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, 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 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 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


Pope Francis is visiting the US this week. His stances on climate change, homosexuality, divorce, and capitalism, among other issues, have been inspiring Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We might say he’s building bridges, a fitting description for a pontiff.

Like a bridge over troubled etymology?
Like a bridge over troubled etymology? “Bridge.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Pontiff crosses into English from the French pontif in the late 1500s. The word originally named a “bishop” or any “high priest” but eventually settled on one in particular: the bishop of Rome, or the Pope. French fashioned pontif from Latin’s pontifex, a title which is certainly not ancient history. You can find the Pope on Twitter. He’s @pontifex; at @pontifex_lnhe even tweets in Latin.

Pontifex connects two Latin words: pons, “bridge,” and –fex, a “maker,” from the verb facere. Pontifices were powerful priests in Ancient Rome who helped administer religious law, with the pontifex maximus heading their council, or collegium. Over time, emperors, including Julius Caesar, came to function as the pontifex maximus. Early Roman Catholic bishops borrowed the title in the 4th century, with the bishop of bishops, the Pope, eventually donning the supreme title along with his mitre.

Why bridge building? Ernest Weekley comments that “bridge-building has always been regarded as a pious work of divine inspiration.” Indeed, the Tiber-spanning Pons Sublicius, the oldest known bridge in the city,  was sacred. In his History of Rome, Theodor Mommsen observes that the pontifices:

Derived their name from their function, as sacred as it was politically important, of conducting the building and demolition of the bridge over the Tiber. They were the Roman engineers, who understood the mysteries of measures and numbers

Eric Partridge adds that ancient Rome was known as the “city of bridges.” Metaphorically, the name works, with priests “bridging” gods and men, which the Online Etymology Dictionary points out, but this may be due to folk etymology, as we’ll see.

Pons also had an earlier meaning in Latin: a “path,” “road,” “way,” or “passage.” Ernest Klein  comments that the original meaning of pontifex was “waymaker” or “pathfinder.” Is this “way” also figurative? Well, Walter Skeat remarks that the early pontifex was “one who leads to the temple” or “leads the way in a procession. Jordan Shipley adds clergy in the Middle Ages helped pilgrims find the roads – and some argue oversaw their very construction – to sacred shrines. All roads lead to Rome, after all.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots grounds pons in the Proto-Indo-European *pent-, “to tread” or “go,” source of English’s path and find and even Russian’s sputnik.

Catholics may deem the Pope infallible, but none of these etymologies are. Pontifex, the “bridge builder,” may be the construction of folk etymology, which changes a word based on mistaken beliefs about its nature. Etymologists, including Weekley, suggest Oscan and Umbrian roots (puntis) meaning “propitiary offering.” Shipley connects this to the Greek pompe (πομπή), a “religious procession,” from a verb meaning “to send.” He goes on to say pontifex was originally pompifex. So, perhaps the more unfamiliar puntis or pompe was altered to resemble pontifex in sound and sense.

This Greek pompe produced the pomp in pomp and circumstance as well as pompous, which may characterize someone who is pontificating. This term began as “to perform the functions of a pontiff,” evolving to its current sense via the dogmatic decrees associated with powerful pontiffs. But for this pontifex, as we are seeing, pomp and pontification don’t build bridges. They burn them.

Bridge_Ink on Paper_scribblem ∫ r ∫