Access to God’s Word for all

by John Wijngaards, the Tablet, April 1994

On the 16th April the Catholic Biblical Federation will have existed for 25 years. John Wijngaards, who was a member of the group that founded the organization and spelled out its aims, assesses the impact of its new biblical vision.

In the words of Vatican II, Sacred Scripture should nourish and guide the whole of Christian religion. Its power should support the Christian community. For individual believers it should provide vigour to one’s faith, nourishment for one’s inner life, and become a pure and lasting fount of spirituality (Dei Verbum, no 21). If we are honest, we have to admit that such statements are either pure rhetoric or that, for many of us, something is badly lacking in the actual reality of our being Christians, and a Church.

I do not for a moment dispute the role Scripture continues to play in our liturgies. We listen to the readings, and occasionally they move us. We hear homilies, which are biblical at times. We accept the official status attributed to God’s Word as the supreme rule of faith, and as the major source for theology as handed on in tradition. But can we really profess, in all sincerity, that our day-to-day “inner life” is nourished by listening to God’s Word? Or can we pretend that our practical decisions as parish communities or action groups spring from a response to reading what God has to say? What has been done to bring about the much needed reform?

The reform outlined in Dei Verbum covered many areas. It put modern biblical scholarship on a solid footing. It opened new vistas of a lived ecumenism around God’s Word. It demanded a more biblical approach to Christian morality and the exercise of the magisterium. There is much that would need to be said about each of such areas: a balance drawn up of gains made and opportunities lost. But none of these issues should overshadow the Council’s plea that Scripture nourish the Christian’s life. “Only the life of faith and meditation on God’s Word can enable us to find always and everywhere the God ‘in whom we live and exist’ (Acts 17,28); only thus can we seek his will in everything, see Christ in all people, and make sound judgements on the true meaning and value of temporal realities.”

The Council’s desire that “easy access to Sacred Scripture be provided to all the faithful” requires an overturning of the contra-reformation priorities that have dominated the Catholic community for centuries. In the years after the Council a good deal of heart searching went on as to how such a transformation could be best realised. Most countries, at the time, had biblical associations of scholars, geared to academic debate, not to pastoral involvement. The legendary Cardinal Bea of the Secretariat for Christian Unity took the initiative. When, in discussion with the Protestant Bible Societies and with existing Catholic Bible centres in countries such as West Germany, Holland and Canada, Bea had drawn up initial plans, his successor Cardinal Willebrands invited representatives from all over the world to a meeting in Rome, in 1969, which led to the foundation of the World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate.

That early name was significant. The delegates unanimously agreed on the desirability of the proposed Catholic biblical apostolate covering more than what had been covered by the existing Protestant Bible Societies. The latter’s work of translating and distributing copies of the Scriptures was admired, and cooperation in producing ecumenical versions was decided on in principle. But the Bible Societies worked under severe restrictions. They could not provide texts with commentary, or promote the programmes of biblical renewal, so necessary in the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Biblical Federation, as it is now called, has grown out to an impressive international network of 80 national Bible centres and 190 associated groups and institutions, in 96 countries. Its secretariat in Stuttgart puts out quarterly bulletins in English, Spanish and French. International assemblies held every six years ensure world wide cross-cultural communication. But more important than such organisational achievements is the vision of new goals it has injected into Church thinking.

To obtain a flavour of such new thinking, let us sample some of the new “shoots of life” in various parts of the world, new beginnings that carry a clear scriptural inspiration. I detect contradictory trends that point to more than one direction in which a genuine biblical spirituality of the future may travel. And there is surely no more exciting a development to start with than the ever increasing interest in lectio divina.

Thronging to hear the Bible read

In October 1980 Cardinal Martini started regular Scripture readings in Milan cathedral. On the first evening three hundred people were present. In subsequent months participation rose to five hundred, one thousand, three thousand, till the cathedral could not hold their numbers. After five years in the cathedral, the practice was continued in twenty-five large churches in the archdiocese that were linked by radio. Later again it was extended to seventy more parishes with the local clergy performing the service.

What was new about the approach, has been explained by the Cardinal as follows: “We were determined not to make this another sermon or catechism class. Though we chose specific topics to link the readings, our aim was none other than to make the Scripture passages speak for themselves. After an opening song, we simply read the text, then we read the verses again with commentary, putting what was said within context and explaining biblical turns of phrase. Then followed fifteen minutes of absolute silence — a time for personal response and contemplation. We concluded with a prayer.”

Our temptation as ministers and pastoral leaders is to select Scripture passages for a particular purpose. We have already made up our mind about what the inspired text is going to say. We use the text as a prop to support our immediate intent. In a way, we make God’s Word subservient to our own thinking, and to our narrow perspective. But is this really listening to what an unpredictable, sovereign, living God is trying to tell us?

Cardinal Martini believes the success of any lectio divina programme depends crucially on the attitude we adopt before we approach the text. “We should take our starting point in reverence and wonder”, he says. “Look on the Bible with awe. Be prepared to really listen. Ban all inner noise and be silent. Adore the divine mystery as you place yourself in front of Scripture as God’s Word.” And such an approach has consequences.

For one thing, continuous reading of books and chapters then makes sense. Lectio divina should preferably proceed from the beginning to the end of the whole of Scripture. This is also the rationale for the Church’s three-year reading cycle for Sundays and the two-year cycle for weekdays: to cover, at least in excerpts, the whole Bible. The ideal lectio divina complements this vision by taking people through larger units of Scripture in a consecutive programme of reading, commentary and contemplation.

Backing the reading with commentary is no luxury. People are prone to believe that respect for God’s Word favours a literalist interpretation. They seek the message in the external wording rather than in the intention of the biblical authors, which alone is the inspired sense of Scripture as Vatican II affirmed. Suitable commentary may also help listeners discover links between the ancient text and the challenges they face in their own lives.

The Milan venture is not the only one of its kind. A lectio divina type reading of Scripture has started in many places under a variety of guises. Cursive exegesis, rather than just academic lecturing on Scripture, is finding its way into the formation programmes of seminarians, novices and religious educators. The devotional reading of Scripture is promoted once more as a daily practice for everyone including the laity. Bible groups meet with no other purpose than read a book and discuss its meaning. However, this return to the Word itself could be a betrayal of its fullest intention.

Such is the view of Carlos Mesters, the Brazilian prophet of a more ‘aggressive’ form of Scripture study. Mesters endorses the need of reverend and competent readings of Scripture, but contends they often do not go far enough. They may lead to spiritual self indulgence and provide an escape from the real demands God is making on us.

God as champion of human rights

Carlos Mesters is by all accounts a remarkable priest. When I was privileged to meet him three years ago in his home in Belo Horizonte, I was immediately struck by the contrast in his personality. His soft spoken, polite, patient, shy and kind manner belies the strong views and indomitable resolve of a man totally dedicated to restoring to Scripture the power to change the world. For him God’s Word spells revolution.

Mesters is a Christian reformer for whom every event in the real world has social, economic, political and ideological implications, which he calls the four corners of reality. God’s Word has much to say in terms of that reality. And, like a new Christ acutely moved by the plight of the Latin American poor, Mesters hears God speak a message of liberation. The sociological study of Norman Gottwald The Tribes of Yahweh (Orbis Books 1979) provided him with the key to a daring interpretation of the Exodus which he popularises as “God’s Project” (English edition: Athlone 1990).

Yahweh’s covenant with Israel had political, as much as religious, consequences, Mesters says. The Hebrews were saved from imperialist exploiters in Egypt and the ruling classes in Canaan. Yahweh’s covenant established an equalitarian society. It decentralised power and offered people the means of autonomous production. The Ten Commandments were the constitution of that haven of equality in an oppressive and class-ridden world. Faith in only one God guaranteed delivery from all extraneous powers. God revealed himself as Yahweh, as a liberator. “Every time we read Yahweh/Lord in the Bible, we must remember that God pledged himself to be a liberating presence among us. The name Yahweh is like a summary of the Bible. It is the foundation, the root of faith, hope and love of the poor and the oppressed. It is the spring of freedom and peace.”

Mesters does not minimise the religious dimension. He maintains that the social dimension has been overlooked. God’s project in the old dispensation was to start a free, just and equal community of his adopted children. When this failed, Jesus came to make the project succeed, manifesting God’s love in a kingdom that would bring good news to the poor. God’s identification with the oppressed in Jesus’ death and his victory in Jesus’ resurrection, seals the new covenant of freedom, justice and peace.

If Mesters’ biblical interpretation has political teeth, so has the method of study he propagates. He maintains that the Word of God can only yield its living message if three elements are fully brought into play: the situation we find ourselves in, the community we belong to and the text we read. Scholars can help to clear away misunderstandings. When it comes to the question: “What is God saying to us here?”, the ordinary people themselves must unlock the meaning. Mesters, therefore, speaks of an interpretation of Scripture from the point of view of the ordinary people; which in Brazil means: from point of view of the poor (see Defenceless Flower, Orbis 1989).

Ordinary people, who read Scripture from within their everyday life, will draw different conclusions from those seen by clerics and scholars. He compares this to the different way a car is seen by a businessman who sends a car in for repair and by the mechanic who lies on his back under the car. “The people are looking at the Bible, lying on the ground of life, on the dirty sacking of injustices, and wearing overalls soaked in dirt and blood . . . . Mechanics look at cars which are not theirs and which they cannot own. People today are beginning to look at the Bible as their book. After repairing the cars of thousands of bosses, the people now, finally, are adjusting the plugs on an old car which is their own. We, exegetes or interpreters, priests or pastoral workers, who were always the owners of the Bible and of knowledge about the Bible – we are not capable of having the same vision, the same joy, gratitude, wonder, novelty and commitment that the people bring to the Bible.”

Starting a new journey

There are hopeful signs in the Church. The Council of European Bishops Conferences sponsored a consultation on “Holy Scripture in the life of the Church, today and tomorrow” (Freising, 16-19 February 1994). Last November the Pontifical Biblical Commission published a paper entitled ‘Interpreting the Bible in the Church’ which devotes an entire page to lectio divina and which gives the liberationist approach to the Bible the most positive and balanced appraisal ever to be seen in a Vatican document dealing with this topic. “Liberation theology includes elements of undoubted value . . . . because it underlines the capacity of the text to speak to the world of today”.

Meeting Carlos Mesters has made liberation theology real to me. And, though his passionate interpretation does, at times, result in overstatements, it has helped me realise that we have, indeed, undersold the inescapable political demands of the old and new covenants. Mesters’ vision has greatly influenced the biblical apostolate in Latin America, if not in the whole world. I was relieved to hear him admit, after a full day’s one-to-one discussion, that he did not believe his approach to Scripture to be the only valid one. “In Africa, Asia, Europe, there may be other priorities”, he conceded. “Christian communities there will focus on other realities also present in God’s Word.” It was an assurance he was to repeat in the plenary assembly of the Catholic Biblical Federation in Bogotá that same year, in 1990.

There certainly are other priorities as valid as liberation. In Asia the Bible confronts the inspired writings of rival religious systems. In the West, countering the erosive force of secularism amounts to a struggle for life or death. Africa cries out for recognition of its own Old Testament of oral beliefs and tribal ritual. The task is enormous. However, a journey of a thousand miles begins under our own feet.

It is not to Rome we should now turn for further guidance: it is all there in old and recent documents. It is we ourselves who should affect the change. The vision of closer access to, and familiarity with, Scripture asks for deeds, not words. What stops us from starting a simple lectio divina in our parish, school or home? Why not gather friends around Scripture with the help of a suitable biblical study course? “This sacred Synod forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful to learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil 3,8) by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures” (Dei Verbum, no 25). Is it a plea we can afford to ignore?