Those who study the Bible can never master it, says Basilian Father Thomas Rosica. Rather, the Word comes to master those who study it, making them its humble servants.
This is one of the reflections offered by Father Rosica when ZENIT spoke to him about Benedict XVI's postsynodal apostolic exhortation "Verbum Domini," released earlier this month.
Father Rosica was at the 2008 synod of bishops that the exhortation presents: He was named the English-language press attaché and offered ZENIT readers a daily "Synod Diary." (They can be read in ZENIT's archives at the Web site, by accessing the dispatches from Oct. 5-26, 2008).
Father Rosica is the chief executive officer of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network. He is a Scripture scholar, author, retreat preacher and lecturer. In February 2009, Father Rosica was named by Pope Benedict XVI a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He also pens ZENIT's weekly reflection on the Sunday readings called "Words Made Flesh."
The postsynodal exhortation “Verbum Domini” is the most important document on the Bible in 45 years. It helps us to rediscover the truth of the Divine Word of God, as well as reminding us that the source of constant renewal for the Church is the very Word of God. Sacred Scripture must be at the heart of all ecclesial activity. Do you think we have forgotten these truths? Have we forgotten that a biblical renewal was one of the most desired hopes and fruits of the Second Vatican Council?
A very good question! I don’t think that we have forgotten the biblical renewal that was at the heart of the Second Vatican Council and certainly flowed from Vatican II in those initial years. I agree however with Pope Benedict that over the past 45-50 years, there has been "a slackening" with the consequence of "indefiniteness or vague spiritualism or, on the contrary, of arid technicalities on the part of specialists."
Rather than leading people into the heart of God’s Word, we have driven some away or elsewhere! We simply need to revive it and rekindle the flame around the Scriptures once again. Perhaps some people who did Bible or Scripture studies felt that they “mastered” the topic and could move on to other things. When we study the Word of God and try to base our lives on it, we never master it. Rather, the Word masters us and we become its humble servants.
One of Pope Benedict’s lines that really struck me in “Verbum Domini” is:
In this way I wish to point out certain fundamental approaches to a rediscovery of God's word in the life of the Church as a wellspring of constant renewal. At the same time I express my hope that the word will be ever more fully at the heart of every ecclesial activity (No. 1).
One of the strong messages of the synod on the Word of God was that the Christian faith is not a religion of the book but a religion of the Word of God. This message is underlined by the Holy Father. When you encounter Catholics and Christians who do not understand this difference, how do you help them to understand the reality of the Word of God?
Our Catholic Christian faith is not about a book or a story of the past. Nor is our faith based in a library or collection of ancient texts. Only within the dynamic unity of the whole are the many books one book. God's word and action in the world are only revealed in the word and history of human beings. The Word of God is a person and his name is Jesus. He is not a dead letter or a page in a history book. God’s Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. He lived on our earth and shared our human condition. God’s Word continues to save and redeem, forgive and heal us today.
“Verbum Domini” states:
The Christian faith is not a 'religion of the book': Christianity is the 'religion of the word of God,' not of a 'written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word' (No. 7).
We also read in this important Vatican document on Scripture:
As the Synod Fathers stated, the expression 'word of God' is used analogically, and we should be aware of this. The faithful need to be better helped to grasp the different meanings of the expression, but also to understand its unitary sense. From the theological standpoint too, there is a need for further study of how the different meanings of this expression are interrelated, so that the unity of God's plan and, within it, the centrality of the person of Christ, may shine forth more clearly (No. 7).
One of the great debates at the synod was about the role of exegetes: those professionals who study sacred Scriptures and are called to interpret the Bible. Several synod fathers spoke openly about the harm that exegetes had caused for the interpretation of the Scriptures and how they helped people to lose their faith. What does the Pope say about this reality in “Verbum Domini?”
It is no secret that Catholic biblical scholarship has come to a seeming impasse today because serious scholarly work on the Bible is not being used adequately and sufficiently in theology. This phenomenon is mirrored by exegetes who have little appeal to theological and ecclesiological questions. A mutual appreciation and application of each other's work is lacking as well as a sense that Scripture studies are part of the living, breathing, dynamic tradition of the Church.
“Verbum Domini” deals with the role and vocation of exegetes and teachers of Scripture in a very thorough manner in over 40 pages dedicated to presenting hermeneutics in a "clear and constructive" way, and his encouragement to biblical scholars, theologians and pastors to engage in a constructive dialogue for the life and mission of the Church.
“Verbum Domini” also clearly states that the primary setting for scriptural interpretation is the life of the Church. This is not to uphold the ecclesial context as an extrinsic rule to which exegetes must submit, but rather is something demanded by the very nature of the Scriptures and the way they gradually came into being.
Faith traditions formed the living context for the literary activity of the authors of sacred Scripture. Their insertion into this context also involved a sharing in both the liturgical and external life of the communities, in their intellectual world, in their culture and in the ups and downs of their shared history. In like manner, the interpretation of sacred Scripture requires full participation on the part of exegetes in the life and faith of the believing community of their own time.
In their work of interpretation, Catholic exegetes must never forget that what they are interpreting is the word of God. Their common task is not finished when they have simply determined sources, defined forms or explained literary procedures. They arrive at the true goal of their work only when they have explained the meaning of the biblical text as God’s word for today (No. 33).
Lectio divina, the prayerful reading of the Word of God, is one of the strongest and clearest proposals of the apostolic exhortation. What would you advise to parishes or Christian communities in how to implement this proposal and activity?
The topic of lectio divina came up many times during the synod on the Word of God. I am very happy that “Verbum Domini” offers lectio divina as a method of approaching, understanding, praying and loving the Word of God. “Verbum Domini” states:
The Synod frequently insisted on the need for a prayerful approach to the sacred text as a fundamental element in the spiritual life of every believer, in the various ministries and states in life, with particular reference to Lectio Divina. The Word of God is at the basis of all authentic Christian spirituality.
In “Verbum Domini,” Pope Benedict describes in detail the method of lectio divina:
I would like here to review the basic steps of this procedure. It opens with the reading (lectio) of a text, which leads to a desire to understand its true content: what does the biblical text say in itself? Without this, there is always a risk that the text will become a pretext for never moving beyond our own ideas. Next comes meditation (meditatio), which asks: what does the biblical text say to us? Here, each person, individually but also as a member of the community, must let himself or herself be moved and challenged. Following this comes prayer (oratio), which asks the question: what do we say to the Lord in response to his word? Prayer, as petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise, is the primary way by which the word transforms us. Finally, lectio divina concludes with contemplation (contemplatio), during which we take up, as a gift from God, his own way of seeing and judging reality, and ask ourselves what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us? In the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul tells us: 'Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect' (12:2). Contemplation aims at creating within us a truly wise and discerning vision of reality, as God sees it, and at forming within us 'the mind of Christ' (1 Cor 2:16). The word of God appears here as a criterion for discernment: it is 'living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart' (Heb 4:12). We do well also to remember that the process of lectio divina is not concluded until it arrives at action (actio), which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity (No. 86-87).
I regret very much that the 2008 synod never offered a concrete experience of lectio divina during the three weeks we were together. Instead, someone presented a very theoretical paper on the topic. Several of us gathered in the synod hall in October 2008 had some powerful experiences or memories of lectio divina, thanks to the wonderful way it was used by Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini during his years as archbishop of Milan.
Salt and Light Television Network in Canada has given lectio divina a high priority in our programming and we have been particularly blessed to have Archbishop Thomas Collins in Toronto who continues what Cardinal Martini did in Milan for so many years. Archbishop Collins, a renowned Scripture scholar and teacher, has used lectio divina in a rather remarkable way to bring the Scriptures alive for the people of Toronto and far beyond, thanks to Canada’s Catholic Television network and the use of modern media. Visit these two links to get an idea of how this simple but ancient method can still breathe much life into the Church today:
“Verbum Domini” vigorously promotes the New Evangelization. Do you not find it surprising that the “old” Bible has become once again the privileged instrument for the New Evangelization?
Not at all! To evangelize means to preach the Good News proclaimed to us over 2,000 years ago. That news is the same, yesterday, today and forever. It truly is the greatest story ever told. We must constantly seek new ways to tell that ancient story. The greatest challenge facing the Church at the beginning of the new millennium is the task which has always been entrusted to her: evangelization.
The evangelization of today's world -- so often spoken about by the Servant of God John Paul II and repeated by Pope Benedict XVI -- is a task in which the Church places great hope; yet we are fully aware of the innumerable obstacles we face in this work due to the extraordinary changes happening at a personal and social level and, above all, to a postmodern culture in serious crisis.
Our task is to reflect seriously on how we might carry out a true evangelization today, not just a new evangelization, but often a true first evangelization. People don't know God, they don't know Christ. A new paganism is present, and it is not enough just to maintain the community of believers, although this is very important. Together we must find new ways of bringing the Gospel to today's world by preaching Christ anew and by establishing the faith. “Verbum Domini” rekindles in the Church the desire to discover anew the transforming power of the Word of God.
Many of us are stuck today in programs of ecclesial maintenance. We are tired and hoodwinked into discouragement. The apostolic exhortation "Verbum Domini" alluded to the need of the "missio ad gentes" in Section 95, in which the synod fathers reiterated the importance that the Church "not limit itself to a pastoral program of 'maintenance.'"
Many of our brothers and sisters are 'baptized, but insufficiently evangelized.' In a number of cases, nations once rich in faith and in vocations are losing their identity under the influence of a secularized culture. The need for a new evangelization, so deeply felt by my venerable Predecessor, must be valiantly reaffirmed, in the certainty that God’s word is effective (No. 96).
You have been awaiting this document with great expectation in light of your role at the synod in 2008. What did you find most striking about the apostolic exhortation?
The document is a very faithful reflection of what was discussed during the 2008 synod. “Verbum Domini” offers a deep sense of unity, urgency, relevance and spirituality to the Church today, and not only to the Roman Catholic Church. It is a document that will be of great assistance to Christian Churches who have the Word of God at the center of their life.
“Verbum Domini” is highly theological, pastoral, practical, and accessible. The extensive and rather comprehensive index says it all! The topics treated in this important Vatican document are very timely for our world and Church today. In light of so many conflicts taking place in the world, I was struck by Pope Benedict’s words on the proclamation of God's word, reconciliation and peace between peoples.
Among the many areas where commitment is needed, the Synod earnestly called for the promotion of reconciliation and peace. In the present context it is more necessary than ever to rediscover the word of God as a source of reconciliation and peace, since in that word God is reconciling to himself all things (cf. 2 Cor 5:18-20; Eph 1:10): Christ "is our peace" (Eph 2:14), the one who breaks down the walls of division. A number of interventions at the Synod documented the grave and violent conflicts and tensions present on our planet. At times these hostilities seem to take on the appearance of interreligious conflict. Here I wish to affirm once more that religion can never justify intolerance or war. We cannot kill in God's name! Each religion must encourage the right use of reason and promote ethical values that consolidate civil coexistence (No. 102).
What is your enduring memory of the synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church?
When I first learned of my appointment to the position of "Deputatus Notitiis Vulgandis" (press attaché) for the "Lingua Anglica" (English language) of the 2008 synod, I never imagined that the experience would involve so much work, meeting so many great people, sitting for so long in the aula, sleeping so little, writing so much, being moved on a daily basis by what we heard, saw and celebrated together in moving liturgies. It was an extraordinary ecclesial experience and retreat, steeped in the Scriptures, Vatican documents, and the universality of the Church. The synod on the Word of God was an invitation to students, teachers and lovers of sacred Scripture, and to the entire Church, to look carefully at our relationship with the Word of God
As I watched and heard bishop after bishop, auditor after auditor, get up and speak about the blessings and burdens, hopes and challenges they face in offering God's Word to the world, suddenly our own problems back home paled in comparison to some of the very serious situations we heard about. Many people throughout the world are actually living and dying for the Word of God.
In “Verbum Domini,” Pope Benedict writes:
The 2008 Synod on the Word of God was a testimony, before the Church and before the world, to the immense beauty of encountering the word of God in the communion of the Church. For this reason I encourage all the faithful to renew their personal and communal encounter with Christ, the word of life made visible, and to become his heralds, so that the gift of divine life -- communion -- can spread ever more fully throughout the world. Indeed, sharing in the life of God, a Trinity of love, is complete joy (cf. 1 Jn 1:4). And it is the Church's gift and unescapable duty to communicate that joy, born of an encounter with the person of Christ, the Word of God in our midst. In a world which often feels that God is superfluous or extraneous, we confess with Peter that he alone has 'the words of eternal life' (Jn 6:68). There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10) (No. 2).
How can Scripture once again become the "soul of theology" and bridge this growing divide between those who study Scripture, those who teach theology and those who are preparing for ministry in the Roman Catholic Church? How can the hearts of students, pastoral ministers, and the faithful to whom they will minister, be set on fire by the Risen Lord who begs people to touch the text of his words?
“Verbum Domini” provides answers to some of those burning questions for the Church and is a great compendium for our Advent journey this year. As we prepare to welcome the Word Made Flesh at Christmas, may this apostolic exhortation enlighten, challenge, encourage and sustain us, and open our minds and hearts to the richness, beauty and hope of God’s Word among us.
CNS photo/Michael Alexander