Apostolic what?: It should be Greek to you

At least from what I’ve seen, most news outlets are referring to it as a “document.” Urging priests to show more compassion towards gay, divorced, and unmarried Catholics, Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, or “The Joy of Love,” is technically called a “post-synodal apostolic exhortation,” a name almost as long as its 250-plus pages.

A post-synodal apostolic exhortation is a strong advisement (“exhortation”) issued by the pope (“apostolic”) after bishops have gathered to discuss a particular theme (“post-synodal”), here, the contemporary family in the Catholic church. Such a pronouncement does not officially change Church doctrine.

Is that Greek to you? Well, the actual words are, mostly.

Exhortation

Exhortation, or “admonishment” or “incitement,”  ultimately derives from the Latin exhortāri, which joins ex-, here an intensive prefix meaning “thoroughly,” and hortāri, “to encourage.”

The Oxford English Dictionary first cites exhortation in 1382 in Wycliffe’s Bible, which may suggest the word has long carried a religious weight. The verb form is documented about a century later, though a French variant, enhort, is recorded in Wycliffe’s Bible.

Hortatory, if you want some encouragement in your vocabulary, is a fancy way to describe something that provides exhortation.

Apostolic

Apostolic is an adjective form of “apostle.” The word has long been associated as one of the Four Marks of the Church, first issued in 381 in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”

In the creed, apostolic essentially means that the church continues on from the Twelve Apostles. Pope Francis is the Bishop of Rome, who, as Catholics believe, ultimately succeeds St. Peter, the first pope and representative of Jesus Christ on earth.

So, St. Peter was an apostle but also the first pope, hence apostolic also refers to “the successor of St. Peter,” or “papal.” The OED indeed first cites this meaning of apostolic in a 1477 published by Caxton, who first brought the printing press to England.

The earliest form of apostle is actually apostol, found as early as the 900s in reference to the Twelve Apostles. We owe the modern form, apostle, to a subsequent French borrowing in Middle English.

Apostle is a Greek word: ἀπόστολος (apostolos) was a “messenger,” “ambassador,” or “envoy,” literally “one sent forth.” According to Christian tradition, Christ “sent forth” his apostles to preach his gospel. At  root is ἀποστέλλειν (apostellein), “to send away.” Apostellein sends a versatile prefix, apo- (“away”) off with stellein,  another a versatile word, meaning “to send.”

An epistle, or “letter,” is similarly formed in the Greek, but features instead epi -, a prefix here meaning “at.”

Synod

Synod is also a religious word from Greek. Since the late 14th century, a synod has been referring to various “assemblies” of clergy, as σύνοδος (synodos) so meant in Greek.

Let’s break apart this “meeting”: synodos brings together syn- (“together”) and hodos (a “way”). The latter is also featured in period, which I discussed in an older post on punctuation.

Latin borrowed the term from Greek, English from the Latin. Some 17th-century scientists applied synod to astronomical conjunctions.

In the Catholic Church, a synod usually refers to the Synod of Bishops, who assemble regularly, though sometimes urgently, from all over the world to advise the pope on important church matters. Synods in 2014 and 2015 were called to address the family, eventually yielding Francis’ Amoris Laetitia.

Universal (and European) language

Thanks in part to important translations of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek and to the development of the early spread of the Church in Greece, Catholic terminology brims with Greek terms. And, of course, many more Latin ones, too.

But, as far as his post-synodal apostolic exhortation is concerned, this pontiff is aiming for the more universal language of love – as well as in French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish, if we look to the other translations of Amoris Laetitia thus far released.

m ∫ r s

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One thought on “Apostolic what?: It should be Greek to you

  1. In some writings in the NT apostolos is used to refer to more than just the Twelve. Acts 14:14, for instance, refers to Barnabas and Paul as apostles and in Romans 16:7 Paul refers to Andronicus and Junia as apostles and elsewhere certainly could be interpreted as including other in this category; and Hebrews 3:1 (generally doubted to be of authentic Pauline authorship) refers to Christ himself as Apostle and High Priest (presumably, here, apostle of God).
    This is interesting because Paul himself is opposed to authority structures in the church, considering elevated roles to be granted by the community themselves (via the laying on of hands); this concept of apostolic succession is still emphasised by the Eastern churches and some Protestant groups; for these, “apostolic” retains the wider sense as of Paul and others of “authentic follower/messenger of Christ.”
    The Catholic Church, however, emphasised the apostolic commission in Matthew 16:18–19, whereby it is specifically Peter to whom Christ grants absolute authority (“whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” – this caused a somewhat long-running spat between Their Various Holinesses and the Holy Roman Emperors as to who actually was the boss). As such, when the Catholic Church uses the term “apostolic” in reference to writings from the Pope it is with more force: it is reinforcing and reminding adherents of the strength of the exhortation. Thus, for instance, when Benedict XII exerted papal infallibility in Benedictus Deus he issued the bull “with apostolic authority” (auctoritate apostolica).
    (By the way, sp. “envoy” for “enjoy”?)

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