By Stephen J. Binz | OSV News
The Bible is the “word of the Lord”: an inspired library of narrative, poetry, letters and literature that God has spoken to us, to benefit our lives. So why is it that many Catholics encounter Scripture only during the readings at Sunday Mass? Pope Benedict XVI understood the challenge of making the Bible an intimate part of our daily lives, which is why he issued a personal plea to each of us to live more fully and consciously in the word of God, “so that the Bible may not be simply a word from the past, but a living and timely word.”
In his apostolic exhortation “Verbum Domini” (“The Word of the Lord”), Benedict emphasized three things: individual Bible reading, using Scripture in liturgy and teaching, and employing the word in the church’s expanding mission to the world.
He recognized that looking at the historical nature of salvation in what is called “historical-critical research” is important, but he also stressed that the divine element of Scripture is essential. He reminded us that we must avoid a split between scientific exegesis and lectio divina, as well as between the literal sense and the spiritual sense, so that we may experience the word of God, living and addressed to each of us in the here and now.
The ancient practice of lectio divina (holy reading) consists of establishing a dialogue through reading of God’s word and responding to that word in prayer. As St. Augustine said, “When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray, you speak to God.”
The process involves several movements: a person reads a passage of Scripture, meditates on the words, prays in response to God, contemplates God’s gift of a changed heart and finally arrives at some self-giving action. Origen, one of the earliest masters of lectio divina, encouraged people studying the Bible to “search diligently and with unshakable trust in God for the meaning of the divine Scripture, which is hidden in great fullness within.”
Benedict encouraged prayerful Scripture reading for individuals, along with actions that he hoped would deepen their relationship with Jesus. Those actions include having a Bible in every home. The New American Bible is most often used during Mass in the United States, while the English Standard Version (Catholic Edition) is gaining ground in other countries such as the United Kingdom and India. The Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition or Second Catholic Edition) and New Jerusalem Bible are also widely used. Catholic Bibles — from which all other Bibles have emerged — contain certain books that are not in the Protestant canon, so be sure to use a Catholic edition.
Pope Benedict recommended knowledge of biblical personages, events and sayings, including memorization of some key verses. Practicing lectio divina exposes us to many verses that can become part of our personal spiritual treasury. Some verses to commit to memory might include: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39); “Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31); and “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105).
Benedict suggested Catholics use Scripture as a source of guidance to problems, a response to our questions, a broadening of our values and the fulfillment of our aspirations. He also encouraged the whole church to realize the movements of the Holy Spirit, explaining that the same Spirit who acted in the incarnation of the Word in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and guided Christ throughout his mission, continues to sustain and guide the church in both proclamation and action. This Spirit of Truth inspired the authors of sacred Scripture to commit the message of salvation to writing, and this same divine Spirit reveals the fullest meaning of the sacred texts to the church.
The Bible is the church’s book, and our faith recognizes it as God’s own communication, rendered through the human words we need. It is written by the people of God for the people of God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the church is the primary setting for the interpretation of sacred Scripture.
In “Verbum Domini,” Benedict encouraged the church to use the Bible unsparingly, permeating pastoral activity and catechesis with the spirit of sacred Scripture through reading. He encouraged attentive contact and application of the biblical texts, and he suggested training for catechists and pastoral ministers at institutes for biblical studies and centers of formation, where they can be prepared to understand, live and proclaim the word of God. He urged that the Bible be given a visible place of honor in churches, even outside of liturgical celebrations.
Pope Benedict also exhorted the church to recover its missionary nature, reminding us that the word engages us not only as hearers of divine revelation, but also as its heralds. He called for an increase in ecumenical study amid discussion and celebrations of the word of God. He reminded the church of Jesus’ prayer to the Father that his disciples might be one, so that the world may believe (Jn 17:21), and promoted the shared listening to Scripture in ecumenical work.
Benedict wrote: “Listening together to the word of God, engaging in biblical lectio divina, letting ourselves be struck by the inexhaustible freshness of God’s word which never grows old, overcoming our deafness to those words that do not fit our own opinions or prejudices, listening and studying within the communion of the believers in every age: all these things represent a way of coming to unity in faith as a response to hearing the word of God.”
Stephen J. Binz is a biblical scholar and an award-winning author of over 60 books.