Photography by Andy Coan

Last month we discussed the embarrassing results of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which revealed that atheists and agnostics had a much greater grasp of the books of the Bible and key Bible figures than Catholics do. Only 42 percent of Catholics could name Genesis as the first book of the Bible. Just 33 percent could name the four Gospels. In multiple choice questions, only 54 percent could identify Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace, 55 percent Abraham as the father who nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, and 25 percent Job as the figure associated with enormous suffering. The results were a clear reminder for individual Catholics and their pastors of the problem of Biblical illiteracy.

Those results reinforced the results of a 2008 international study of Catholics and the Bible, which found that only three percent of Catholics read the Bible daily and that eighty percent of Catholics confess that the only time they encounter the Word of God is when they hear it proclaimed at Sunday Mass.

One of the obvious conclusions of these studies is that even though ninety-three percent of Catholics in the developed world own a Bible, it has little impact on their daily lives.

That’s one of the reasons why Pope Benedict XVI convened in 2008 a Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. It’s also one of the reasons why last Thursday he published his apostolic exhortation “Verbum Domini,” the most expansive papal document on Sacred Scripture in the history of the Church. The exhortation was addressed not just to bishops, clergy and consecrated persons, but also explicitly to the “lay faithful.”

Most of us, when we receive a letter, normally open and read it. When the letter is from a close family member, we generally pore over it faster. And most of us do not seem to mind when, at Christmas for example, the letter we receive is identical to those that other family and friends get. The only mail we generally do not read is what we classify as junk mail. With that analogy in mind, it’s important to recognize that last week each of us received a letter from our holy father in the faith. For sure, it was a form letter, sent not uniquely to one of us, but to all the members of our family. Moreover, in order prudently to save on expenses, the holy father didn’t put Vatican stamps on 1.1 billion envelopes to send it via snail mail to our individual mailboxes; he put it on the internet so that each of us could download it, format it and study it in the way most comfortable for us to read.

The question for each of us is how we will respond to the holy father’s missive. Will we treat it as a love letter, receive it with gratitude and read it, aware that Pope Benedict worked for two years writing it for us and that in it he has tried to communicate to us not only his own wisdom but God’s wisdom about one of the most important aspects of our Christian life, identity and mission? Or will we treat it basically as junk mail and ignore it?

The same questions apply, obviously, to the much larger series of love letters that God himself has written to us through various inspired human authors.

“Verbum Domini” is divided into three main parts. In the first section, Pope Benedict speaks powerfully about how through revelation God has made himself known as a loving communion and has bidden us to enter. He seeks a dialogue with us, not just in words but in life. After speaking to us in many ways, he spoke to us definitively in his Son (Heb 1:1-4), “abbreviating” in Christ the message about who He is, who we are, and the communion of love he desires to have with us. Christianity is this encounter with a God who speaks — and speaks personally to us, one-on-one, in Christ. “Every man and woman appears as someone to whom the word speaks, challenges and calls to enter this dialogue of love through a free response,” Pope Benedict writes. “Each of us is thus enabled by God to hear and respond to his word. We were created in the word and we live in the word; we cannot understand ourselves unless we are open to this dialogue.” He describes sin as the refusal to hear God’s word and enter into that dialogue. “Sacred Scripture shows how man’s sin is essentially disobedience and refusal to hear. … For this reason it is important that the faithful be taught to acknowledge that the root of sin lies in the refusal to hear the word of the Lord, and to accept in Jesus, the Word of God, the forgiveness which opens us to salvation.” These are powerful words, not just in terms of their description of salvation history, but also because they communicate to us the seriousness of the practical refusal of so many Catholics to read and heed God’s word through the study of Sacred Scripture and, like the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, enflesh what they hear.

In the second section of the exhortation, the Pope turns to how God’s word is meant to enliven everything the Church is and does. He describes the indispensable role of God’s word in each of the sacraments, the liturgy of the hours, the various approved blessings, catechesis, and personal and communal prayer; gives concrete tips to those who proclaim the Word of God, who teach it and who preach it; and emphasizes how the Word of God should form the lives of ordained ministers, seminarians, religious, lay faithful and families. He called the Church to a “biblical apostolate,” by which he meant that the Bible should not merely be one more thing that the Church offers and does, but rather should inspire and be at the center of all the Church’s pastoral work. He gives concrete advice to pastors, catechists and parents about passing on the treasure of the Word of God. In order to eliminate problems like those exposed by the Pew Forum study, he encourages all those in the Church to grow in “knowledge of biblical personages, events and well-known sayings,” suggesting that “judicious memorization of some passages that are particularly expressive of the Christian mysteries” be promoted. He asks bishops and pastors to increase their emphasis on the Bible and provide training and continuing formation in Sacred Scripture for all the faithful, especially for religious educators and those with particular responsibilities in the Church. He appeals to parents to “pass on and bear witness to the meaning of life in Christ” by proclaiming God’s word to their children, by having a Bible at home, keeping it in a worthy place and using it for individual and familial reading and prayer.

In the last section, Pope Benedict focuses on the great mission Jesus Christ bequeathed to his Church, that of going to all the nations and proclaiming the Word of God to every creature. He describes how Pentecost is meant to continue in every generation, as the Holy Spirit moves the baptized to share God’s saving truth with others, not just with words but with a witness thoroughly imbued by God’s word. He also encourages artists to imitate the greats of previous generations in using their God-given talents to depict and radiate the beauty of the great events and figures of salvation history.

“Our own time,” Pope Benedict concluded, “must be increasingly marked by a new hearing of God’s word and a new evangelization. Recovering the centrality of the divine word in the Christian life leads us … vigorously to embark upon the new evangelization, expecially in those nations where the Gospel has been forgotten or meets with indifference as a result of widespread secularism.” He called on all Catholics “to become increasingly familiar with the sacred Scriptures” and never to forget that “all authentic and living Christian spirituality is based on the word of God proclaimed, accepted, celebrated and meditated upon in the Church.”

The response of the Church to this “Verbum Domini” should be nothing short of “Deo gratias!,” “thanks be to God.”

For a copy of the exhortation, visit Verbum Domini

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