Catholicism is a religion that began in an Aramaic-speaking part of a Greek-speaking part of a Latin-speaking empire. This has created perhaps the greatest legacy of linguistic mash-ups this side of the Norman invasion of the British Isles (wherein the French-speaking Normans ran into, or rather over, the Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons and bequeathed to us English-speakers a language in which we raise cattle but eat beef). Since I’m a word nerd, and since I thought others might find it useful, I’ve put together a short list of words commonly used in our religion, in theology, liturgy, etc., which have an archaic provenance, and provided their original meanings in their original language. If there are others you’d like to know, please ask!
Alleluia/Hallelujah – from Hebrew, a compound word: hallel, “praise,” and jah, a shortened form of “Yahweh.” When we sing this word before the reading of the Gospel during Mass, we are singing, “Praise God! Praise God! Praise God!” Fitting words to greet the pronouncement of the Good News. Speaking of which…
Gospel – from Old English godspell, translation of the Greek term evangelion, “good news.” This may help you connect a few things: some translations of the Bible have Jesus proclaiming “the good news,” while the evangelists write gospels. These words are all connected. An evangelist spreads the Gospel, which is good news, the good news of our salvation in Christ.
Amen – Hebrew, “so be it,” “truly,” an affirmation. Some Bible translations will render the word in English, while others leave it in Hebrew: you might find Jesus saying, “Truly, truly I say to you” or “Amen, amen, I say to you.” When you say amen, you are assenting to what has just been said.
Hosanna – Hebrew, “save” or “rescue.” Though it began as a plea, it became a word of praise, a word of trust in God who saves us. When the people of Jerusalem shouted this word as Jesus entered the city, it was in praise of him whom they believed to be the Messiah, who would bring about God’s saving action for his people. We do the same during the Mass when we echo their words: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Kyrie Eleison/Christe Eleison – Greek, “Lord, have mercy/Christ, have mercy.” You probably knew what this one meant, as he often translate it into English, but I mention it so as to share with you two points of interest: 1) Back in the day when the Mass was in Latin, this phrase remained in the liturgy in Greek. 2) The word kyrios, “Lord,” came into Greek from the name of the Persian king Cyrus. Cyrus à kyrios. We’ve seen similar things in other languages: the German word kaizer and the Russian word czar are both derived from Caesar, and the Polish word for king, krol, is derived from Carolus, as in Carolus Magnus, or Charlemagne, as we know him in English. (Thanks to Fr. Albert Paretsky, OP, for sharing that tidbit in class.)
Christ/Messiah – These two words are related. Christos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic massiach, which means “anointed one.” It refers to one chosen by God for a special purpose. In the Old Testament, kings, and occasionally prophets and priests, were anointed upon the reception of their office. Who is the only person in the Old Testament referred to as “God’s anointed one”? David? Moses? Aaron? Nope. That would be the aforementioned Cyrus, king of Persia. In the book of Isaiah, Cyrus is called the anointed because it was through his conquering of the Babylonians that the Israelites were freed from their captivity there and allowed to return to their land and rebuild the temple. Jesus, who frees us from our sins and who himself is the fulfillment of the temple, is the one who has fulfilled God’s ultimate purpose, and is so most truly called Messiah or Christ: he is the Messiah.
Apostle – from the Greek verb apostolein, “to be sent.” In the Christian context, an apostle is one who is sent by one with authority to carry out that one’s will. Christ is the true apostle, the one sent by the Father to effect his will of salvation for his people; likewise, Christ chooses and sends others to carry on this mission; and the apostles selected others and commissioned them. Those with authority to carry out a mission or serve a role give that authority to others to carry it on. This is the notion of apostolic succession. The term apostle is usually applied to the Twelve, but it is also sometimes used in the tradition for people who are sent to a certain area to bring the Gospel message for the first time, e.g. St. Boniface as the “Apostle to Germany” or Sts. Cyril and Methodius as the “Apostles to the Slavs.”
Disciple – from the Latin discipulus, “student.” Those who are called disciples of Jesus in the New Testament are his followers, broadly speaking. This term should be distinguished from “apostle,” but too often people will mix them up or lump them all together, e.g. by referring to the “twelve disciples.” True, all apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles. Let’s not lose their special designation.
Catholic – from the Greek katholikos, “universal” or “whole.” This term came to be applied to the Church very early on, in 107 by St. Ignatius of Antioch. The Church can be called “catholic” in a number of related senses: it is meant for all people (not just for a particular ethnic group or social class); it includes all Christians, even if some are imperfectly united to it (e.g. Protestants, Orthodox, eastern Christians); it teaches the faith in its entirety. You hear it in the Nicene Creed as one of the four marks of the Church: “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” Hmm, perhaps a post on the four marks of the Church would be warranted? Yes? No?
Church – from the German kirche, from the Greek ekklesia, “the called-out ones.” The Church consists of those who are called out from the world to follow Christ. Not in the sense of leaving it altogether, but in the classic sense of being “in the world but not of the world,” of knowing that heaven and earth will pass away, that this life is not all there is to life.
Sacrament – from the Latin sacramentum, “oath,” the translation of the Greek mysterion, “mystery.” The sacraments are bonds of grace that God has made with His people. They are His promises, His oaths to us, that He will provide for our spiritual well-being through these signs instituted by Christ and given to His Church for our salvation and sanctification.
Eucharist – from the Greek eucharistein, “thanksgiving.” There’s a whole lot of eucharistic theology one could get into here, but just remember: the Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
Baptism – from the Greek baptizos, “washing, cleansing.” The connection here should be fairly obvious, especially if you’ve seen a full immersion baptism before.
Pope – from the Greek papa, “father.” As the successor of St. Peter and head of the church of Rome, the church which “presides in love” (as St. Ignatius put it) over all the Christian churches, the bishop of Rome is rightly called the spiritual father of all Christians. This is why you’ll hear the pope referred to as the “Holy Father.”
Cardinal – from the Latin cardo, “hinge.” The designation of cardinal is given to those who exercise especially important responsibilities within the universal church, whether it’s leading a large and important diocese or heading up a Vatican office; the church’s welfare “hinges” on their good work. Interesting note: the bird known as the cardinal was given that name because its color matched the garments of the “princes of the church.”
Bishop – from the Greek episkopos, “overseer.” The bishop is responsible for “overseeing” the good of his local church, his diocese. Say, that’s a good one…
Diocese – derived from the name of the emperor Diocletian, who divided the Roman Empire into smaller administrative bodies which took his name. As the empire declined and fell, Christian bishops were often left as the only local leaders capable of taking on the governing responsibilities of the diocese, so that the bishop’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction came to be identified with this area.
Priest – from the Greek presbyteros, “elder,” by way of the Germanic word priester, “priest.” I mention the Germanic root in this case because you’ll see quite a bit of controversy with Protestants over whether the New Testament presbyters can be identified with Catholic and Orthodox priests. The answer would seem to lie in the etymology: our word for priest does not derive from the Greek word for pagan cultic priest, hiereus, or the Latin word, sacerdos. This is a strong indication that the present-day priest is the successor of the New Testament presbyter.
Deacon – from the Greek diakonos, “servant” or “minister.” In the Acts of the Apostles, seven men are chosen as diakonoi to assist the apostles with their duties in “serving” the Christian community. Likewise, the modern-day deacon assists the bishop in serving the Church by proclaiming the Gospel, preaching the homily, baptizing, and performing funeral rites, as well as teaching, serving the poor, and various other tasks.