SOUTH BEND, Indiana — As the worldwide Catholic Church prepares to celebrate the first Sunday of the Word of God this weekend, Bible scholars in the U.S. hope the commemoration strengthens Scriptural devotion in American households.
Since Catholicism is imbued with sacramental celebrations, scholars note that Scripture can take a backseat to other aspects of church life. Statistics support this conjecture, with over 50 percent of Catholics saying they seldom or never read the Bible, according to a 2014 Pew survey. That compares to just 18 percent of Evangelical Protestants who rarely crack open the Good Book.
However, the reticence to read Scripture is understandable from the perspective of Bible scholars. Catholics were not widely encouraged to read Scripture until the 20th century, when Pope Pius XII extolled the practice in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943. Over two decades later, the Second Vatican Council produced Dei Verbum, which amplified Pius’s message to a wider audience.
Dr. Gina Hens-Piazza, President of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, told Crux she feels some Catholics are afraid to read the Bible, worrying they might err in their interpretation.
Despite this, “the Catholic believer has an opportunity, and perhaps even a responsibility, to become a student of Scripture,” she said.
Hens-Piazza, who is a professor of Old Testament studies at Jesuit School of Theology, said the Church should “empower” people and inform them that “they have the capacity to study Scripture.”
Hens-Piazza noted that while many “bright” people attend American parishes, “their understanding of Scripture — if they ever get occasion to study it — probably ended at a very early age.”
Scripture, she said, often requires more reflective thinking than young children can muster.
Holy Cross Father Adam Booth, a doctoral student studying the New Testament at Duke University, said the desire for more Catholics to read Scripture likely influenced the institution of Sunday of the Word of God.
Booth compared the decision by Pope Francis to establish this Sunday’s event to Pope John Paul II’s institution of the Luminous Mysteries in 2002.
“Sometimes we look at the range of things we commemorate liturgically, and we see what’s missing,” he said.
Booth said the “gaps” that form in how we devote our prayer — such as the earthly life of Jesus in the case of the Luminous Mysteries — are aspects of faith dealt with so often, they are sometimes not celebrated.
While the Bible is present in both the readings and many of the prayers at Mass, Booth said there’s no clear time to reflect on “the gift that God has given us words.”
Sunday of the Word of God falls on the third Sunday in Ordinary Time and will become an annual occasion for the Church. None of the readings or propers of the Mass will change, but Francis hopes congregations throughout the world will celebrate “with a certain solemnity.”
While churches decide how to create that “certain solemnity” on an individual level, Booth and Hens-Piazza both had suggestions on how to celebrate the occasion.
Hens-Piazza said the creation of something called lexical groups could be a resource for parishes to further explore Scripture.
She explained the concept: “Whoever is responsible for homilies the following Sunday would invite a sample of members of the community” to a session during the week, where the readings would be discussed. From there, the homilist could “let the homily grow out of that discussion.”
With lexical groups, what parishioners reflect on in the readings “actually becomes a part of what is the preaching message,” Hens-Piazza said.
She also said parishes could take a moment during this weekend’s Mass to bless and recognize ministers of the Word in the congregation.
Booth told Crux on Tuesday that he had not yet prepared his homily for the weekend, but planned to preach on the idea of how the New Testament fulfills the Old Testament, a concept found in Sunday’s readings.
Noting that Catholics do not read the whole Bible through readings at Mass, Booth suggested reading beyond the selected passage for a given Sunday to gain more context of the Scriptures.
“If we’re reading six verses from Matthew 3 this week, why don’t you sit down and read the whole of Mathew 3?” he offered.
Both Booth and Hens-Piazza said that reviewing the Sunday readings ahead of time is a great tactic for families with young children.
“It can give the kids a sense of something to listen for,” said Booth. “They can pick out in advance something that might be meaningful for their family.”
While Sunday of the Word of God might shine a light on a soft spot for American Catholics, Hens-Piazza said she hopes the annual event will spread new ways to encounter the Bible.
“There’s so many things we can do that Catholics have a 15- or 20-minute introduction to three texts,” she said.
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