We talked earlier this year about the selection of the Sacred Scripture for the Catholic Lectionary of Readings, and I noted that the entire Bible, not even the four Gospel units, is proclaimed in the full three-year cycle. I have always entertained the idea that some passages of the Gospel have not been included in the Sunday Cycle for the simple reasons that they are shocking, perhaps incomprehensible, and extremely challenging to preach upon. Lest anyone is scandalized by this observation, I can tell you that whenever I took up the family Bible in my own home as a kid, I was reminded by my German relatives that the Bible was something of a dangerous book to be read independently. In all my years as an altar boy and Mass participant in elementary school, I can never recall anyone recommending from the pulpit a regular personal reading of the Bible. In fact, in truth I don’t hear such advice much today, either.
The Catechism of the Church, however, could not be blunter: “Access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful.” (para. 131). With even more emphasis the Catechism states: “The Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” (para. 133) The Catechism includes here both the Hebrew or Old Testament books as well as the New Testament. The Catechism’s words are directed to all the baptized, not simply catechists and other Church ministers.
I do raise an eyebrow from time to time at what some parishes consider Bible study. I participated some years ago in a parish study group; the format involved about 20 of us sitting in a circle. The leader read a passage, possibly from the Sunday reading. We were told to go around the circle and each give a view of what the reading meant to us. There was a very elderly lady next to me for whom this posed quite a challenge, but she gamely gave it her best shot. Then, knowing that I happened to be a Scripture teacher, she turned immediately to me and anxiously inquired. “Did I get it right?”
This lady, God bless her, had inherited what many Catholics believe to be the nature of the Bible: a historical narrative with crystal clear right and wrong answers. The idea that the inspired Word has an infinite nature to it that only the reading, prayer, meditation, blood, sweat and tears of private study will gradually reveal is a foreign concept. Bible study groups, in my view, are pastorally fruitful when they serve as (1) organized study groups under a mentor, something like a graduate seminar, where the leader guides individual studies, provides background and resources, and keeps everyone on the reservation in terms of the Catholic Tradition of Bible interpretation; or (2) a faith nurturing environment in which participants can express the inspiration received by the studied Word and how they are putting it to use in their baptismal lives today. In other words, informed faith sharing.
I hasten to add, here, that we do not study Scripture individually to invent new egocentric interpretations. The Church enjoys two millennia of devoted churchmen, saints, scholars who have given their lives to seeking the wisdom of God’s word. Scripture study takes us into their experience. On following Tuesdays we can look at some strategies to begin our journey into the awesomeness of God’s holy Word.