Four Gospels mentioned in the Bible; watching Mass on TV

Q: As you are aware, the four Gospels in the Catholic Bible are based on the writings of saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But recently, as I was channel surfing, I came across a television program that spoke of the Gospels of Judas Iscariot, Peter the Apostle and Mary Magdalene.

When I mentioned this to a couple of Catholic friends, they told me that there are in fact many different Gospels, in addition to the four we all know and the three referenced on television. If that is so, then why doesn't our Bible include all of the Gospels? (Camp Hill, Pa.)

A: From the earliest days of the church, and certainly from the midpoint of the second century, four and only four Gospels have generally been regarded by Christian authors as the official (or "canonical") Gospels and have thus found their way into the Bible, namely, the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

It is true that there are several dozen other documents (or fragments of documents) which are sometimes referred to as "Gospels," including the ones your question mentions.

Those, however, have never been widely regarded as authentic and contemporaneous accounts of the words and actions of Christ, and are commonly called "apocryphal" Gospels. The differences between canonical and apocryphal Gospels are notable.

The canonical Gospels were written, broadly speaking, during the apostolic period, while the apostles of Jesus or their immediate disciples were still alive. Those narratives were given nearly immediate acceptance by the Christian churches of the East and the West and universally recognized as authentic.

In fact, around 140 A.D., the author Tatian produced a harmonization of excerpts from the four canonically recognized Gospels. Accounts from the apocryphal Gospels, on the other hand, were used only sporadically by scattered groups and never gained wide acceptance. References to the apocryphal Gospels are found later on, around the end of the second century.

In addition, the canonical Gospels are fairly straightforward and largely consistent accounts of the life and sayings of Jesus, while the apocryphal ones are rife with stories of a legendary and unique nature. In trying to meet the demands of popular piety, they often conceive of events (e.g., "miracles" performed by Jesus while he was still a child) which the canonical Gospels mention not at all.

Some of the apocryphal Gospels are also clearly heretical and gnostic (purporting to relate some "secret teachings" of Jesus).

Q: I would like to know whether watching Mass on television fulfills one's obligation. My husband never goes to church, but he does watch Mass on TV every Sunday. I attend Mass regularly, although I have missed church recently because of my health. (Louisville, Ky.)

A: The simple answer to your question is "no." Watching Mass on television does not fulfill one's Sunday obligation. Assuming that your husband is a Catholic and is in reasonable health, he is required to be at Mass in person. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in section 2180, specifies that the Sunday obligation is satisfied by "assistance" at Mass, and every commentator I have read views that to mean attendance at a eucharistic celebration.

Such a reading would seem logical since Jesus said (Mt 18:20): "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." The Eucharist has a community dimension that strengthens the faith of participants. It was with deliberate purpose that Jesus directed His memory to be kept alive by His disciples sharing in a meal.

Although taking holy Communion at Mass is not required to satisfy the Sunday obligation, it seems clear that those who participate most fully are the ones who receive back from the Lord the sacred food offered in sacrifice. That gift, of course, is not available to television viewers.

The televised Mass has great value for those whose illness or infirmity precludes them from being in church. It would be incorrect to say watching television fulfills their obligation. Simply put, there is for them no obligation. They are dispensed.

But shut-ins can derive real spiritual benefit from following the prayers and readings of the Mass on television. I would suggest that shut-ins can multiply that benefit by asking to be placed on their parish's Communion list so that an extraordinary Minister of holy Communion will visit them regularly.

Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970