The upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Word of God includes in its working document, the instrumentum laboris (IL), a phrase that will present a powerful challenge to the bishops and theologians gathered in Rome in October: “The Word of God should lead to love of neighbor.” As participants discuss the general notion of “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” they will have before them two important questions. First, how does God’s Word shape the life of the individual and the community? Equally important, how does God’s Word shape the mission of the individual and the community?
We hope that at this synod, mission will become a larger principle that will animate the whole discussion, as well as the apostolic exhortation that will most likely be issued sometime after the synod by Pope Benedict XVI. A careful reading of the working document reveals that in several places it lays the foundation for how the Word of God can lead to a serious commitment to mission.
The text rightly refers back to a key document of the Second Vatican Council, the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” which emphasized that the Word of God is read in the events and signs of the times through which God manifests himself in history. The church has a duty to pay attention to these signs and to interpret them in the light of the Gospel. The working paper refers to movements and new communities of lay and religious life, as well as to particular churches in Africa and Latin America, where study and reflection on the Bible have come to the fore, as examples of communities that demonstrate that the encounter with the Word is not limited to hearing. Instead, a true appreciation of the Word of God leads to commitment by individuals and communities to the poorest of the poor, who are a sign of the Lord’s presence in our midst.
As noted in a previous editorial (7/7), two topics in IL deserve closer attention: the importance of preaching and the value of the practice of lectio divina for enriching spiritual lives. Both should also lead to discussion of mission. The working document affirms that preaching should not only be faithful to the biblical text, but also provide the faithful “assistance in interpreting the events of their personal lives and historical happenings in the light of faith” (No. 37). Preachers should include pastoral considerations as they suggest applications of the text, in order to help the faithful to carry out their mission of “building the Kingdom” (No. 57). Similarly, lectio divina is not simply for the inner spiritual enrichment of the individual or the community. Pope John Paul II affirmed that through this practice the living Word “questions, directs and shapes our lives.” The Word of God becomes the source of conversion, justice, hope, fellowship and peace. Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, “transforms the lives of those who approach him in faith” (No. 24).
The document also speaks positively of “a liberationist approach to the Bible” (No. 58), rejoicing to see the Bible in the hands of people of lowly condition. It points to the many insights that the poor can bring to the interpretation and actualization of the Word of God. IL then repeats a question routinely asked in Bible study groups as they reflect on Scripture passages, a question the synod will also face: “How do we go from our everyday lives to the Bible text and from the Bible text to our everyday lives?” Finally, quoting Pope Benedict’s encyclical “Saved by Hope,” the working document affirms that “the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing” (No. 39).
Reflections on the Letter of James could add to these elements and give impetus to the synod with its strong statement on the transforming function of the Word of God for the mission of the church. We read in James that we must be not only hearers of the Word, but doers of the Word (1:19-27), and that faith that does not lead to works is dead (2:14-17).
Participants and observers alike might hope that the synod will clarify how the Word of God nourishes, strengthens and maintains the life of the Christian community. We may also hope its members give the church and the world a strong and inspiring reflection on the ability of the Word of God to press us to go further, into the realm of mission and “building the Kingdom.” The vision of Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” remains true today, and the Word of God must continue to shed light on “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men and women of our time.”