“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord,” begins the sixth chapter of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum (CCC 141), as the Council Fathers endeavored to situate Scripture in the life of the Church. Many non-Catholic Christians would question the accuracy of this Vatican II assertion. The purpose here is to demonstrate that the Catholic Church is not only a “Bible-based” Church but the Bible-based Church. As Alfred E. Smith was fond of putting it, “Let’s look at the record.”
From time immemorial, the Church has served as the guardian and preserver of the Scriptures. And why not? For it was she who mothered the New Testament (CCC 124–27), and it was she who authoritatively determined just which books should be included in the canon of the Bible (CCC 120). The Church has always sought to expose her sons and daughters to God’s Word by the most appropriate means possible. In times of low literacy, that was best accomplished through preaching and teaching that concentrated on the key persons and events of Bible history, especially those that had their origin in the life and ministry of Our Lord, as they are handed on in the Gospels. Salvation history was passed on for centuries through the Church’s liturgical arts in stained-glass windows (known in art history as “The Bible of the Poor”), paintings, sculpture, and hymns.
For most American Catholics over ﬁfty years of age, grammar school religion classes involved not only the Baltimore Catechism but also serious and extensive study of Bible history. Since Vatican II, the methodology has shifted so that young Catholics study the Bible itself and do not merely study about the Bible. This development resulted from the Church’s conﬁdence that a sufﬁciently educated laity was emerging that could proﬁt immeasurably from direct exposure to the Scriptures through private reading and formal guided study (CCC 133). The Church’s only historical hesitancy has been a fear that private reading of Scripture could lead an untrained reader to erroneous and harmful conclusions – which has happened often enough in the recent past to be a source of genuine concern but not often enough to discourage the practice. To prevent such misfortunes from occurring, the Church encourages believers to engage in Bible study groups (now commonplace in parishes around the country) or in formal classes, so that one’s personal reading of the Bible can be buoyed by the necessary background information in history, archaeology, linguistics, and theology.
Few students today can attend a Catholic high school or college and fail to receive heavy doses of such courses. While seminary education always involved the study and use of Scripture in regular courses in exegesis and preaching, as well as in the areas of dogmatic and moral theology and liturgy, the use of Scripture in contemporary Catholic seminary training might conceivably outstrip its use in most similar Protestant courses of study (CCC 132).
However, it is important to observe that Catholic biblical scholarship is not a twentieth- or twenty-first century phenomenon, nor did the Church enter this arena as a grudging participant or “Johnny-come-lately.” On the contrary, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church were the very people who began biblical study in earnest. Their letters, lectures, and homilies – beginning in the ﬁrst century and continuing up to modern times – provide clear historical evidence of the Church’s continuous efforts to make God’s Word intelligible and proﬁtable to God’s People.
Saint Jerome worked with the Sacred Scriptures in the fourth century, having prepared himself for his lifelong task by a careful study of all the ancient languages and by visiting (and living in) the key spots highlighted in the Bible, especially those connected with the life of Christ. Jerome even commissioned a rabbi not only to teach him Hebrew but to school him in the methods of Jewish biblical interpretation. Saint Augustine, no mean scholar in his own right, praised Jerome’s erudition by remarking that “what Jerome is ignorant of, no mortal has ever known.” Jerome’s commentaries on Scripture still provide valuable and valid insights into the meaning of debated, controversial, or confusing texts. His real claim to fame, however, rests in his monumental achievement of translating the entire Bible into Latin, a translation known as the Latin Vulgate. At times, critics of the Church hold the Latin Vulgate up as proof that the Church was intent on keeping the Scriptures away from the average believer. This is to miss the very point of the Vulgate, which was designed to take the Scriptures out of the obscure and scholarly languages of Hebrew and Greek and to render them in a tongue understandable to the common people, hence Jerome’s choice of “vulgar” Latin, the Latin universally known and used at that time.
In the Middle Ages, the Bible was preserved through the painstaking efforts of the monks, who not only copied by hand the biblical texts but also the commentaries of the early Church Fathers. It is no exaggeration to suggest that if it were not for the medieval Church, there would have been no Scriptures around which Martin Luther could rally with his slogan of “sola Scriptura” (“Scripture alone”).
At the Council of Trent, the bishops called for improvements to be made in Jerome’s Vulgate, as did Pope Pius XII in the twentieth century. With the gradual emergence of modern languages, vernacular translations began to appear and to be accepted by the Church. The three English translations most frequently used by Catholics in the United States are the Jerusalem Bible, the New American Bible, and the Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version – all approved by competent ecclesiastical authority. In addition to scholarly biblical journals, Catholic publishers make available periodicals of a more popular nature, as well as concordances, commentaries, and biblical dictionaries and encyclopedias – all to enable Catholics to read the Scriptures in a way that does justice to the texts and brings life and holiness to the reader. Before Jerome and since, the Church has proﬁted from the learning of people who have committed their whole lives to the advancement of biblical study. To this day, the most difﬁcult and prestigious ecclesiastical degree is the doctorate in Sacred Scripture obtained from the Pontiﬁcal Biblical Institute in Rome or the École Biblique in Jerusalem.
All the foregoing information might be interesting, but it could all apply to less than a sizable portion of the whole Church. What kind of an impact does this scholarly biblical activity have on the average person in the pew? Well, it is precisely that Catholic in that very spot who does receive the beneﬁts of the Catholic devotion to the Bible. If a Catholic were to read no Scripture beyond the passages used for Sunday Mass over the three-year cycle, that person would have been exposed to more than seven thousand verses of the Bible – no mean accomplishment. Of course, Bible reading has always formed the ﬁrst half of the Mass (CCC 1154f, 1190, 1349) from apostolic times (as the New Testament attests), but the lectionary revised in response to the liturgical renewal of Vatican II opened up even more of the Bible to the Sunday-Mass Catholic. The new lectionary is so extensive in its coverage of nearly the entire New Testament and the most signiﬁcant portions of the Old Testament over a three-year period that most mainline Protestant denominations have adopted it. If a Catholic attends daily Mass, the percentage of Scripture taken in over a two-year span is more than double that for the Sunday readings.
Catholics have often been intimidated into thinking that Fundamentalists read more of the Bible than Catholics, but this is not necessarily true—either quantitatively or qualitatively, especially qualitatively. Most Fundamentalist ministers select biblical passages according to the topic they wish to handle for a particular day; it is not unusual for them to have “pet” themes and “pet” passages, to which their congregations are treated on a recurring basis. This kind of eclectic or selective Bible reading is not possible in Catholic liturgy, because the readings are assigned to a given day. Thus, the sermon or homily must ﬂow from the Word of God; the cleric’s biases or interests do not determine the sections of the Word of God to be proclaimed. This is not an insigniﬁcant point to understand and appreciate.
Aside from the obvious Scripture readings that form the backbone of the Liturgy of the Word, the Mass itself is a thoroughly biblical prayer: in the direct scriptural citations, in the paraphrases, and in the biblical allusions. The Mass begins and ends with quotations from Scripture: “The Lord be with you” (said several times in the course of the Mass) comes from the Book of Ruth, as the alternate greetings come from the writings of Saint Paul. The dismissal rite, “Go in peace,” adopts the words commonly used by Our Lord after performing His miracles. Everything else sandwiched in between can be found to originate in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Himself. The Roman Canon or Eucharistic Prayer I abounds in biblical allusions to Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek. Eucharistic Prayer IV is nothing more or less than a complete summation of salvation history. At the heart of every Mass are repeated the texts of Our Lord’s words of institution of the Eucharist, found in all three Synoptic Gospels (CCC 1352f.). The Communion Rite begins with the Lord’s Prayer, as recorded in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (CCC 2759– 865). The Rite of Peace quotes Saint John’s Gospel and is followed by “the Breaking of the Bread,” the expression used for the Mass in the Acts of the Apostles; the invitation to Holy Communion is a direct quotation of John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus. Christ is acknowledged as truly present by the response of the congregation in the words of the Roman centurion, who asserted his own unworthiness to have Christ come under his roof. The reception of Holy Communion is as old as Christianity itself, beginning at the Lord’s Last Supper; Christians have always understood Our Lord to be really and substantially present in the Eucharist, since Christ challenged those who did not do so to leave Him, as the ﬁrst skeptics did (see Jn 6:67; CCC 1384).
The vestments, vessels, gestures, preaching, and sacriﬁcial offering of the Mass today are so thoroughly biblical that it would not be rash to assert that if one of the Twelve were to enter a Catholic church during Mass on any given day, he would understand completely what was under way. If it were possible to have too much of a good thing, this brief survey of the average Catholic’s involvement with the Scriptures might suggest that he is supersaturated with the Bible, for it truly permeates a Catholic’s life both in private and public worship. The Fathers of Vatican II, then, did not engage in hyperbole by declaring that Catholics venerate the Scriptures just as they venerate the Lord’s Body, for the Word must always take on ﬂesh – one logically leading to the other (CCC 103).
With this trilogy of sermons, I hope I have stimulated you sufficiently to have resolved to undertake some serious prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture this coming Lent: perhaps a book of the Bible you have never read; perhaps a chapter of the Gospels each day; or maybe one or more of the epistles. Doing so will ensure that you do not fall under the condemnation of Saint Jerome who asserted: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” After all, the whole purpose of Lent is precisely to come to a deeper knowledge and following of Christ.
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