Verbum Domini (1)

I have started my reading of Verbum Domini, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of Benedict XVI on the “Word of God in the life and mission of the Church.” At this point, I have skimmed through most of the document and have read through about 30-40 pages carefully. As a result, my comments are provisional and conditional, but I feel that if I wait until I have read the entire text whole before making any comments, months will have passed. I invite those of you who have also been reading the document to join in the conversation, to add to what I say, to correct what I say, to take issue with what I say, or even, if you wish, to agree with what I say.

There are things as a convert I do not understand about the Catholic Church, and perhaps I never will, but the length of this document is troubling to me. The Apostolic Exhortation is addressed to the “Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful,” but realistically how many people have the ability and time to read such a document? This kind of greeting is I am certain pro forma and traditional, yet if a document of the Church is for the whole Church, should not the whole Church have access to it? This is not a call for a “dumbing down” of the content, theology and scripture studies have their own languages as much as any other field and their experts must be able to speak the language freely, yet the sheer size and volume of this text remove it from the vast majority of the lay faithful, even if conceptually it is open and available to them. In the Introduction, for instance, Pope Benedict speaks of  there being “no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10)” (5). In this encounter with God, such documents must not only be technically available, but genuinely available to influence individual Catholics in their encounter with the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church. This is a goal of Pope Benedict, for he writes “with this Apostolic Exhortation I would like the work of the Synod to have a real effect on the life of the Church: on our personal relationship with the sacred Scriptures, on their interpretation in the liturgy and catechesis, and in scientific research, so that the Bible may not be simply a word from the past, but a living and timely word” (10). Perhaps the relationship with this document will be a mediated relationship for most people, coming through their clergy, theologians, catechists and teachers, yet I think the best relationship would be one in which each individual has the opportunity to read what is on offer. It is not clear to me at this point whether it was essential that this document be as long as it is, since so much of it seems to be restatements of other ecclesial documents since Vatican Council II, including Dei Verbum. We need to start thinking about the best may to engage the lay faithful with the documents of the Church. if Paul was on the cutting edge of technological theological delivery in the 1st century with his letters, is the Church today?


It is this reality, too, which might create a barrier in some ways to readings of the text and it is here, too, where I would hope for some comments by those more attuned to the nature and reality of papal documents of all sorts. In the restatement of other ecclesial documents and the necessary continuity that is noted within all of these documents, and this one in particular, the Scripture as discussed often seems distant from the sorts of reading and research that both theologians and other lay faithful do on a regular basis. Instead of making the Scripture come more alive, it creates a kind of technical document that only can be understood through the lens of complex Church interpretations. Is it possible, or desirable, that reference be made to current biblical interpreters and research in a document such as this, whether of a professional or popularizing nature? Or would such reference create a sense of approval which Pope Benedict would not want to grant to any one particular interpreter, researcher or theologian? If this is the case, it makes some sense to me, yet I also feel a distance between this document and the way I read and study the Bible.

The line that made we most comfortable in the Introduction was Pope Benedict’s statement that “all this made us realize that we can deepen our relationship with the word of God only within the “we” of the Church, in mutual listening and acceptance” (8-9). If this document were to be not only a statement of the Church’s understanding of the Word of God, its principles and teachings, but a starting point for a “mutual listening and acceptance” within the Church amongst lay and clergy this would be a wonderful result. The open question will be how this document is brought to the lay faithful and the means by which they are able to listen, accept, and respond.

The text proper begins with “PART 1: Verbum Dei: The God Who Speaks: God in Dialogue.” This is a powerful section of the document as it focuses on Love. “God makes himself known to us as a mystery of infinite love in which the Father eternally utters his Word in the Holy Spirit. Consequently the Word, who from the beginning is with God and is God, reveals God himself in the dialogue of love between the divine persons, and invites us to share in that love. Created in the image and likeness of the God who is love, we can thus understand ourselves only in accepting the Word and in docility to the work of the Holy Spirit. In the light of the revelation made by God’s Word, the enigma of the human condition is definitively clarified” (16). God’s Word, therefore, is seen in its deep reality as Love, the Word, or Logos, made flesh. This leads to an examination of the fact that Christianity is not specifically a religion “of the book,” but the religion of the “living and Incarnate Word” (19). “The Analogy of the Word of God, “ as the next section is titled, unwraps the diverse meanings that “Word of God” maintains, such revelation; the eternal Word, the Logos himself; Jesus Christ who became Incarnate; the word of God as handed on in the Church’s Tradition; and the Sacred Scripture itself. As Benedict writes, “from the theological standpoint too, there is a need for further study of how the different meanings of this expression are interrelated, so that the unity of God’s plan and, within it, the centrality of the person of Christ, may shine forth more clearly” (19).

 There is nothing new in any of this, but it is a beautiful statement of the reality of the Word of God, which is more than simply the Scriptures themselves. The questions, then, some of which I posed already above have to do more with the extent to which a document like this is capable of doing what it intends to do: to make the Word of God known and loved. Is a document of this length and depth capable of making the Word of God relevant to people today? This is one of the major questions I want to explore as we continue to read this text together.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

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8 years 4 months ago
Maybe St Francis got more bat on the ball when he said...  " preach the Gospel and if necessary use words' ??
David Jackson
8 years 4 months ago
My initial reactions:
Positive: The language of this exhortation is pretty understandable. (This in contrast to some Encyclicals and other pronouncements from Rome).
The Pope has some excellent quotes which show his familiarity with the Fathers of the Church.
There is an INDEX at the end of the Exhortation.
I took 8 pages of notes of passages which spoke to me.
The copy I was reading had the footnotes at the bottom of each page.
Negative: The exhortation is very lengthy, covering more than 192 pages.
Benedict ends up quoting himself a bit too often for me.
I’m afraid that the length and breadth of this exhortation will limit the number of people who will take the time to read it.
8 years 4 months ago
I'd like to add one more thing in response to your concerns about the Pope repeatedly citing himself or past papal documents, and not adding insights from other scholars: this comes from the nature of what an apostolic exhortation is, namely a teaching from the Pope in his capacity as the successor of Peter. Papal authority carries a unique weight that builds on itself and stands on its own. So comparisons to academic works and those of individual theologians/scholars aren't exactly accurate.

You'll notice a big difference between apostolic exhortations and private works of Pope Benedict XVI, such as his book on Jesus of Nazareth, which is written in his capacity as a theologian and patristics scholar. There he cites a multiplicity of sources and acknowledges that it is a work of a theologian and not official Church teaching.

But your concern still stands, if the Holy See says it wants to engage the Church in the scriptures and enliven the faithful, how effectively is it doing that? Does a document like this help or hinder it? I would suggest situating Verbum Domini in a larger context of an overall effort, not in isolation as a definitive answer.


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