More than 40 years after the Second Vatican Council, the Bible still does not figure at the center of Catholic life the way the Eucharist does. When they meet in synod at the Vatican in October, bishops from around the world will address one of the great unfinished works of the council—namely, how Catholics can make the word of God their own. Even though the Catholic Lectionary for Sundays was re-designed in 1969 to use a three-year cycle of readings in order to promote greater familiarity with the whole of Scripture, Catholics do not yet own the Scriptures the way many Protestants, especially evangelicals, do. In assigning “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” as the topic for the coming 12th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Benedict signaled his recognition not only of how important proclamation, prayer and study of the Scripture are to the church, but also of his awareness that the church has far to go to complete the council’s reforms.
A summary of reports received from episcopal conferences and the Eastern churches, the instrumentum laboris, or working paper, released last month is a measure of the health of the whole church. It reveals a community that appreciates the rich resources of the council that are still to be mined, and it sheds light on a church laboring thoughtfully to overcome shortcomings in the implementation of Vatican II’s reforms.
To be sure, this is a Catholic document, where the Bible is regarded as “the church’s book.” Any single text, it insists, must be read in relation to the whole canon by the light of faith, together with the church’s tradition and with the guidance of the magisterium. But there is no impetus, as some wanted and others feared, for a heavy-handed imposition of hierarchical authority over new efforts to appropriate Scripture. The slight attention given, however, to the contribution of exegetes and theologians is to be lamented. The use and study of Scripture is one area in which the trend of recent decades to narrow the ordinary magisterium to the repetition of hierarchical pronouncements might more easily be reversed. Overall, the instrumentum laboris reminds readers that when it comes to the evangelization, catechesis and liturgical celebration of the word of God, the hopes of the council are still to be realized.
A significant shortcoming of the postconciliar reforms, according to the document, is the failure to communicate the sacramental nature of the celebration of the word in the liturgy. This is partly a result of poor preaching, it suggests, in particular the failure of homilists to open up “the treasures” of the Scriptures for the congregation. The absence of biblical preaching, the report indicates, may be due to a lack of adequate training. But it is worth pointing out that other pastoral priorities have frequently overtaken the appropriation of the Gospel as the center of Catholic pastoral practice and everyday culture. Signals that other things, like the catechism and pro-life activities, are of greater pastoral importance did not help. Setting up litmus tests for Catholic identity may also have shifted the content of some Catholic preaching in other directions.
Certainly revitalizing preaching should be at the top of the synod’s agenda. Too many of the faithful feel unenlightened and undernourished by what they hear each week from the pulpit. Nothing could strengthen the liturgy and give new vitality to the Catholic community as much as biblically rooted preaching. Another development that could greatly enrich the spiritual lives of the people as well as of the clergy, the instrumentum laboris points out, is the practice of lectio divina. This ancient form of prayer can contribute not only to personal appropriation of Scripture but also to spiritual conversation among parishioners and members of lay and religious communities, and so lead to greater unity in the faith community.
Finally, the working paper points to the Word of God active in today’s world and is open to the faith of others and to the dialogue of faith with culture. It notes how joint study and prayer over the Scriptures can both illuminate the differences that led to the separation of churches and contribute to appreciation of the common faith in Jesus Christ that unites all the baptized. Likewise, it affirms that the word of God is found in all creation, especially in the human person, and in the cultures that are humanity’s collective expression. The Bible itself, notes the document, represents a pluralism of cultures, “a series of encounters with man’s search to respond to his ultimate questions.” Lastly, the document affirms that as the church responds to the signs of the times, “the Word of God, planted by Christ as the seed of God’s Kingdom, makes its way through history.”
From the archives, John R. Donahue, S.J., on the history of Catholic Biblical Scholarship. Read "Biblical Scholarship 50 years After Divino Afflante Spiritu."