By Dr Kevin Wagner
The great Father of the Church, St Jerome, died in Bethlehem in 420AD. A “hot tempered character,” Jerome utilised his passion for truth and his knowledge of the Scriptures for the building up of the Church. Famous for his saying that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” Jerome is a great ambassador for a new springtime in the promotion of Scripture as the Word of God.
Almost 1600 years after Jerome’s passing, Pope Francis offers to us in his new Apostolic Letter, Aperuit illis a reminder of the centrality of the Scriptures for the Christian life. This is not before time!
For many of the Catholic faithful the Sacred Scriptures are a daunting and unapproachable mystery, replete with archaic language and concepts, littered with names and places that could well be from a Tolkien novel.
In the end, for many, the Bible is deemed too long and wordy to bear opening and thus it becomes just another monument to a lost culture gathering dust on the bookshelf.
This general reluctance to engage with the Scriptures extends into the field of Catholic education. As a former high school teacher and a current teacher of teachers, I write with some experience on this point. While there are some wonderful exceptions to the rule, the average Catholic school teacher has at best a rudimentary understanding of the Scriptures and this shows in the way these sacred texts are often taught.
What we find is that too many students leave our school system, through little fault of their own, with little to no understanding of the meta-narrative of the Scriptures and a fear of opening the Bible which is based on ignorance of correct methods for interpreting the text.
Other faithful Catholics, often charismatic in spirituality (though of course all baptised Catholics have been given charisms!), are eager to jump into reading the Scriptures.
Many of these feel comfortable to open the Bible daily to receive words from the Lord. Often these people are comparatively well formed in the Scriptures, perhaps through the influence of Bible-based ecumenical groups or churches. Others, however, lack awareness of the context of the passages they read or they fail to grasp well the literal sense of the text. This can be dangerous as it can lead to erroneous and damaging interpretations that can draw people away from orthodox doctrine or into making poor decisions.
The faithful are dependent for the most part on their pastors to teach them how to open up the Scriptures. Many of our priests, good and faithful men that they are, have been ripped off in their formation in the Scriptures. Many of these priests were subjected to dry, overly scientific and analytical exegetical (interpretive) techniques in their seminary years. They were often discouraged from recognising the truth that it is the Holy Spirit who is the true author of the Scriptures.
As a consequence, any thoughts that our loving Father could speak to them through the Scriptures were regarded as pious and unscientific; rather, the text was to be dissected to the nth degree to discover what it really meant. Those who reacted to this ‘formation’ retreated to purely spiritual interpretations that treated the Scriptures on their merits without really engaging with the fact that they are historical documents written by men who “made use of their [own human] powers and abilities.” Many homilies today reflect this formation.
So what can we do to combat this ignorance of Scripture which, as Jerome tells us, is ignorance of the One with whom we are called into friendship – the Word made flesh, Jesus?
In the first instance, it seems necessary to promote a narrative approach to teaching Scripture. By this I mean formation in the big picture of the Scriptures and their place in the history of salvation history, God’s saving plan for His children. The Great Adventure Bible Study and the accompanying book Walking with God stand out as exceptional resources for teaching the Bible narrative.
It is vital too that the faithful are taught how to pray with the Scriptures.
They are not simple history texts that need to be committed to memory in order to win trivia nights or battles with those who think differently to us!
The practice of lectio divina is recommended by the Holy Father. This ancient way of entering into the mystery of the Word is ideal for coming to the sure knowledge of the spiritual sense of the text. In this way, God’s heart which burns so much for us can speak to our own hearts, giving us sure knowledge of the meaning of the written word.
The promotion of Scripture Study groups in parishes needs to be a priority. This would require first of all that leaders for these groups are well formed for the task. Resources can help, but more important is that leaders be chosen from among those who are willing to follow the dictates of Dei verbum: that the Scriptures be read as a unified text authored and inspired by the Holy Spirit; that they are read within “the living Tradition of the Church”; and that they are read in the faith that they speak God’s Word.
Better formed laity should lead to more worthy celebrations of the liturgy. The liturgy is, of course, the traditional place of encounter with the Word. Here it is proclaimed, just as it was in Old Testament times, for all the people to hear and reflect on. What a privilege we have to hear God speak to us directly every time we come to Mass!
In his latest Apostolic Letter, the Holy Father recommends better formation of lectors in order that the faithful may hear the Word proclaimed more clearly and powerfully. This would need to be accompanied with the pastorally difficult task of asking some current lectors to step aside. Not all people have the gift of proclaiming the Word satisfactorily.
Another way the Scriptures can be better utilised for the building up of the Church is in the sacramental liturgies outside of Holy Mass. Every liturgical rite includes a proclamation of the Word, but frequently this is omitted or downplayed to the detriment of the rite. Perhaps we can look more closely at how we support our priests at Baptisms, Second Rites of Reconciliation, and funerals, so that the Word is proclaimed with the dignity it deserves.
It was perhaps fitting that this Jerome passed from this world at the place of the birth of the Word made flesh, for Jerome knew better than most that “God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion.”
Today we have the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes of the past, to help people to fall in love again with our God who speaks to us as a loving Father, especially through the Scriptures.
The Bible is a book of love, but loving words are not always easy to hear. Let’s make every effort to demystify this text and to empower people to read it wisely and faithfully. A Scriptural springtime beckons!
Dr Kevin Wagner is a lecturer in Theology on the Broadway campus of the University of Notre Dame, Australia, and he is, with his wife Helen, co-responsible for the Emmanuel Community (Communauté de ‘Emmanuel) in Sydney.