I like Mike. He used to be one of my students in the diocesan certification program workshops. As he put it the other day, “Back then I was going after all the certifications I could get.” After 2016, when I was put out to pasture in favor of cable catechetics, we stayed friends and once a month we meet for an afternoon at a nearby Panera’s for lunch, pastries, endless coffee, and a sweeping review of the world of catechetics—personal, professional, and universal. When the sugar and the caffeine build up, I notice that fewer and fewer people sit near our booth.
Mike and I are both in our 70’s. I come from a liberal arts background; Mike had several productive careers in law enforcement and the trades before he got the call to consider youth catechetics. He teaches fourth grade and participates in a parish bible study. Our diocesan courses over the years barely scratched the surface of Church theology; fortunately, he is an initiative-taker and a self-educated student of Catholic religion. A general problem in religious education is the absence of theological guiding resources for self-readings and self-studies, as well as an absence of personal mentoring of catechists. Mike is aware of this, and he runs his thinking past me as a kind of “peer review” while I devour richly frosted cinnamon buns.
Truth be told, though, I am deeply impressed with his study and never cease to be surprised by the insight he gleans from his personal reflection and thinking. This past Friday he shared with me his discovery that St. Peter was the source of the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel we have heard in Church every Sunday during 2021. That is one of at least four source theories about Mark, but Mike had come to understand one of the most important principles of Gospel study—that each Gospel is different, and each offers a unique participation in the mystery that is Christ.
Mike has discovered a key to Bible study—to all Catholic study, actually—that the four Gospels, written by evangelist theologians filled with the Holy Spirit, each present a unique window into the meaning and message of Jesus, like the precious jewel held up to the light and reflecting an unending array of colors. This would be vastly different from what I suspect are the working theories of many Catholics, namely, that  the four Gospels simply tell the same historical life of Jesus four times, and  the Gospels are buffet tables of pithy inspirational texts to be extracted depending upon the need of the moment.
One of the keys to studying and teaching the Gospels is to separate the four and focus on one. This is the guiding principle of the Gospel selections for Sunday Mass. Our new Church year will begin November 27-28, 2021, with the observance of the First Sunday of Advent and a turn to the Gospel of Saint Luke. The three Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke rotate in a triennial cycle. [For those of you worried about St. John and his Gospel being left out in the cold, have no fear. The Church assigns the Johannine Gospel to special feasts, such as Christ the King, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the RCIA Sundays of Lent, etc.]
The beginning of a new liturgical Church year is an excellent time to focus on the study of the Gospel of that year since portions of that Gospel will be proclaimed every Sunday for the coming year. Consequently, this would be the year to absorb the full Gospel of St. Luke—from personal reading, bible study groups, and [hopefully] from preaching at Sunday Mass.
There are several principles to observe in reading the Gospel of Luke [or any Biblical book for that matter.] The first is to remember that faithful reading of the Scripture is a major commitment. About ten years ago I reviewed Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina  for Amazon where I discussed the fact that daily reading of the Bible and other religious works is the backbone of a monk’s life. To immerse ourselves in God’s revealed Word may require time rearrangement, like getting up earlier or setting a daily “sacred time.”
The second is development of a sense of obedience to the text. Put another way, the Bible is authoritative. It is not my job to critique it. My task is to listen in silent obedience to the text. If I read something I cannot understand, the onus is on me to research a worthy commentary for the best meaning of a text. [See below] Do not be a cherry picker, jumping around to texts you know and/or avoiding the ones that make you uncomfortable or, heaven forbid, dumb. Luke the Evangelist is a magnificent writer; there are no throw-away lines or unimportant sidebars.
The third is to approach a Gospel as if it were the only Gospel in existence. In reading St. Luke, for example, put aside if you can what you remember from other Gospels. This method will help you “get inside Luke’s head” if I may be irreverent. Spoiler alert: Luke is the first of the evangelists to realize the “the church” might last for a long time, that the Second Coming might be a long way off. Second spoiler alert: Luke’s Gospel is the only one with a “part two,” so to speak. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles is the second half of his Gospel. If you do not believe me, click here.
The fourth is consideration of a biblical commentary. I would strongly recommend it if you plan to study a book of the Bible in its entirety, like the Gospel of Luke. A commentary is a published guide to the Biblical book you are studying. The best guides contain the Bible text itself, a running explanation by a teacher/scholar, useful footnotes/explanations, and a bibliography of other books you might find useful down the road.
The fifth principle is the possibility of taking a Bible course [or other theological concentration] at your local Catholic college or online Catholic University. If you live in an area with a Catholic college nearby, i.e., if you live near Boston College, Georgetown, Villanova, etc., you can just call over and see what the school offers for budding catechists and ministers, For example, you might be able to enroll in an introductory New Testament study course—for audit, or even college credit if you qualify for that. If my friend Mike lived near St. Bonaventure University, for example, I would move heaven and earth and pay to get him into several introductory courses. Such courses make it so much easier to continue later study at home, and they direct the student to the best authors and publishers for future purchases.
The best on-line college program in the U.S. is “The Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation” at the University of Dayton, Ohio. I took an on-line six-week course myself years ago on Catholic Social Justice teaching, and let me tell you, it was every bit as challenging as a matriculating graduate course I took on the same subject in 1974. Dayton’s cost is about $100 or thereabouts per course, but time is money, too, and taking a good introductory course saves much time and frustration for catechists who earnestly want to become better at their ministry. Moreover, I think every parish should pick up the tab for any catechist who wishes to take courses and purchase first-rate texts for study.
The sixth principle is purchasing the best books available. There is a lot of religious junk on the market. The Catechist Café website tries to highlight the best books, and any reader is free to check in and ask for a recommendation by email firstname.lastname@example.org or at the Catechist Café pages on Facebook and Linked In. As a rule, I recommend Paulist Press, Liturgical Press, and Loyola Press as browsing starters. Remember that marketers such as Amazon and Abe Books offer used copies of desired books at lower prices if you are counting pennies. I also recommend purchasing a paper text over a Kindle text; with a paper text you can highlight, make notes, and later retrieve information for class preparation and other projects.
At the end of the day the most important thing for a Catholic, and particularly a catechist or minister, is commitment to lifelong immersion into the study of the Faith, beginning with Sacred Revelation. The Church calendar leads us by the hand to St. Luke’s Gospel as our collective study for this coming year. My own reading of St. Luke for 2022, which I have begun already, is the Wisdom Commentary volume on St. Luke  from Liturgical Press. This is a study of Luke’s Gospel undertaken by a team of feminist Catholic women theologians. I am finding it quite compelling…and at the same time discovering how little I know about this Gospel.
Anyway, study well. Be like Mike.
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