Finding God in the Bible: Author Q&A with Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J.
Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J., is an American Jesuit scripture scholar, author and television host based in Alabama. He currently hosts two primetime cable TV programs, “EWTN Live” and “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” for the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) in Irondale. He also hosts the EWTN Radio show “Openline” on Wednesdays.
Father Pacwa earned a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Vanderbilt University and a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Detroit. He holds M. Div and S.T.B. degrees in theology from the Jesuit School of Theology at Loyola University Chicago. Currently a Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Institute for Biblical Studies, he previously taught Scripture in the theology departments of the University of Dallas and Loyola University Chicago. A Chicago native of Polish ancestry, he is a bi-ritual priest with faculties in the Maronite Rite.
Father Pacwa’s latest book, Growing in Faith: A Bible Study for Catholics Including Reflections on Faith by Pope Francis (Our Sunday Visitor), will be published Sept. 3. It is a revised edition of a book he wrote during the Year of Faith in 2012-2013 and follows earlier bible studies on St. Paul and the sacraments, St. Paul and the theology of the cross, Mary and the Eucharist. On July 14, I interviewed Father Pacwa by telephone about the new book and his thoughts on finding God in the Bible. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.
Your new book is actually a revision of what you published for the Year of Faith that Pope Benedict XVI convoked and Pope Francis finished. Why did you rewrite it?
The editors made me! My publishers were aware that the Year of Faith book had a big impact—I think we sold about 50,000 copies—and wanted to expand it beyond that period of time. Dealing with the same issues, we wanted to make it available for Bible study groups to continue reflecting on what growing in faith from a Biblical perspective means.
The title bills itself “for Catholics.” Can you say more about the audience you have in mind?
As a Catholic priest, I’m concerned about the New Evangelization, which is precisely what the last chapter is about. A common theme since Pope Paul VI—and through John Paul, Benedict and Francis—has been to note how many Catholics have been sacramentalized, but not evangelized. A lot of Catholics go to church because they know it’s what they’re supposed to do, but they don’t have a sense of encounter with Jesus. In a culture that’s often hostile to religion and to Catholicism, it’s very important that Catholic laypeople take ownership of the faith for themselves. Because the book is a Bible study, it’s really intended for Bible study groups, but individuals can still use it.
What do you hope readers will take from the book?
Throughout the book, I challenge readers to look up Biblical texts and answer various questions about how those texts make an impact on their lives. How do they relate to them? My goal is to summon the readers to examine what faith means to them and to see what God is offering to them through the Word of God, and to learn about the integration of faith into the various aspects of their lives. The existential component is really important.
As we see in the title, this new edition includes meditations by Pope Francis. What does Pope Francis contribute to our search for faith in the Bible?
Pope Francis completed the Year of Faith, finishing the writing of the encyclical on faith that Pope Benedict XVI started. Since I was basing my original chapter structure on Pope Benedict’s writings, I wanted to bring it beyond the Year of Faith by using the quotations from Pope Francis’ encyclical, as a way of saying that we don’t stop considering our faith commitment just because the Year of Faith is over. Rather, this is going to be an ongoing goal. Like Francis did in the encyclical, we should want to keep up this mission of faith, making sure we call people to share in it with us. Like Francis, I want to present Benedict’s concern that faith must be integrated into every aspect of our lives to make a real difference. What Pope Benedict was so keen on was to see that our faith includes the intellectual comprehension of what God has revealed, which is why I have a section on the creed in my book. In considering the Bible, we should find ourselves called to enter into a personal love of God as well as a personal love of neighbor. Also, we should feel called to engage in evangelization—not because we want to win arguments, but because we want others to know the message of salvation in Jesus Christ that has transformed our own lives. Part of that transformation, as Benedict noted, is how faith leads us to the authentic worship of God. That’s included in the book as well.
You write in a popular style, not in an academic way. How should ordinary Catholics begin reading the Bible, which is a notoriously difficult text?
Academic books are too boring! I emphasize two ways of approaching the text, just as I’ve done ever since I taught Scripture in the university. The first way is to keep in mind that this book is ancient Semitic literature, not modern literature, and so we shouldn’t expect the authors to think like modern people. In order to understand the ancient world, that’s a first step. Then the next way is to say “all right, even though this is an ancient text, it must still make some sense in the contemporary world.” As readers of faith, we want to understand the integrity of the text in its own terms, but especially in order to apply a hermeneutic to see the common humanity we share with the ancients. Once we’ve understood the Bible in its own terms, the terms of an ancient Middle Eastern society, we can make the transition to see how the ancients shared a lot of our own experiences.
Some recent titles in your Scripture series have focused on what the Bible says about fundamental Catholic dogmas, including Mary and the Eucharist. Do you approach the Bible primarily from an apologetic perspective?
Not exactly. This book is not written against the issues of the Protestant Reformation, but in response to the claims of the new atheism against faith in general that a lot of Catholics are struggling right now to answer. I know that traditional apologetics are necessary, and I say that as somebody who was in theology studies at a time when apologetics was a discarded art. So that’s why I have a certain apologetic component to what I do, but I focus on answering the concerns of new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, not the arguments of the Baptists. Today we Catholics have a lot more in common with the evangelicals than we do with almost anyone else. What brings us together is our common need for evangelism against the new atheism, but also our need to share common values like religious freedom.
Why should Catholics care about studying the Bible outside of Mass?
We all have to answer the basic question of whether we believe this book to be God’s work or not. Do Catholics make an act of faith by which we recognize that God wants to communicate with human beings, that he has already communicated with us through a concrete salvation history, and that the Bible is the Word of God rather than just a book like any other? Does the Bible make some demand on my mind and will to recognize this history of revelation and to make a commitment to what God has revealed? Am I willing to go that far?
How has the Bible helped you to grow in your own faith?
When I started seminary in 1963, in the minor seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago, we had a freshman class on the Bible. I decided to read the whole Bible straight through, which was a real challenge for a high school freshman. My father was not much of a practicing Catholic, but he had gone to the Holy Land on leave after World War II, and I remembered being excited by his stories of Bethlehem.
As I began reading the Bible and becoming fascinated with it, I gradually learned to read and love the original languages in particular. Hebrew and Greek gave me the sense that “it happened” and that these were real people who wrote this text. Then I had a desire to make sense of everything that was going on in this whole history of Judaism and Christianity. Slowly, I came to the point of finding nourishment in the Biblical texts, discovering a sense of life that I didn’t get in other kinds of literature. There’s nothing like the Biblical text anywhere else.
Over the course of my studies, I also had to read non-Israelite ancient literature like Canaanite writings, and I became even more impressed. Throughout the whole Bible, every hero of faith is also a sinner, and the record of these sins is utterly distinctive of the Bible. You don’t find that anywhere else in ancient Mesopotamian literature, where Canaanite and other writers tend to give you only the good side of their heroes. By contrast, the Jewish writers were capable of a real honesty about people like David and Abraham—I mean, Abraham lied about his wife twice, and they put that in there. That’s remarkable!
Does this uncensored approach to salvation history make it easier for modern readers to identify with the Bible?
That’s one of the components that separates the Biblical literature from mythology. The more I’ve studied the text, the more I’ve seen how it fits with the real history of the time. Even the lists of names in the Bible fit the common names of those periods, not those of later periods. These are authentic Bronze Age names that fit what we see elsewhere in the archaeological record. The more you study these kinds of details, the more you see a certain historical authenticity, and I’m impressed with that. In other words, I don’t think they’re just making this stuff up!
Any last thoughts?
The question for me is, how do we contribute to the New Evangelization that St. John Paul II talked about? How do we communicate our faith, morals and the basic good news of the Gospel to other people? That, to me, is number one. I generally describe myself as a “paint-by-numbers” and “stay-inside-the-lines” Catholic who is very happy with the picture, if you know what I mean. I love our Catholic faith and I’m convinced that Catholicism will be the most important force for transforming our culture, which has been remarkably violent over the past century. You hear people say religion is the biggest cause of war in the past century, but atheism was by far the most vicious force throughout the 20th century, in places like Germany and Russia.
That viciousness is precisely what I’d like to see Catholicism transform, just as it transformed the barbarians at the end of the Roman Empire. It was saints like Augustine, Patrick and Gregory the Great who were inspired by the sacred text and were therefore the only ones who had perspective on their collapsing culture. The Romans had no perspective on themselves, but the Christians knew better, because they saw that Scripture gave a perspective on being human that was nowhere in the pagan literature. We’ll be the ones to do it again.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.