Finding the Word in the word

Throughout the Synod of Bishops, Pope Benedict XVI stressed the need to read Scripture under both a historical and a spiritual light.

When the words upon a page of Scripture transform our hearts, our souls, and our minds, they become the Word made flesh in our world today. This is the message that emerged from the Synod of Bishops on the theme, “The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church.”
The synod met from October 5-26 in the Vatican. Gathered together in the Synod Hall—often deemed a modern-day “Upper Room”—Church leaders shared firsthand accounts of the use of Scripture throughout the world and sought to discern concrete ways of renewing the universal Church. Throughout the three weeks of the synod, Pope Benedict XVI’s words brought the Bible to life, conveying the profound significance and timeliness of this year’s theme to those both inside Vatican City walls and beyond them.
In his contribution to the Synod Hall discussion, Pope Benedict XVI touched on topics from his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, as he discussed the necessary elements of a correct approach to reading and interpreting Scripture. Citing heavily Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, n. 11, the Holy Father outlined what methodologies are necessary for the Scriptures to reveal their true meaning.
This discourse put in more technical terms the message he emphatically conveyed throughout the synod and in the weeks previous, stressing the need to see Christ the Word in both a historical and a spiritual light.
While applauding the high standard of current historical-critical scriptural scholarship, the Pope expressed disappointment in the lack of truly theological exegesis today. Consequently, the Bible is being analyzed as if it were a history book. On the one hand, its pages do convey historical fact: “The history of salvation is not mythology, but rather true history, and is therefore to be studied alongside serious historical research methods,” the Pope said. However, Christ was not only human; he was divine, too. And as such, as more than a historical figure, the reality of his identity as God made man must also be taken into account. This involves reading Scripture “in the same spirit in which it was written,” as Dei Verbum declared. Any one Bible passage must be seen in the context of the whole of Revelation as handed down to us in Scripture and through tradition.
This is no simple task. “Just reading” the Bible does not mean we come to “find the Word in the words,” as Benedict said in his opening address to the Synod of Bishops. We must strive to seek that Word through a multi-dimensional approach. When the reading of Scripture fails to acknowledge divine action within its pages, God goes absent from human history: secularism and science replace faith and Revelation. We trust only the former two to be objectively true and lose sight of the truth Scripture conveys.
Thus what may first appear as a purely academic issue regarding exegetical methods is reflected in our society’s perspective on life’s priorities, in a skewed concept of reality. And the danger of that view is all too evident with the current financial crisis. “We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing…. The one who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand,” the Pope said. Continuing, he declared the Word of God as the permanent “foundation of all reality.
Instead of hungering for success or money, true substance is found in the Word’s meaning for us today. “The Church’s principal task, at the start of this new millennium, is above all to nourish ourselves on the Word of God, in order to make new evangelization more effective,” Benedict said in his homily at the synod’s conclusion. Evangelization means putting the first and greatest commandment into practice—loving God and neighbor—as the text from Matthew’s Gospel on which the Holy Father’s homily was based clearly teaches (Matt. 22:34-40). Translating the Word into acts of love is the “only way to make the Gospel announcement credible, despite the human weaknesses that mark individuals.” More than anything, this requires an increasingly intimate knowledge of Christ, sought with humility, Pope Benedict said.
He said that the most important place to take in the Word through Scripture is the Mass. Here we realize that the Bible is “a book of the people and for the people, an inheritance, a testament handed over to readers so that they can put into practice in their own lives the history of salvation witnessed in the text.” The role of the homily is then extremely important in the way we encounter the Word on a regular basis. Indeed, Pope Benedict pinpointed homilies during his synodal address as another aspect of Church life affected by the current unbalanced state of scriptural study, and their improvement was one of this 12th General Assembly’s main themes. When using “mainstream” historical analyses of the Bible for their preparation, priests come away perplexed, because the soul of Scripture is lost, the Pope said.
The proper formation of priests becomes increasingly crucial within the context of the current movement to encourage Catholics to read the Bible on their own. The Pope has continually recommended prayerful reading of Scripture, or Lectio Divina (Latin for “divine reading”).
The will to explore the Bible’s pages is there, it seems. In a survey conducted by the Catholic Biblical Federation this year, covering 16 countries, the majority of those interviewed think of the Bible with great respect, have a copy in their homes, and consider its words to hold significant meaning for their lives, Italian Bishop Vincenzo Paglia reported to the synodal assembly. But the majority of survey participants—believers and nonbelievers alike—find the Bible difficult to understand without assistance. (This is without taking into account the fundamental obstacle of language for many, since the same survey found that the Bible has yet to be translated into over 4,000 of the world’s languages.) It is therefore important that a personal conversation with God through the Scriptures unfold under careful guidance. The responsibility falls to pastors to lead the faithful in this endeavor, and the best methods for doing so were discussed at length by the bishops during these weeks.
Traditionally, the idea of reading Scripture on their own is somewhat novel for Catholics, for whom its communal nature has been emphasized in a coming together as one body in Christ to listen to the Word and hear it broken down in the homily. Individual Bible study, instead, is often considered a predominantly Protestant practice.
Not to be forgotten are the roots of the Lectio Divina that the Pope desires so strongly to renew, which extend deep into ancient monastic tradition. The difference between the Protestant and Catholic approaches to Scripture is real, however, and it was addressed by Korean Bishop Vincent Ri Pyung-Ho, who spoke of Protestants’ tendency to memorize Bible passages. Protestants quote the Bible, whereas Catholics speak of abstract biblical themes, he said. But when we read that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), we realize that internalizing Scripture can also be considered Catholic in its striving after Mary’s example. Through her intimate relationship with both the Son of God and the Scriptures, “she made her heart into a library of the Word,” said Bishop Ri Pyung-Ho.
Indeed, Pope Benedict, in line with his predecessor John Paul II, consistently steers our eyes toward Mary as our model. During the synod, he demonstrated this clearly with a visit to Pompeii, where he entrusted the assembly to her care. There he continued in his strong encouragement to pray the rosary, led its recitation, and gave a meditation on its meaning.
While it is often prayed communally, the rosary can certainly be a means of incorporating Scripture into personal prayer as well. As the Pope pointed out, the rosary is “completely interwoven with scriptural elements,” as it entails contemplating the Gospel mysteries. The thoughts of those who pray it remain “anchored to Scripture.” For example, we should ideally use words taken from the Bible when enunciating each mystery. Then there are the prayers themselves: the Our Father comes straight from the Gospel, as does the first half of the Hail Mary. The second half constitutes our own supplications, involving us personally and communally. “The rosary must always emerge from the silence of the heart as a response to the Word, after the model of Mary’s prayer,” the Pope said during his meditation. The rosary and Lectio Divina then become integral parts of our dialogue with God, as we use human words to move towards the Word of God. Each is an example of how the Catholic Church can progress into the future while remaining profoundly rooted in tradition.
Since love of God is inextricably linked to love of neighbor, relationship with God then leads naturally to seeking dialogue with others. This was witnessed by those who took in the historic scene of the Holy Father walking side by side with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in the Sistine Chapel. There, Bartholomew I gave the first address by an Eastern Church leader to the Synod of Bishops. Quoting the Church Fathers extensively and eloquently, he emphasized the fundamental need to take God’s Word beyond the church walls and into every aspect of our lives. “If we claim to retain the sacrament of the altar, we cannot forgo or forget the sacrament of the neighbor—a fundamental condition for realizing God’s Word in the world within the life and mission of the Church.” Thoughtful dialogue is therefore necessary among Christ’s followers, transcending political and religious differences “in order to transform the entire visible world for the glory of the invisible God.”
Pope Benedict was deeply moved in his spontaneous response to Bartholomew, deeming the occasion a true experience of “synod,” (a word whose Greek roots signify “walking a path together”), and calling the patriarch’s words “strongly contextualized in our time.” Days after this encounter, the Holy Father touched again on the theme of dialogue’s essential nature as he brought the synod to a close within St. Peter’s Basilica:

Scripture and liturgy converge, therefore, with the single aim of bringing the people to dialogue with the Lord and to obedience to the will of the Lord. The word issued from the mouth of God and witnessed in the Scriptures returns to him in the form of a prayerful response, a response that is lived, a response that wells up from love.
In this seeking to live our lives in conversation with God, the Pope’s guiding words lead us along the path toward the fullness of truth in the faith handed down to us through the Church. Whether through listening to Scripture and its interpretation as a community or endeavoring to take a guided step toward the Word through individual prayer, our destination remains that same unshakeable truth, found in Christ alone.

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