VATICAN CITY – God constantly tries to enter into dialogue with the people he created – speaking through creation and even through silence, but mainly in the church through the Bible and through his son Jesus Christ, Pope Benedict XVI said.
In his apostolic exhortation, “Verbum Domini” (“The Word of the Lord”), the pope encouraged Catholics to embrace and value each of the ways God tries to speak to humanity.
The document, a papal reflection on the conclusions of the 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Word of God, was released at the Vatican Nov. 11 and emphasized the need to improve Catholics’ familiarity with the Bible and with the need to read and understand it in harmony with the church.
The Bible is not a dusty collection of ancient writings addressed only to ancient peoples, he said. But it’s also not some sort of private letter addressed to individuals who are free to interpret it any way they please, the pope said in the document, which is close to 200 pages long.
The pope said he wrote “Verbum Domini” because “I would like the work of the synod to have a real effect on the life of the church: on our personal relationship with the sacred Scriptures, on their interpretation in the liturgy and catechesis, and in scientific research so that the Bible may not be simply a word from the past, but a living and timely word.”
Pope Benedict asked for greater church efforts to teach Catholics about the Bible, to help them learn to read it and pray with it, to treat it with great dignity during the liturgy and emphasize its importance by making sure homilies are based on the day’s readings.
For centuries, Catholic laity actually were discouraged from reading the Bible themselves. Even though that began changing 100 years ago, Bible reading often is seen as a Protestant activity.
In fact, some evangelical Christians use passages from the Bible to preach against the Catholic Church, which the pope said is truly ironic since “the Bible is the church’s book.”
It was the church that decided which of the ancient Christian writings were inspired and were to be considered the New Testament, the pope said. And it was the church that interpreted it for hundreds of years.
“The primary setting for scriptural interpretation is the life of the church,” he said, not because the church is imposing some kind of power play, but because the Scriptures can be understood fully only when one understands “the way they gradually came into being.”
Obviously, he said, the key message of the Bible – the story of God’s love for his creatures and the history of his attempts to save them – can be grasped only if people recognize that the fullness of God’s word is Jesus Christ.
Jesus “is the definitive word which God speaks to humanity,” the pope wrote, and “in a world which often feels that God is superfluous or extraneous, we confess with Peter that he alone has ‘the words of eternal life.’ ”
The Scriptures themselves teach that God created human beings with a special dignity, giving them intelligence and free will. In approaching the Scriptures, he said, people must use that intelligence to understand what is written.
Pope Benedict, a theologian who served for more than 20 years as president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, said academic approaches to Scripture studies were essential for helping people understand the Bible, as long as those studies recognize that the Bible is not simply a piece of literature.
For example, he said, a lot of Catholics – including priests giving homilies – are completely at a loss when dealing with “those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult.”
Those passages, he said, demonstrate that “God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them.”
God’s education of his people continues today, for example, by helping people understand the importance of safeguarding creation and working for more justice in social and political systems, he said.
Pope Benedict said God’s dialogue with humanity through the Bible must lead to greater faith and a more powerful witness in the world.
While the papal exhortation mentioned plenty of early church theologians and their approaches to understanding Scripture, it also included a long section about men and women who read the Bible and were inspired to live its message in the world.
“Every saint is like a ray of light streaming forth from the word of God,” he said, listing personalities ranging from St. Clare of Assisi to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and from St. Dominic to St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei.
Some of the Bible’s lessons are old but need to be given new attention, Pope Benedict wrote.
The Scriptures make it clear that the family founded on marriage is part of God’s plan for humanity and for human happiness.
“In the face of widespread confusion in the sphere of affectivity, and the rise of ways of thinking which trivialize the human body and sexual differentiation, the word of God reaffirms the original goodness of the human being, created as man and woman and called to a love which is faithful, reciprocal and fruitful,” he wrote.
The Bible, the pope said, is filled with words of consolation and joy, but as God’s word it also is “a word which disrupts, which calls to conversion.”