1 at checkout.

CLICK HERE TO GET JIMMY AKIN’S STUDIES ON MARK.

If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!


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triumphal-entry-medium2bPalm Sunday–or is it Passion Sunday?–marks the beginning of Holy Week.

This day commemorates not one but two very significant events in the life of Christ.

Here are 9 things you need to know.

1. What is this day called?

The day is called both “Palm Sunday” and “Passion Sunday.”

The first name comes from the fact that it commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the crowd had palm branches (John 12:13).

The second name comes from the fact that the narrative of the Passion is read on this Sunday (it otherwise wouldn’t be read on a Sunday, since the next Sunday is about the Resurrection).

According to the main document on the celebration of the feasts connected with Easter, Paschales Solemnitatis:

Holy Week begins on “Passion (or Palm) Sunday” which joins the foretelling of Christ’s regal triumph and the proclamation of the passion. The connection between both aspects of the Paschal Mystery should be shown and explained in the celebration and catechesis of this day.

2. One of the notable features of this day is a procession before Mass. Why do we do this and how is it supposed to work?

According to Paschales Solemnitatis:

The commemoration of the entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem has, according to ancient custom, been celebrated with a solemn procession, in which the faithful in song and gesture imitate the Hebrew children who went to meet the Lord singing “Hosanna.”

The procession may take place only once, before the Mass which has the largest attendance, even if this should be in the evening either of Saturday or Sunday. The congregation should assemble in a secondary church or chapel or in some other suitable place distinct from the church to which the procession will move. . . .

The palms or branches are blessed so that they can be carried in the procession. The palms should be taken home where they will serve as a reminder of the victory of Christ be given which they celebrated in the procession.

3. Are we only supposed to use palms? What if you don’t have palms where you live?

It is not necessary that palm branches be used in the procession. Other forms of greenery can also be used.

According to the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy:

The procession, commemorating Christ’s messianic entry into Jerusalem, is joyous and popular in character. The faithful usually keep palm or olive branches, or other greenery which have been blessed on Palm Sunday in their homes or in their work places.

4. Should any instruction be given to the faithful?

According to the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy:

The faithful, however, should be instructed as to the meaning of this celebration so that they might grasp its significance.

They should be opportunely reminded that the important thing is participation at the procession and not only the obtaining of palm or olive branches.

Palms or olive branches should not be kept as amulets, or for therapeutic or magical reasons to dispel evil spirits or to prevent the damage these cause in the fields or in the homes, all of which can assume a certain superstitious guise.

Palms and olive branches are kept in the home as a witness to faith in Jesus Christ, the messianic king, and in his Paschal Victory.

5. What was Jesus doing at the Triumphal Entry?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains:

Jesus claims the right of kings, known throughout antiquity, to requisition modes of transport.

The use of an animal on which no one had yet sat is a further pointer to the right of kings. Most striking, though, are the Old Testament allusions that give a deeper meaning to the whole episode. . . .

For now let us note this: Jesus is indeed making a royal claim. He wants his path and his action to be understood in terms of Old Testament promises that are fulfilled in his person. . . .

At the same time, through this anchoring of the text in Zechariah 9:9, a “Zealot” exegesis of the kingdom is excluded: Jesus is not building on violence; he is not instigating a military revolt against Rome. His power is of another kind: it is in God’s poverty, God’s peace, that he identifies the only power that can redeem [Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 2].

6. What does the reaction of the crowd show?

It shows that they recognized him as their messianic king.

Benedict XVI notes:

The spreading out of garments likewise belongs to the tradition of Israelite kingship (cf. 2 Kings 9:13). What the disciples do is a gesture of enthronement in the tradition of the Davidic kingship, and it points to the Messianic hope that grew out of the Davidic tradition.

The pilgrims who came to Jerusalem with Jesus are caught up in the disciples’ enthusiasm. They now spread their garments on the street along which Jesus passes.

They pluck branches from the trees and cry out verses from Psalm 118, words of blessing from Israel’s pilgrim liturgy, which on their lips become a Messianic proclamation: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mk 11:9–10; cf. Ps 118:26).

7. What does the word “Hosanna” mean?

Benedict XVI explains:

Originally this was a word of urgent supplication, meaning something like: Come to our aid! The priests would repeat it in a monotone on the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles, while processing seven times around the altar of sacrifice, as an urgent prayer for rain.

But as the Feast of Tabernacles gradually changed from a feast of petition into one of praise, so too the cry for help turned more and more into a shout of jubilation.

By the time of Jesus, the word had also acquired Messianic overtones. In the Hosanna acclamation, then, we find an expression of the complex emotions of the pilgrims accompanying Jesus and of his disciples: joyful praise of God at the moment of the processional entry, hope that the hour of the Messiah had arrived, and at the same time a prayer that the Davidic kingship and hence God’s kingship over Israel would be reestablished.

8. Is the same crowd that cheered Jesus’ arrival the one that demanded his crucifixion just a few days later?

Benedict XVI argues that it was not:

All three Synoptic Gospels, as well as Saint John, make it very clear that the scene of Messianic homage to Jesus was played out on his entry into the city and that those taking part were not the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but the crowds who accompanied Jesus and entered the Holy City with him.

This point is made most clearly in Matthew’s account through the passage immediately following the Hosanna to Jesus, Son of David: “When he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying: Who is this? And the crowds said: This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee” (Mt 21:10–11). . . .

People had heard of the prophet from Nazareth, but he did not appear to have any importance for Jerusalem, and the people there did not know him.

The crowd that paid homage to Jesus at the gateway to the city was not the same crowd that later demanded his crucifixion.

9. This brings us to the Passion Narrative recorded in the Gospel. How is this to be read at Mass?

According to Paschales Solemnitatis:

33. The passion narrative occupies a special place. It should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the parts of Christ, the narrator and the people. The passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers. In the latter case, the part of Christ should be reserved to the priest.

The proclamation of the passion should be without candles and incense, the greeting and the signs of the cross are omitted; only a deacon asks for the blessing, as he does before the Gospel.

For the spiritual good of the faithful the passion should be proclaimed in its entirety, and the readings which precede it should not be omitted.

Looking for Something Good to Read?

May I suggest my commentary on the Gospel of Mark?

It goes through the whole text and provides fascinating information that you may have never heard before.

It also comes with a verse-by-verse study guide with questions that you or your study group can use.

And it comes with a lectionary-based study guide, so you can read along with Mark in the liturgy and ponder its meaning before or after Mass.

Right now, this commentary is available exclusively on Verbum Catholic software.

Verbum is an incredibly powerful study tool that I use every day, and I heartily recommend it to others.

I can also save you 10% when you get the commentary or one of the bundles of Verbum software. Just use the code JIMMY1 at checkout.

CLICK HERE TO GET JIMMY AKIN’S STUDIES ON MARK.

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PopeFrancis-fingerThis version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 25 February 2016 to 9 March 2016.

Angelus

Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

General Audiences

Homilies

Speeches

Papal Tweets

  • “Open your heart to mercy! Divine mercy is stronger than the sins of men” @Pontifex 3 March 2016
  • “Jesus Christ, with his closeness and tenderness, leads sinners into the place of grace and pardon. This is the mercy of God.” @Pontifex 4 March 2016
  • “May the Lord free us from all temptation that separates us from what is essential in our mission and help rediscover the beauty of faith.” @Pontifex 5 March 2016
  • “The Jubilee of Mercy is a propitious occasion to promote in the world ways to respect life and the dignity of each person.” @Pontifex 6 March 2016
  • “My life, my attitude, the way of going through life, must really be a concrete sign of the fact that God is close to us.” @Pontifex 7 March 2016
  • “Small gestures of love, of tenderness, of care, make people feel that the Lord is with us. This is how the door of mercy opens.” @Pontifex 8 March 2016
  • “God has caressed us with his mercy. Let us bring God’s tender caress to others, to those who are in need.” @Pontifex 9 March 2016

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peopleprayingHave you ever felt someone was preaching at you under the guise of praying to God?

Did it turn you off?

Make you feel manipulated?

You were right.

 

That We May What?

Many dioceses are currently conducting their annual Catholic appeal for various diocesan needs.

Fine. They need to do that.

But the way this works out at the parish level can leave something to be desired.

For example, at St. Nameless the Ambiguous’s Parish they’ve been having an entry in the prayers of the faithful which goes like this:

Petition: That we may respond generously to the annual Catholic appeal . . .

Response: Lord, hear our prayer.

I cringe when I hear this—and other prayers like it

 

“Preachy Prayers”

The thing that makes me cringe is the fact that the petition isn’t really directed to God.

It’s directed to those listening to the prayer.

It’s encouraging them do to something, and only in the most implicit way does it envision God doing anything.

We might call such petitions “preachy prayers,” because they are really preaching to the congregation under the guise of praying to God.

To the extent preaching to the audience is the goal, that makes this a kind of sham prayer.

Unfortunately, preachy prayers are common.

 

Everybody Does It

Catholics have no monopoly on this kind of prayer. They get made by all kinds of people on all kinds of subjects.

For example, I remember people commenting on the phenomenon when I was an Evangelical.

Sometimes an Evangelical minister—knowing that he was in front of people who weren’t religious (say, at a wedding or funeral)—would take the opportunity to preach the gospel at his audience in the form of a prayer.

While making a rather lengthy oration—ostensibly to God—he would run through the high points of an evangelistic message (sin, judgment, Christ’s atoning death on the cross, grace, forgiveness, justification, eternal life, etc.) and conclude with something like:

Lord, we turn to you—knowing that we have nothing of our own to bring, only to your Son’s cross we cling—and ask you to forgive our sins, so that though they be as scarlet, they may be made white as snow, and we trust only in you and your grace by faith alone, without any works on our part, that we may be with you forever in heaven. Amen.

Or words to that effect.

Preachy prayers can even turn up in formal, memorized prayers, like this mealtime prayer from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.

This one has an advantage over the first one I mentioned (about the annual appeal) in that it at least mentions God, but it’s fundamentally the same. The person who announces it to a group is telling the group what kind of attitude it should have (true thankfulness of food).

If we don’t notice this, it is likely because we aren’t small British children who are about to be told, after the prayer, to stop being picky and eat what is on our plates.

The kids notice it, though.

 

Why It’s So Easy to Fall Into

Preachy prayers frequently arise from good motives:

  • people need to contribute to charitable causes,
  • they need to find forgiveness and salvation,
  • and they need to be thankful that God has provided for the needs of this life

All those are good things.

And it can be really tempting, when you’re praying in front of a group of people, to forget that you’re really talking to God and, instead, start directly encouraging your hearers toward what ever good is on your mind.

 

The Problem

The problem is that this isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing in a prayer.

You’re supposed to be talking to God.

What’s more, if you’re leading a group of people in prayer then you’re supposed to be representing their thoughts to God.

At least for the moment, you’re acting as the group’s representative to God.

And the group is meant to agree to what you are saying to God on their behalf. That’s why they are expected to say “Amen” or “Lord, hear our prayer” or whatever the local custom is as soon as you stop praying.

This means that the group is giving you a sacred trust. They are letting you talk to God on their behalf.

You thus have a responsibility to represent the group in a way they approve of and not go off promoting your agenda rather than theirs.

There is some give an take here. After all, you’re not a mind reader, and you don’t know what everybody in the group thinks. But you do have a responsibility, as the group’s representative, to represent its petitions.

Any time the representative of a group starts promoting his agenda over that of the group, it’s bound to cause resentment.

Particularly when you have a captive audience.

 

Captive Audiences

There are certain social conventions that apply in prayer settings. One of them is that the person leading prayer gets to talk and the others stay quiet.

If the prayer leader asks God for something one of the group disagrees with, it would be a serious breach of etiquette for that person to shout, “Hey! I don’t buy that! Don’t go asking God for that on my behalf!”

Similarly, the group is expected to vocally express its assent at the end of the prayer.

There is thus social pressure on the group both to let you speak to God for them and to publicly agree with what you said once you’ve finished.

That means—due to the social dynamics of the situation—that you have something of a captive audience, which in turn means that you need to be extra respectful of their views and sensibilities.

 

The Scandal of Preachy Prayers

If you aren’t sensitive to the group in this way, you alienate them.

Of course, prayer leaders aren’t perfect, and they sometimes say things that various people in the group don’t agree with—or fully agree with.

To cover such possibilities, I have a standing intention whereby I ask God to accept whatever is good in a prayer being made by someone on my behalf. Even if I don’t fully agree, there’s always something good buried in the prayer leader’s intentions, and I ask God to accept that.

However, if I get the sense that the prayer leader isn’t really talking to God—but to me—my attitude changes.

“Hey! You’re supposed to be talking to God right now, not preaching at me,” I think. “If you want me to do something—donate, get saved, be thankful—then say it to me straight out, and I’ll be happy to consider it. But don’t go preaching at me under the guise of talking to God.”

Even if they can’t articulate it, group members recognize that something phony is happening. It’s not sincere. It’s not authentic.

And since it’s happening during prayer—which is sacred—it’s both phony and profane, a kind of holy hypocrisy.

Preachy prayers thus come off as sanctimonious and, since they encourage good behavior on the part of the listeners, as moralizing.

Also, since there is social pressure for the listeners to agree with what is being said, they come off as manipulative.

Sanctimonious, moralizing, and manipulative.

That’s a combination that will alienate people.

Thus, despite the good intentions behind them, preachy prayers can actually push the listener away from the intended goods rather than drawing him closer to them.

This makes them a scandal in the proper sense—something that pushes people away from the good.

 

They Have Already Received Their Reward

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has important things to say about how we should perform prayer and other acts of piety. Among them are these:

Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward.

And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward (Matt. 6:1-2, 5, 16).

Here Jesus is concerned with one specific form of hypocrisy—performing an act of piety in a showy fashion in order to gain the approval of other people rather than of God.

He indicates that the approval of others is all the reward that such people will get. The person may succeed in winning the approval of men, but God will not reward such actions, because they are not really directed to him.

The same applies to preachy prayers.

They may be done out of selfless motives (like encouraging people to seek God’s forgiveness) or they may be done out of selfish motives (like encouraging kids to stop complaining about their food), but don’t expect them to be further rewarded.

Like self-aggrandizing acts of piety, they aren’t—at their core—directed to God but to men, so don’t expect God to reward them.

 

Think Before You Pray

All of this is a way of encourage prayer leaders—which most of us are at one time or another—to think about what they are saying.

Put yourself in the position of those you are representing in prayer.

Does what you are about to say really represent something they would have you say to God on their behalf? Or are you about to preach at them under the guise of praying to God?

If it’s the latter, don’t say that prayer.

If you want to encourage them toward some good, do them the courtesy of talking to them directly. Don’t wrap your exhortation in the holy cloak of prayer.

You can pray for all kinds of goods, but some of them you may need to pray on your own rather than as a group prayer leader.

Remember: These people are letting you perform a sacred task on their behalf, and you need to avoid abusing that role.

You especially don’t need to come off as sanctimonious, moralizing, or manipulative.

Most importantly, you need to remember what your real focus is when you’re praying: God.

Just imagine how God must view such prayers: “Hey! If you’re going to talk to me then talk to me! Don’t sham talk at me while you’re really talking to someone else.”

If you’re going to talk to God then talk to God—don’t preach at your listeners.

 

 

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This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 22 January 2016 to 29 February 2016.

Angelus

Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

General Audiences

Homilies

Messages

Speeches

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anti-gun-control-rally-Reuters-640x480The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

This amendment, along with the various interpretations given to its opening clause, guarantees that gun ownership will be a perennial topic in American politics.

In recent years there has been a marked shift in favor of those who support gun rights.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the second amendment entails an individual right to possess a firearm for lawful purposes including self-defense within one’s home.

Public opinion polling has also shifted in recent years. Using two-year averages and data provided by the Gallup organization:

  • Those who felt that the nation’s laws on the sale of firearms should be made more strict dropped from 73% in 1990-1991 to 51% in 2014-2015.
  • Those who felt they should be less strict rose from 3% to 12% in the same time frame.
  • And those who thought they should be kept as they are now rose from 21% to 35%.

Similarly:

  • Those who thought there should be a law banning possession of handguns except by police and other authorized persons fell from 60% in 1959 to 27% in 2015.
  • In the same time frame, those who thought there should not be such a ban rose from 36% to 72%.

Both in legal courts and in the court of public opinion, those who favor gun rights have been making significant advances.

But what is happening in these arenas does not tell us much about what a Catholic should think concerning such subjects.

So: What does the Church teach?

 

Fundamental Principles

Firearms can be used for different purposes (hunting, target shooting, etc.), but here we will consider their use in self-defense.

An initial point of reference is found in the Gospel of Luke, where Our Lord indicates the legitimacy of the right to self-defense, telling the disciples:

Let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one (Luke 22:36).

In a modern context, the fundamental principles of self-defense are laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge

The Catechism thus acknowledges the right to use lethal force in self-defense, including on behalf of others, when the use of this force is moderate (i.e., when it is not practical to use less force).

 

Applying the Principles to Firearms

The Catechism does not specify the means by which one may use lethal force in self-defense, but this may be inferred: If you are in a situation where the only effective means you have of defending your life (or that of another) is a gun then you can use it.

As the saying goes, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.

This brings us to the question of gun ownership: Should you be allowed to have a gun?

 

Some Necessary Qualifiers

Of course, not everybody should be allowed to have a gun. Homicidal maniacs should not. Neither should toddlers.

In what follows, we’ll be considering ownership of firearms by ordinary, responsible people (responsibility including things like knowing how to use a gun and being committed to gun safety).

 

Statements of the Universal Magisterium

The Church’s universal magisterium is exercised either by the Roman pontiff or the worldwide college of bishops teaching in union with him.

I am not aware of any statements of the universal magisterium dealing with the ownership of firearms by ordinary, responsible individuals.

I am aware of no papal statements on this subject.

Neither am I aware of any statements by bodies such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which also exercises the universal magisterium when its decrees are expressly approved by the Roman pontiff (Donum Veritatis 18).

A search of the Vatican web site on the term “handgun” does not turn up any results.

A search using the term “firearms” turns up a handful of references. These reveal that you’re not allowed to bring firearms into the Vatican museums, that the Holy See is concerned about illicit trafficking in firearms, etc.

The only relevant statement from a body connected with the Holy See that I have been able to obtain (and it took some doing to get it, because it is not on the Vatican web site), is found in a 1994 document titled The International Arms Trade: An Ethical Reflection by the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace (PCJP). Under the heading “Furnishing Arms to Groups That Are Not States,” the document says:

It is urgent to find an effective way to stop the flow of arms to terrorist and criminal groups. An indispensible measure would be for each State to impose a strict control on the sale of handguns and small arms. Limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe upon the rights of anyone (4:8).

This document does not address the question of handguns and small arms (rifles, etc.) except under the rubric of keeping them out of the hands of terrorists and criminal organizations. It thus does not engage the broader self-defense question.

It sees “a strict control on the sale” of such weapons as important (“indispensible”) for keeping them away from terrorists and criminal organizations, but it does not define what would count as this form of control. Presumably that would be determined by the individual states.

The document does not call for a ban on the sale of such weapons. It speaks of “limiting the purchase” of them, apparently within bounds that would “not infringe upon the rights of anyone”—presumably including their self-defense rights.

Ultimately, this document does not engage the Church’s magisterium. As noted above, the express approval of the pope (then John Paul II) is required—even for the documents of the CDF—to do that, and this document does not carry John Paul II’s express approval. It is therefore a hortatory, advisory document of the PCJP but not Church teaching.

Thus we do not seem to have any doctrinal statements by popes, the CDF, or others capable of exercising the universal magisterium.

Nor has the college of bishops as a whole made such statements.

 

Statements of Particular Magisteria

By divine law, individual bishops are also capable of exercising the teaching authority of the Church in their own, particular sphere.

I am sure that various bishops around the world have expressed their views on gun ownership, though I am not aware of any who have attempted to exercise their personal magisterium in this regard. (There is a difference between a bishop expressing an opinion and his saying, “This is Church teaching.”)

What about groups of bishops?—for example, the episcopal conferences like the U.S. bishops?

These bodies do not exist by divine law. They are erected by ecclesiastical law to serve pastoral purposes, but they were not instituted by Christ, and so they do not have the same teaching authority that the Roman pontiff and individual bishops do.

Consequently, episcopal conferences can only engage the Church’s magisterium in special circumstances.

As John Paul II established in his 1998 motu proprio Apostolos suos:

In order that the doctrinal declarations of the Conference of Bishops referred to in No. 22 of the present Letter may constitute authentic magisterium and be published in the name of the Conference itself, they must be unanimously approved by the Bishops who are members, or receive the recognitio of the Apostolic See if approved in plenary assembly by at least two thirds of the Bishops belonging to the Conference and having a deliberative vote (IV:1).

If a doctrinal declaration were approved by each member of an episcopal conference then it would be equivalent to each bishop engaging his own magisterium, and so there would be a foundation in divine law for seeing the declaration as an expression of the Church’s magisterium.

Similarly, if the Holy See approved (gave recognitio) to the doctrinal decree then it would be equivalent to the Holy See exercising its magisterium, and thus there would again be a foundation in divine law. (The norm indicates, however, that the Holy See won’t consider doing this if a doctrinal declaration got less than a two-thirds vote by an episcopal conference.)

Most of the time, neither of these conditions is met, and so we have to read statements issued by or on behalf of bishops’ conferences with a significant degree of caution.

 

The U.S. Bishops and Guns

The views of individual U.S. bishops on guns appear to be mixed. That is virtually guaranteed by the fact there are more than 400 active and retired Catholic bishops in America, and unanimity among them on a public policy question that divides the American public is not to be expected.

Further, some bishops are known to be avid hunters and users of firearms.

This does not mean that there is not a generally prevailing opinion among the U.S. bishops. Judging by statements issued by representatives of the body, it would appear that the general ethos of the U.S. bishops conference favors gun restriction.

Whenever there are mass shootings, it is typical for representatives of the bishops to issue a statement of sympathy and condolence, and it is common for these to contain language supporting the restriction of firearms.

The same position is common in statements prepared by various bodies within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

For example, in 2000, the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Policy drafted a position paper titled Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, which was later approved by the conference as a whole. It states:

All of us must do more to end violence in the home and to find ways to help victims break out of the pattern of abuse. As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns (“Policy Foundations and Directions” 4).

A footnote to this section states:

However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society. “Furthermore, the widespread use of handguns and automatic weapons in connection with drug commerce reinforces our repeated ‘call for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society’” (U.S. Catholic Bishops, New Slavery, New Freedom: A Pastoral Message on Substance Abuse [Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1990], 10).

The original source of the call for an ultimate elimination of handguns is a 1975 statement of the bishops’ Committee on Social Development and World Peace titled Handgun Violence: A Threat to Life.

While these statements indicate a prevailing and longstanding view that favors handgun restriction among the U.S. bishops, it does not constitute Church teaching.

The relevant statements are not doctrinal declarations and do not fulfill the conditions specified in Apostolos Suos for being authentic (i.e., authoritative) magisterium.

The U.S. bishops thus have not engaged their collective, particular magisterium on this question and the statements in question are of a hortatory, advisory nature that reflects the prevailing opinion among U.S. bishops.

 

Conclusion

We thus arrive at the following takeaways:

  • Church teaching supports the right of individual self-defense, including the use of lethal force when necessary. It does not expressly address the means by which this may be carried out, but it is a reasonable inference that if a gun is the best way you have to defend yourself, you can use it.
  • The Church’s magisterium has not made any pronouncements regarding ordinary people possessing firearms for self-defense purposes, though the general ethos both at the Holy See and among the U.S. bishops seems to favor handgun restriction.
  • Therefore, this is an area in which, in Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, there may be “a legitimate diversity of opinion” among Catholics.

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gospel of markGod may have created man in his image, but there is a well-known tendency among biblical scholars to re-create Jesus in their own image.

The tendency is particularly notable among skeptical scholars, who feel more free than their conservative counterparts to dismiss or discount Gospel passages that don’t fit their theories.

In writing books on the life of Jesus, they can select, filter, and interpret evidence in a way that allows them to find the kind of Jesus they want—often one that is an idealized form of their own self-image.

Thus a Marxist scholar might read the Gospels and discover a Jesus who is a proto-Marxist revolutionary martyr that led a peasant uprising and fell afoul of the powerful and monied upper classes.

Big surprise.

 

“By their Lives of Jesus ye shall know them”

The tendency is so common that it led the British biblical scholar T. W. Manson to quip, “By their Lives of Jesus ye shall know them” (C. W. Dugmore, ed., The Interpretation of the Bible, 92).

This is a cutting insight about the foibles of biblical scholars, but it’s also something else: an unwitting reflection of what the Gospels might have been called if history had taken a different path.

Manson’s remark turns on the fact that modern scholars tend to write books with titles like The Life of Jesus or The Life of Christ. Search Amazon, and you’ll find multiple books with both titles, as well as variants on them.

And there’s a good reason for that. They are, after all, books about the life of Jesus.

They are, in fact, a specialized kind of biography—not the typical sort of biography that you’ll find in the biography section of a bookstore today. We don’t have the right kind and number of sources about the life of Jesus for that kind of biography to be written. But scholarly Lives of Jesus are nonetheless a form of “life writing” (Greek bios + graphē = “biography”).

The principal sources for modern Lives of Jesus are, of course, the Gospels. And that raises a question: Why aren’t the Gospels called Lives of Jesus?

They are, just like modern Lives of Jesus, about the life of Jesus. They are biographies. Specifically, they fall within the ancient Greek literary genre known as the bios (see Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography).

 

The Names of Ancient Biographies

Given that, we would expect them to have titles like Bios Iēsou (Greek, “Life of Jesus”) or Bios Christou (“Life of Christ”) or some similar variant.

Some ancient biographies were simply referred to by the name of the person who was their subject. Thus in Suetonius’s De Vitis Caesarum (Latin, “On the Lives of the Caesars”) the individual volumes are called “Tiberius,” “Caligula,” “Nero,” etc.

On that model, the Gospels might have been called simply Iēsous, Christos, Iēsous Christos, or a similar variant.

Whichever model would have been used, ancient biographies tended to have the word “life” (Greek, bios; Latin, vita), the name of the subject, or both in their titles.

So why don’t the Gospels?

 

Who Gave Books Their Titles?

Today, authors typically propose titles for their books, but publishers make the final decision. They may overrule the author’s proposal if they think that they have a title which will sell more copies.

In the ancient world, things were different. For one thing, there were no publishing houses. All books were self-published by their authors, which meant that the author could publish a book under any title he wished.

Yet many authors refrained from doing so. Surprising as it may seem, they sometimes released books without titles.

However, if the book proved popular, there needed to be some way to refer to it, and so it ended up getting a title, anyway.

This title was bestowed by those who used the book, such as by the booksellers who had copies made, the librarians who archived it, or the members of the public who read and promoted it.

Even if an author gave his book a title, this could be trumped by the users of the book.

Consequently, a book sometimes was given more than one title.

Yet the Gospels weren’t.

 

What We Don’t Find

It is often claimed that the Gospels circulated for a long time without any titles or authors—that the titles and authors were added at a much later date, perhaps in the second century.

If that is what happened then—as the German scholar Martin Hengel pointed out—we would expect to find copies of the Gospels or other early writings referring to them by multiple titles and authors, and we don’t (see Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, ch. 3).

Instead, we find them called things like Kata Maththaion, Kata Markon, Kata Loukan, and Kata Iōannēn (“According to Matthew,” “According to Mark,” “According to Luke,” and “According to John,” respectively).

Or we find them called things like Euangelion kata Maththaion (“Gospel According to Matthew”) and the expected variants.

On this model, neither the word “life” (bios) nor the name of the subject (Jesus) appears in the title.

Why not?

 

The Hebrew Scriptures

The books of the Hebrew Scriptures commonly go by different names than we use in English. For example, Genesis is known as Bereshit and Exodus is known as Shemot.

These names are taken from the opening verses of the books.

Bereshit means “in the beginning,” which is famous from the opening verse of Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1).

Shemot means “names,” which is also taken from the opening verse of Exodus:

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household (Ex. 1:1).

This may provide the key to which biographies of Jesus are called “Gospels” rather than “Lives” (Greek, bioi) of Jesus.

 

“Gospel” in the New Testament

One of the surprising things about the Gospels is how small a role the word “gospel” actually plays in them.

The term “gospel” (Greek, euangelion) and its verb form “evangelize” (Greek, euangelizō) appear 130 times in the New Testament, and these are broken down as follows:

  • Matthew: 5
  • Mark: 8
  • Luke: 19
  • John: 0
  • Acts: 17
  • Paul’s Letters (Romans-Philemon): 81
  • Hebrews: 2
  • James’s Letter: 0
  • Peter’s Letters (1-2 Peter): 4
  • John’s Letters (1-3 John): 0
  • Jude’s Letter: 0
  • Revelation: 3

As you can see, the terms “gospel/evangelize” are overwhelmingly used by Paul. Though the Gospels are each longer than any of Paul’s letters, the terms are used less frequently in each of them.

 

Renormalizing the Numbers

The above raw occurrences of “gospel” and “evangelize” are instructive, but they are more so when we adjust (or “renormalize”) based on the length of the works in question. To do this, we need to know the number of words in the Greek texts of each of the above sources, which are approximately as follows:

  • Matthew: 18,345 (Greek words)
  • Mark: 11,304
  • Luke: 19,482
  • John: 15,635
  • Acts: 18,451
  • Paul’s Letters (Romans-Philemon): 32,407
  • Hebrews: 4,953
  • James’s Letter: 1,743
  • Peter’s Letters (1-2 Peter): 2,783
  • John’s Letters (1-3 John): 2,141
  • Jude’s Letter: 461
  • Revelation: 9,852

If we divide these word counts by the number of occurrences of the words “gospel” and “evangelize,” we obtain the following results:

  • Matthew: 3,669 (Greek words per mention of “gospel/evangelize”)
  • Mark: 1,413
  • Luke: 1,025
  • John: N/A
  • Acts: 1,085
  • Paul’s Letters (Romans-Philemon): 400
  • Hebrews: 2,477
  • James’s Letter: N/A
  • Peter’s Letters (1-2 Peter): 696
  • John’s Letters (1-3 John): N/A
  • Jude’s Letter: N/A
  • Revelation: 3,284

The entries listed as “N/A” indicate places where the overall word count would have to be divided by zero, because the word “gospel” never occurs in the works in question.

The others indicate how many words of a given text you would need to read in order to (on average) encounter one occurrence of “gospel” or “evangelize.” Thus in Matthew you would need to read around 3,669 words to encounter either of these words.

These averages make it clear that “gospel/evangelize” is one of Paul’s favored terms. You need only to read 400 words by Paul to encounter one of them. They are also favored words of Peter. You’d need to read 696 of his words to encounter one of them.

Among the Gospels and Acts, these terms are favored of Luke, who uses them for about one in a thousand words of his Gospel and Acts. They are slightly less common in Mark, who uses them for one in 1,400 of his words. Matthew uses them much less frequently (one in 3,700 words), and John does not use them at all.

From this we may draw the general lesson that “gospel/evangelize” was a favored term by Paul and Peter, and it was used to a similar but lesser extent by their associates Luke and Mark. Other New Testament authors used them less frequently or not at all.

 

Initial Mentions

For our purposes, the most important thing is not the average number of words per mention of “gospel/evangelize” but how soon the relevant term appears.

If the name “Gospel” was based on the first verse of the work in question, as in the books of the Hebrew Bible, what could be responsible?

Here are the first verses of each Gospel:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1).

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1).

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us (Luke 1:1).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).

From this it would seem that only Mark could have served as the origin of the term “Gospel” in the titles, for only he uses it in the first verse of his work.

Even if we expand our scope beyond the first verse, other Gospels would not have been the source. In Matthew, “gospel/evangelize” does not appear until the fourth chapter (Matt. 4:23), in Luke it does not appear until the nineteenth verse (Luke 1:19), and in John it does not appear at all.

The strong suggestion, then, is that the Gospels are called “Gospels” because Mark included this word in his very first verse.

 

The Key to the Name “Gospel”

Does Mark’s first verse hold the key to why we call the original biographies of Jesus “Gospels” rather than “Lives”?

The British scholar B. H. Streeter thought so. He wrote:

The world-wide circulation of Mark affords an easy and natural explanation of what, from the purely linguistic point of view, is the rather curious usage by which the word “Gospel” became the technical name for a biography of Christ. The Greek word euangelion means simply “good news,” and in the New Testament it is always used in its original sense of the good news of the Christian message. Commentators have tried elaborately to trace a gradual evolution in the meaning of the word until it acquired this new usage. No such gradual evolution is necessary, or even probable. Among the Jews it was a regular practice to refer to books, or sections of books, by a striking word which occurred in the opening sentence. That is how Genesis and Exodus derived the titles by which they are known in the Hebrew Bible, i.e. “In the Beginning” and “(these are the) Names.” As soon as portions of Mark were read in the services of the Church—and that would be at once—it would be necessary to have a name to distinguish this reading from that of an Old Testament book. Mark opens with the words archē tou euangeliou, “The beginning of the Gospel.” Archē [Greek, “beginning”] would be too like the Hebrew name for Genesis, so euangelion (nom.) would be an obvious title. When, fifteen or twenty years later, other Lives of Christ came into existence, this use of “Gospel” as a title would be an old-established custom and would be applied to them also. Then it would become necessary to distinguish these “Gospels” from one another-hence the usage to euangelion kata Markon, kata Loukan, the Gospel according to Mark, to Luke, etc. (The Four Gospels, 497-498).

Where Mark Got the Term

According to the above figures, “gospel/evangelize” appears to be Paul’s word. It occurs more frequently in his writings than in other books of the New Testament.

Since Mark was a companion of Paul (see Acts 12:25, 13:5-13), he could have gotten his use of the term from Paul.

However, Mark was only a companion of Paul for a short time, during the First Missionary Journey, and Paul refused to take him on the Second Missionary Journey (see Acts 15:37-39).

This leaves us with the question of whether Mark may have picked up his use of “gospel/evangelize” from Peter. We first learn of Mark when we read that Peter went to the house of Mark’s mother in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), and later we learn that he was with Peter in Rome (1 Peter 5:13).

Multiple sources among the Church Fathers indicate that Mark served for a long time as Peter’s companion and interpreter, which may mean that he picked up his usage of “gospel/evangelize” from Peter.

Although Paul uses this term most frequently, in a footnote, Martin Hengel writes:

I wonder whether there could not be a Petrine understanding of the term (Studies in the Gospel of Mark, 72 fn. 50).

Based on our renormalization of the references to “gospel/evangelize” with the length of the New Testament sources, Hengel’s suggestion seems a plausible one. Peter/Mark uses the pair of terms almost as often as Paul/Luke, and both pairs uses it much more frequently than other New Testament sources.

This suggests that Mark’s use of the terms may be based on Peter’s. It also suggests, given Paul’s derivative status as an apostle (cf. Gal. 1:18, 2:1-2), that he may have picked up this usage from others—perhaps including Peter—and that he then made it his own in a special way and passed the usage on to Luke.

 

The Titles of the Gospels

However “gospel” found its way into the first verse of Mark, this is very probably the basis on which the other first century biographies of Jesus came to be called “gospels.”

This has implications for the order in which they were written.

As Streeter suggests, if Mark was the first Gospel written and read in the churches, it would have been necessary to give it some form of title to distinguish it from the various Old Testament readings that were already established.

Thus there would need to be an ancient equivalent of the modern liturgical statement:

A reading from the Gospel according to Mark . . .

Even if “according to Mark” had not yet been added due to the lack of other Gospels, a statement like “A reading from the Gospel . . . ” would need to have been used.

When Matthew, Luke, and John were written, the modifiers “according to Matthew/Mark/Luke/John” (kata Maththaion/Markon/Loukan/Iōannēn) then would have been introduced.

However, if one of the others had come first, the use of the term “Gospel” would be difficult to explain.

None of the others include the term “gospel” (euangelion) in their first verse or near it, and it would have been much more likely that the natural term bios (“life”) or the name of the subject, Iēsous, Christos, or Iēsous Christos (“Jesus,” “Christ,” or “Jesus Christ”) would have been used instead.

The best explanation of the data we have is thus that Mark was the first Gospel written and his initial verse, with its term “gospel,” supplied the name of the reading of this work in the liturgy. When Matthew, Luke, and John later wrote their similar works, they came to be called by this title and the author attribution (kata/“according to” so-and-so) was introduced.

 

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