A Breath of Joyful Life: The Bible in the life and mission of the Latin American church

COMING TO LIFE. The basilica cathedral in Aparecida, Brazil, during the local Marian feast, Oct. 12, 2006.

In Ezekiel 37, the prophet sees a field of dry bones that come together with sinews, flesh, and skin, yet have no life. The bones do not come to life until Ezekiel prophesies—sharing the word of God, filling them with the Spirit that gives life. Following Ezekiel’s example, in recent years the church has called upon all who serve in the church to breathe the Word of God into their work, giving these ministries new life and purpose in Jesus Christ. This “breathing in” or “enlivening” is called “Biblical Animation of all Pastoral Life,” known by the initals for its name in Spanish, Animación Bíblica de la pastoral (ABP).

ABP is a conscious effort to give life to the Scriptural principle that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Tm 3:16-17).” In ABP, Scripture is not an add-on to existing programs or established as a stand-alone program apart from other pastoral work. Instead, ABP ensures “that the Word of God revealed in the Scriptures inspires, forms and accompanies the vocation and submission of the disciple of Christ and provides the content for the planned activities of the Church in its mission of going out and making ‘disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28:19)” (Bishop Santiago Silva Remales, ABP: Its Meaning and Mission, p. 16). The Word of God flows into all the ministries of the church, nourishing them so that they bear fruit.


ABP is a new paradigm that allows us to understand the relationship between the Word of God and the life and mission of the church. With ABP, Scripture stands at the heart of the community of believers, facilitating an encounter with the risen Christ. ABP seeks to foster three distinct schools. The school of interpretation helps believers to understand the Word of God more fully. The school of communion intensifies our bonds through prayer. The school of evangelization helps believers to become missionary disciples, witnessing to Christ.

The proposal to ground all pastoral ministry in the Word of God has developed over the last fifty years. Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution of Divine Revelation encouraged that “just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similarly 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, no, 26). More than thirty years later, “Ecclesia in America” recommended “promot[ing] knowledge of the Gospels, which proclaim in words easily understood by all the way Jesus lived among the people of his time. Reading these sacred texts and listening to Jesus … produces authentic fruits of conversion of heart (no. 12).

The Influence of Aparecida

Still, the real impetus for ABP arose from the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), held in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. The concluding document of that meeting (then-Cardinal Jorge Bergolio headed the committee that produced the Aparecida document) establishes a plan for forming missionary disciples who undertake a great continental mission:

It thus becomes necessary to offer the Word of God to the faithful as gift of the Father for the encounter with Jesus Christ living, path of “authentic conversion and of renewed communion and solidarity” (“Ecclesia in America,” no. 12). … Disciples of Jesus yearn to be nourished with the bread of the Word: they want to have access to proper interpretation of the biblical texts, to use them as mediation of dialogue with Jesus, and that they be the soul of evangelization itself and of proclamation of Jesus to all. Hence, the importance of a “biblical ministry” understood as a biblical animation of all pastoral life” (no. 248).

In 2008, the 12th Ordinary Synod of Bishops focused on the Word of God in the life and mission of the church. The Synod Fathers took up the call of Aparecida, encouraging their brother bishops to embrace the Word of God more fully in their own lives and to allow Scripture to inspire all pastoral work (Proposition 30). In the post-synodal exhortation, Pope Benedict XVI echoed the call, but cautioned that ABP, “does not mean adding a meeting here or there in parishes or dioceses, but rather of examining the ordinary activities of Christian communities, in parishes, associations and movements, to see if they are truly concerned with fostering a personal encounter with Christ, who gives himself to us in his word. … [M]aking the Bible the inspiration of every ordinary and extraordinary pastoral outreach will lead to a greater awareness of the person of Christ, who reveals the Father and is the fullness of divine revelation” (no. 73).

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis participated in the Aparecida meeting. It is therefore not surprising that the encounter with Christ in Scripture has become a major theme of his papacy. This encounter lies at the heart of ABP and of all evangelization. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis placed Scripture at the center of the Christian life:

All evangelization is based on that word, listened to, meditated upon, lived, celebrated and witnessed to. The Sacred Scriptures are the very source of evangelization. Consequently, we need to be constantly trained in hearing the word. The Church does not evangelize unless she constantly lets herself be evangelized. It is indispensable that the word of God “be ever more fully at the heart of every ecclesial activity” (“Verbum Domini,” 1). God’s word, listened to and celebrated, above all in the Eucharist, nourishes and inwardly strengthens Christians, enabling them to offer an authentic witness to the Gospel in daily life. We have long since moved beyond that old contraposition between word and sacrament. The preaching of the word, living and effective, prepares for the reception of the sacrament, and in the sacrament that word attains its maximum efficacy (no. 174).

A key element in the initiation of ABP is the renewal of the ancient practice of lectio divina, a prayerful reading of and meditation on Scripture. Regular use of lectio divina to begin pastoral meetings and in the spiritual lives of those called to pastoral ministry can help to strengthen the biblical inspiration and foundations of pastoral activity.

Toward a Deeper Understanding

Since ABP was first defined at the CELAM meeting in Aparecida, it is not surprising that CELAM has taken the lead in promoting ABP throughout America. This effort is coordinated by the Centro Bíblico Pastoral para América Latina y el Caribe (CEBIPAL).

CEBIPAL structures its efforts around the three schools of ABP. To support the school of interpretation and promote a deeper understanding of the biblical text, CEBIPAL offers classroom and online bible courses for bishops, priests, permanent deacons, religious men and women and laity. To support the school of communion, CEBIPAL actively promotes the practice of lectio divina through publications, workshops and online materials. In collaboration with the United Bible Societies, CEBIPAL created lectio divina programs for youth (Lectionautas) and children (Discipulitos). Lectionautas includes a strong social media component that encourages young people to share their faith with friends, helping them become missionary disciples. Other programs include retreats for bishops, priests, religious and laity. To support the school of evangelization, CEBIPAL helps to provide biblical foundations for pastoral planning by assisting in the creation of ABP departments and teams in dioceses and episcopal conferences. CEBIPAL offers training in ABP throughout the region, including an annual workshop for those person charged with promoting ABP in dioceses and parishes.

These efforts have borne fruit in the Antilles Episcopal Conference (AEC), the union of the English, Dutch, and French-speaking dioceses of the Caribbean, except Haiti, from Bermuda and Bahamas in the north, and Belize in the west to Curacao, Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana in the south and east. The conference’s pastoral priority for 2013-2015 is the New Evangelization with specific emphasis on deepening the appreciation and understanding of the Word of God and the profession and expression of faith of the whole People of God. Each of the nineteen dioceses of the conference has an ABP delegate appointed by the bishop. These delegates lead teams that help to spread ABP through all diocesan efforts. The AEC provides biblical training for all ministers, including clergy and catechists, along with resources that can be used in various ministerial efforts. Praying with lectio divina has become a frequent practice at parish and diocesan meetings, including meetings of the bishops. Dioceses plan Bible weeks and months that include public celebrations focused on the Word of God. This resolute attention on the role of the Word of God in the life and mission of the church does not end at the church doors. Families are encouraged to enthrone the Bible in the home and to read it and pray with it as a family. Projects are underway to ensure that, at the very least, every Catholic family has and frequently uses a Bible in their language of choice.

The bishops of the region have taken a leadership role in this effort, leading diocesan encounters to promote communion, missionary discipleship and ongoing personal and pastoral conversion inspired by the word of God. ABP is not a goal in itself. ABP places strong emphasis on the encounter with Jesus Christ in the Word. This encounter forms and inspires missionary disciples for the new evangelization.

Bible Study in the United States

Biblical Animation of all Pastoral Life has not yet taken root in the United States. The term “biblical animation” is more likely to engender thoughts of Bible-based cartoons than of an effort to place the Bible at the heart of pastoral ministry. The challenges in the United States differ from those in other parts of the hemisphere. While many dioceses struggle to provide people with Bibles and other resources, over ninety percent of U.S. Catholics have a Bible in their homes. Other bible-based resources, including books, podcasts, websites and parish and diocesan programs are plentiful. In November 2011, the USCCB Subcommittee on the Catechism issued a letter to all catechetical publishers, encouraging the appropriate use of Scripture in all catechetical texts. 

Yet, despite these advantages, the 2010 Pew Forum Religious Knowledge Survey indicated that Catholic knowledge about the Bible lags far behind that of other religious adherents (and even behind that of people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics). The challenge in the United States appears to be the need to coordinate efforts across ministries. In many diocesan, and even some parish, structures, pastoral work is divided with little opportunity for collaboration and shared work. With the exception of a few annual events, catechists don’t plan, work, and pray with liturgical ministers and the financial council has limited interaction with Catholic school teachers.

Still, changes can begin with small steps at the local level. A parish could choose to start all weeknight meetings (altar society, school board, home-school association, Scouts, etc.) at the same time, beginning these meetings with a shared lectio divina in the church. This shared prayer would ground each group’s efforts in an encounter with Jesus in the Word. Parishes could use their bulletins and websites to offer families suggested Bible passages to read together, especially in Advent and Lent. Bibles could be made available in the adoration chapel. Religious education classes at all levels could encourage reading from the Bible rather than about the Bible.

For ABP to influence parish life in the U.S. as envisioned at Aparecida and in “Verbum Domini” and “The Joy of the Gospel,” parish and diocesan planning efforts must focus on the need to encounter Jesus in Word and sacrament. Only in that loving and joyful personal and communal encounter that Pope Francis constantly urges and lives can we find the desire to delve more deeply into that relationship that unites faith and life, breathing life into the church’s work, ensuring that God’s Word will achieve the end for which he sent it (cf. Is 55:11).

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