At the Second Vatican Council, in November 1965, the Council Fathers published a document entitled ‘Dei Verbum’ (The Word Of God), the ‘Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation’. This was – and continues to be – an enormously important document in the life and teaching of the Catholic Church. It looked at Sacred Scripture and it’s rightful interpretation, it’s place within the Church and the life of faith, and it’s connection to Sacred Tradition.
The intention of the document was summarised succinctly in the final paragraph –
“..through the reading and study of the sacred books ‘the word of God may spread rapidly and be glorified’ (2 Thess. 3:1) and the treasure of revelation, entrusted to the Church, may more and more fill the hearts of men. Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similar we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God, which ‘lasts forever’ (Is. 40:8; see 1 Peter 1:23-25).” (Pope Paul VI: ‘Dei Verbum’, para.26)
Contrary to a long-standing misconception, Catholics do read the Bible and we also place great emphasis on it. Pope Paul illustrates this point, when he writes –
“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body .. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture” (‘Dei Verbum’, para.21)
For the sake of clarity and brevity, here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say on this point –
“The Church ‘forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ’.. The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord” (DV 21): both nourish and govern the whole Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para.131 and 141)
However, it is probably true to say that as Catholics, we use the Bible in a different way to other Christian churches.
For some Catholics, the most frequent contact we have with the Bible may be through the readings at Mass every Sunday – these readings being set out in a particular sequence to tell the story of Salvation History over the course of the liturgical year. For many others, the Bible extends beyond this – it forms a central part of the rich tapestry of the spiritual life of the Christian; it is to be read, meditated upon, understood (under the guidance of the Church) and lived out every day. And for Priests and Religious, the Sacred Scriptures are very much part of their daily devotional practices, in the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, the ‘Divine Office’.
Sacred Scripture is the story of the gradual revelation of God, gently at first, with promises of the Messiah still to come, and then finding it’s full and perfect revelation in the person of Jesus Christ – Who is that Messiah.
As such, it is a source of inexhaustible treasures for the soul, a deep well which never runs dry, ‘a lamp for the feet’ which lights our path and guides us forward toward the Lord in our journey of faith.
There are a variety of different ways of becoming more familiar with the Scriptures – but the singular most important point is simply that we do so, that we make the effort to incorporate the Scriptures into our lives, so that they may ‘more and more fill the hearts of men’, as Pope Paul describes above. When the Scriptures fill the heart, they change and transform the heart, too.
One fairly easy way of becoming ever more familiar with the Scriptures is by reading the words of the Popes and the comments they make on Sacred Scripture – the encyclical and apostolic letters of the Holy Fathers constantly refer back to the Scriptures and offer deeper insights into them. Also, the general addresses – such as the weekly Angelus – of the present Pope very often focus on particular passages and place these under a beautiful light for our prayerful consideration.
Those who pray the Rosary well, for whom the meditation on the Mysteries is the ‘soul’ while the vocal prayers are the ‘body’, should already be very familiar with the Scriptures, as the Rosary is rightly called ‘the Bible on a chain’. The Rosary is deeply Biblical in the prayers it contains and the words of those prayers – the words of the Angel and of St Elizabeth in the ‘Hail Mary’, together with the words of Our Blessed Lord in the ‘Our Father’, and the echoing prayer of the Church in the ‘Glory Be’.
The Rosary focusses on the central events of the Gospels – from the Annunciation, to the Nativity, then on to the public ministry of Jesus (in the Luminous Mysteries), before moving toward His Passion and Death in the Sorrowful Mysteries, and culminating in the Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost in the Glorious Mysteries. Note that the final two Glorious Mysteries are also Biblical, contrary to the beliefs of some; they refer to events described in the Book of Revelation (cf. Rev:12) and illustrate the point that for Catholics, we place an equally heavy emphasis on the Sacred Tradition of the Church.
One excellent method of praying the Rosary is by reading the relevant Scriptural passage prior to the particular Mystery being prayed – the one becomes the beating heart for the other, the time of prayer becoming one of reflection and deepened meditation.
It is also a good practice to read the Scripture passages of the Mass of the day, and to use these in the sequence laid out by the Church. Or we may simply pick up our Bible, begin with one of the Gospels and keep reading, before returning to the start and beginning afresh, moving through each of the four Gospels.
The writings of Saint Paul are also exceptionally beautiful (and contain great lessons for us), as are the Psalms of the Old Testament.
In his apostolic letter ‘Misericordia et Misera’, Pope Francis made an explicit recommendation concerning the reading of Sacred Scripture –
“It would be beneficial if every Christian community, on one Sunday of the liturgical year, could renew its efforts to make the Sacred Scriptures better known and more widely diffused. It would be a Sunday given over entirely to the word of God, so as to appreciate the inexhaustible riches contained in that constant dialogue between the Lord and his people. Creative initiatives can help make this an opportunity for the faithful to become living vessels for the transmission of God’s word. Initiatives of this sort would certainly include the practice of lectio divina, so that the prayerful reading of the sacred text will help support and strengthen the spiritual life. Such a reading, centred on themes relating to mercy, will enable a personal experience of the great fruitfulness of the biblical text – read in the light of the Church’s spiritual tradition – and thus give rise to concrete gestures and works of charity.” (Pope Francis: ‘Misericordia et Misera’, para.7)
The Holy Father leaves it to the local Churches to determine how to do this and to decide on the form, acknowledging the creativity of the faithful, led by the promptings and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It will be interesting to watch how this develops and to see the forms it takes.
However, he recommended the practice of ‘lectio divina’ as a part of this initiative – a prayerful reading of the Word of God which is already very well established in the lives of the faithful in many places, but which he would like to see spread even further, as it is an excellent way to move deeper into the Scriptures.
Originating from the ancient monastic tradition, this form of prayer consists, at it’s most basic level, of prayerfully reading a short passage from the Word of God, having first invoked the light and guidance of the Holy Spirit. After reading, the passage is meditated upon and then read again, with prayerful consideration given to what has been read. Finally, the soul engages with the Lord, Who is revealed in this Scripture, in prayer which flows from the reading. This is a good form of prayer for both an individual and a group.
Perhaps, for many of us, this is a good time in which to take up this suggestion of the Holy Father, to sit and quietly read the Scriptures – alone, or as a family, or as a group – and to become more familiar with them, praying over them and pondering what they contain.
As Saint Jerome, the great Biblical scholar, said – “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”. In the Sacraments, we experience the Merciful Lord and His touch. In the Scriptures, we come to know this Lord better, for it is here that He is fully revealed to us in all His beauty, compassion and mercy; and it is in the Scriptures that “the Church constantly finds her nourishment and strength” (Catechism, para.104).
May the Merciful Lord open our hearts and our minds to hear and to ponder His Word in the Scriptures.