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John R. DonahueSeptember 29, 2008

Cardinal Carlo Martini, S.J., Archbishop of Milan and a biblical scholar who promoted the study of Scripture in the pastoral renewal of his diocese, observed in 1993 that there is still some resistance to the biblical renewal in parts of the church. He proposed that a synod of bishops be called to consider how the church has responded to Dei Verbum (the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation”). His hope may be realized in the 12th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of the Bishops on “The Word of God in the Mission and Life of the Church,” which will be held in Rome from Oct. 5 to 26, 2008.

To judge from the working paper prepared for the synod, the Rome meeting will constitute the most extensive reflection since Vatican II by an official body on Scripture as the Word of God and its importance to the life of the church in liturgy and the proclamation of the Word. The working paper does not constitute a set of authoritative norms. It is possible that its observations will not appear in any document that comes out of the synod, but the paper does reflect the current state of the question as seen in the concerns of bishops and other groups in dioceses around the world.

Two fundamental concerns run through the document: Scripture must be given a higher priority in the church, and Catholics need to recognize that “the Word of God is Jesus Christ, an awareness that lends a sense of mystery to the reading of every word in the Bible.” The document pays particular attention to the Christological dimension of the Word and the understanding of the church as born from the Word of God. More than any previous document, the working paper emphasizes the pastoral application of Scripture. Each expository section is followed by a number of “pastoral implications.”

Two interrelated concerns about Scripture have risen time and again in discussions after the Second Vatican Council. The first is the challenge to respect the prime rule of interpretation articulated since Divino Afflante Spiritu, namely that the intention of the text in its original historical context must guide all later reflection, even as we relate Scripture to contemporary spiritual hungers. A second concern, reflected in virtually every survey of Catholic opinion, is the quality of preaching. Both concerns receive attention in the working document, but I will address its implications for preaching. Since the document is long (12 times the length of Dei Verbum) and theologically complex, any summary of even one of its concerns must be limited.

The Word of God, the working document tells us, is “like a hymn with many voices,” but its primary focus is Trinitarian: “The Word of God abides in the Trinity, from which it comes, by which it is sustained and to which it returns. The Word of God is the enduring testament to the love of the Father, to the work of salvation of the Son Jesus Christ and to the fruitful activity of the Holy Spirit” (No. 9, a). Through the Incarnation this Word assumes a Christological identity and also an ecclesial one since the church comes forth from the Word. The Bible is then “the Word of God recorded in human language” (No. 15, c).

To Preach the Bible

The document clearly recognizes that the ministry of the Word is broader than preaching: “The Word continues its course through vibrant preaching and its many forms of evangelization, where proclamation, catechesis, liturgical celebrations and the service of charity hold a high place. Preaching, in this sense, under the power of the Holy Spirit, is the Word of the living God communicated to living persons” (No. 9, original emphasis). “In the homily, preachers need to make a greater effort to be faithful to the biblical text and mindful of the condition of the faithful, providing them assistance in interpreting the events of their personal lives and historical happenings in the light of faith” (No. 37).

This latter observation echoes the description of the homily in the still important document of the U.S. bishops, Fulfilled in Your Hearing (1982): “a scriptural interpretation of human existence which enables a community to recognize God’s active presence, to respond to that presence in faith through liturgical word and gesture, and beyond the liturgical assembly, through a life lived in conformity with the Gospel.”

While constantly emphasizing the intimate connection between preaching and the life of the Word in the church, the document expresses some concern about the quality of contemporary preaching and offers suggestions for improvement. Are those who preach sufficiently familiar with Dei Verbum and with the Bible itself? Do they recognize difficulties in understanding biblical texts, especially the Old Testament? Are they able to relate the Bible to doctrinal and moral teaching? Is sufficient attention paid to the proper liturgical proclamation of the readings? Are the liturgical homilies faithful to the Scriptures while sensitive to the actual condition of the lives of the faithful?

Concrete recommendations balance criticism. Citing Vatican II, the document states that all clergy “ought to have continual contact with the Scriptures, through assiduous reading and attentive study of the sacred texts, so as not to become idle preachers of the Word of God, hearing the Word only with their ears while not hearing it with their hearts” (No. 46). Further, “In every diocese a biblical pastoral program, under the guidance of the bishop, can insert the Bible into the church’s great initiatives in evangelization and catechesis.” Seminary formation should stress “a greater, up-to-date knowledge of exegesis and theology, a solid formation in the pastoral use of the Bible and a true and proper initiation into biblical spirituality” (No. 49).

Points for Dialogue

By issuing the working paper well in advance of the synod, the Council for the General Secretariat of the Synod invites responses not only from bishops and delegates but from the wider church. The following observations are part of this dialogue and an invitation to readers to join the conversation.

Even as the church has been significantly renewed as a Bible-reading and Bible-praying community, there is constant need “to renew the renewal” at all levels of church life. The proclamation (reading) of the Word in liturgy, which began with enthusiasm after Vatican II, has often devolved into ill-prepared readers who really do not understand the texts they are reading. The ministry of lector should be renewed by following the recommendations in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, especially in regard to the training of lectors and the public appreciation of their work.

Some dangers are occupational hazards for homilists: homilies too often can move away from the Scriptures, become overly moralistic (the challenge is to preach the good news, not simply give good advice), with too much emphasis on specific issues that may be of little concern to the majority of a congregation. In the original Greek, homilia means first “close association, social interaction or company,” and is used to describe “conversations.” The Sunday “homily” occurs in the company of Christ the Word, and is a three-way conversation among the Scriptures, the one preaching and those to be nurtured by Scripture.

Despite constant calls for better formation in biblical studies and homiletics, many seminaries offer inadequate preparation. Special attention also should be given to better training in biblical studies for those dedicated persons who are called to the permanent diaconate. Even when well prepared and devoted to preaching, working pastors, both the newly ordained and veterans, are often so overwhelmed by pastoral demands that the necessary continuing formation can be neglected. In a few years pastors may also be preoccupied with trying to train their parishioners to respond, “and with your spirit,” or “under my roof,” as new liturgical edicts stream from Rome. But the working paper for the synod rightly insists that attention be given to better and continued preparation for preaching. This should be a special concern of the diocesan bishop, and it will demand time and resources for renewal programs.

It is inevitable that recommendations on Scripture for a world church will often be phrased in abstract terms, with few references to other church statements or patristic authors. Though good preaching ultimately rests on good scholarship, the working document at one point alludes to a kind of biblical scholarship that can pose a problem for interpretation. The document ignores the efforts of a generation of writers who mediated solid scholarship through less technical publications: commentary series, periodicals and published homily aids. The recommendations that will follow the synod could profitably urge local church officials to make use of the resources available in the existing corpus of excellent works on biblical spirituality that can make the Word of God vital to people’s lives today.

The working paper, unfortunately, reflects a clerical tone that may also be inevitable. An example of this is the instruction that “the proclamation of the Word in the liturgy is an office proper to the instituted ministry of lector. In his absence, a qualified lay man or woman can proclaim the readings” (No. 50). Proclaiming the Word, in other words, is doled out to laypeople by way of exception. Near its conclusion the working document, in discussing “The Task of the Laity,” while acknowledging that “all members of the Church through baptism are sharers in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and royal office” and that “the laity have the responsibility to proclaim the Good News to mankind in the everyday circumstances of their lives,” nonetheless identifies the laity’s “special tasks: the Bible in the Christian initiation of children; the Bible in the pastoral care of youth, for example, in World Youth Days; and the Bible for the infirm, soldiers, and those in prison” (No. 51). This seems unnecessarily limiting. There is no recognition in the document that, at least in the United States, much of the best scholarship and contribution to biblical interpretation has been offered by laypeople. Given the continuing shortage of priests, the synod might recommend more creative norms for homilies to be given by trained and competent laypeople.

A fond hope for the synod is that the words of Isaiah invoked by St. Paul (Is 52:7, Rom 10:16) may echo throughout our church: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation.”

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15 years 5 months ago
As the bishops address the question of giving scripture a higher priority in the church, they also need to insist that parishes improve the quality of their sound systems. Last week my wife and I attended mass at a parish in the Washington, DC area. I noted with gratitude that the Eucharistic minister took communion to parishioners who were seriously handicapped. The bishops would be outraged at a parish that put barriers between the handicapped and the Eucharist. As one who is also handicapped (by hearing loss) I experienced a growing frustration and resentment at a cantor and lectors who did not adjust their microphone properly and a priest who rushed through his homily – which sounded if it might have been good, had I been able to understand it. I am fortunate to be able to wear digital hearing aids. My particular model has software settings that adapt to differing acoustic environments. One setting is for music, which helped with an unusually loud organ. One is for hard surfaced buildings that produce echoes; another reduces background noise. Neither setting made the responsorial psalm, readings or homily intelligible. Even in my own parish, which has a good sound system, I am often unable to understand the responsorial psalm. I deal with the ensuing resentment by praying for the serenity to accept what I cannot change. When we left mass I learned that my wife, son, and daughter-in-law (all three have normal hearing) could not understand the liturgy of the word. This parish believes that God is present in the Eucharist and goes to extra lengths to take communion to the handicapped. Belief that God is present in the liturgy of the word should also result in some extra effort to make the word understandable. I suggested to my son and daughter-in-law that they change parishes. I would understand if they changed churches.

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